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Shooby Taylor: NEW YORK TIMES
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November 10, 2002, Sunday - NEW JERSEY WEEKLY DESK

The Travels of Shooby Taylor

LOVE it or loathe it, the bizarre scat singing of William (Shooby) Taylor, who named himself the Human Horn, is hard to forget.

It can also be difficult to digest. As he tries to approximate the sound of a saxophone solo with his voice, he hits sour notes. He spits out nonsense syllables like a machine gun, communicating in a private language nearly impossible to imitate. And he rarely meshes with his background music, whether it is the skating-rink organ in ''Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing,'' songs by the country singer Christy Lane or Mozart.

But those who seek out music that swims against the mainstream have been entranced by his originality -- even as they have been mystified by how little was known about the man himself. Indeed, for years, fans were unsure whether he was alive or dead.

Mr. Taylor, who lived in Harlem most of his life, could have used the encouragement of such fans in his early years. In homage to his hero Babs Gonzales, who died in 1980, Mr. Taylor began honing his scat stylings in the mid-1950's after serving in the Army. After his shift at the post office ended at midnight, he frequented jam sessions at Manhattan clubs, but most musicians shunned him.

Despite the negative feedback, he persevered.

In the early 1980's, Mr. Taylor recorded dozens of tracks at Angel Sound, a walk-in studio then in Times Square and now on West 57th Street.

''The place was just bedlam and wackiness,'' said Craig Bradley, an engineer at the studio who enjoyed Mr. Taylor's music so much that he transferred 14 songs onto cassette.

''We had a lot of characters come in, and Shooby was one of the tops,'' Mr. Bradley said. ''He was eccentric and boisterous and had a great personality. He really enjoyed what he was doing, but he took it seriously; it wasn't tongue-in-cheek for him at all.''

Mr. Bradley passed copies of the Shooby tape around after he took a job in 1989 at WFMU-FM, an alternative music station in Jersey City.

''I had listened to the station before I worked there and figured they would love something like that,'' he said. ''What else could I do with it?''

Irwin Chusid, host of the ''Incorrect Music Hour,'' often broadcast Mr. Taylor's songs. Despite Mr. Taylor's lack of polish, or because of it, his recordings spread around the world, and his fan base broadened along with expansion of the Internet.

The lack of information about Mr. Taylor vexed fans. Andy Mardesich, who lives in San Francisco, created a Web site, www.shooby.com, in 1997 and dedicated it to one simple quest: ''Where's Shooby?''

''When I first heard the tape, I said, 'I've got to find this guy,' '' Mr. Mardesich said. ''Someone sent me an e-mail and said he was sure that Shooby was dead. I thought: 'Give me the proof. Where's the proof?' ''

In his book ''Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music'' (A Capella, 2000), Mr. Chusid included a chapter about Mr. Taylor based on the existing evidence. He concluded that Mr. Taylor's whereabouts were unknown.

As it turned out, the object of the search, oblivious to his cult following, was alive, though not well.

In 1992, looking for a change, he had moved from Harlem to an apartment in Newark, 15 minutes from WFMU's broadcast studios. He had a stroke two years later and lost the ability to perform. He then shuttled between his apartment, a nursing home and the Veterans Administration Hospital in East Orange. A few years ago he had a mild heart attack, and he undergoes kidney dialysis treatment three times a week.

Then, last July, Mr. Taylor got a call bringing the vindication he had always craved.

It came from Rick Goetz, senior director for artists and repertory at Elektra Records, who had been introduced to Mr. Taylor's version of ''Lift Every Voice and Sing'' earlier in the year by a friend.

''I had to meet the man who would make such sounds,'' he said.

So he started making calls. The William Taylors in Brooklyn and the Bronx yielded nothing. Hugh McCarten, who had also worked at Angel Sound, remembered that Mr. Taylor had lived in Harlem. Mr. Goetz hit pay dirt in the Manhattan phonebook: a listing for Mr. Taylor's son, William H. Taylor Jr.

On July 30, a message was posted in red on www.shooby.com: ''Shooby Taylor has been found.''

Mr. Goetz had been in contact with Mr. Chusid throughout his search and the two set up a meeting with Mr. Taylor.

When they first went to the nursing home, they took along a video camera, a digital audio tape deck and a boom box to play Mr. Taylor his music on CD.

''But they wouldn't let us bring anything in, so we got him out on a pass and went back to his apartment,'' Mr. Chusid said. ''There were a lot of tapes lying around, some water-damaged, others sitting on top of a ventilation duct.''

In August, Mr. Taylor appeared on WFMU, fielding calls from fans and previewing some of the newly discovered material. On Sept. 19, his 73rd birthday, people from the station delivered 30 cards to him from fans around the world.

Like any musician striving to reach an audience, Mr. Taylor is eager to release his music on CD.

''Irwin, Rick and me, we're a team,'' he said. ''The only thing I have to do is get better.''

Mr. Chusid, who is Mr. Taylor's de facto liaison to the outside world, has posted a detailed journal of his meetings with Mr. Taylor on his Web site (www.keyofz.com).

Mr. Goetz has transferred most of Mr. Taylor's tapes into digital format and plans to release at least some songs, although copyright snags will probably prevent most of the material from being released, since Mr. Taylor scatted over commercial recordings.

''There is a way of getting this to people, but I haven't figured out how,'' Mr. Goetz said. ''It won't be for Elektra. This is for fun, not work, but I intend to help find an independent and sympathetic home.''

Mr. Taylor will never hit the top 10, of course, but listeners attuned to off-kilter musical frequencies will probably be receptive to Shooby's groove.

''It's like no other kind of music in the world,'' Mr. Chusid said. ''It may seem to be incompetent and it may be laughable, but it has an identity and a palpable sense of joy. Shooby is so absurd it's impossible to be depressed and listen to his music.''

Text above is © 2002 THE NEW YORK TIMES




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