Tag Archives: Charlie Taylor

At Staples, The Day The Music Died

On February 3, 1959, Charlie Taylor was a Staples High School sophomore (and a budding songwriter).

Exactly 60 years later, he remembers that day with stunning clarity. Charlie writes:

That Tuesday morning dawned bright, sunny and very cold in Westport. I was 15 years old, standing outside the cafeteria in the smoking area, chatting with friends.

Buddy Holly

Someone ran up and told us they heard a news flash about a plane crash in Clear Lake, Iowa.

American rock stars Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and JP “The Big Bopper” Richardson were killed when their chartered Beechcraft Bonanza plane crashed in a cornfield a few minutes after takeoff from Mason City.

We were speechless.

I think I felt a kindred spirit with Buddy. We were both Texas natives.

The mood at Staples was muted for the rest of the week. We all followed the news broadcasts about the crash, and Buddy’s sad funeral in Lubbock. It was, as Don McLean later sang, truly The Day the Music Died.

Suddenly, we realized we were mortal. Buddy Holly was 22 years old — and Ritchie Valens, just 17.

Charlie Taylor, in the 1959 Staples yearbook.

We collected their records. We danced and made out to their songs.

Music was important to us. Bo Diddley played a number of dance shows in Westport, at venues like the YMCA. My ’61 classmate Mike Borchetta booked him, when Mike was still at Staples.

When I moved from rural Kentucky to Westport, I was washed in the blood of rockabilly and blues from Nashville and Memphis.

Then I got bathed in doo wop on WINS and WABC. My rockabilly roots collided with my new Westport friends’ jazz, folk an doo wop sensibilities.

At Staples we had the CanTeen every Friday or Saturday night. Sturdy and the Stereos, Dick Grass and the Hoppers, Barry Tashian and Mike Friedman’s Schemers, and bands Bobby Lindsey fronted were our weekly entertainment.

When those bands played songs like “Please Dear” or “Mr. John Law,” a dancing, sweaty fever seized us teens. We fogged up the windows of the cafeteria!

Sixty years later, I have to wonder what songs Buddy Holly would have written had he lived.

As fate (or luck) would have it, I met and was mentored by Buddy’s manager, Hi Pockets Duncan, in San Angelo, Texas in 1968. Hi Pockets played a recording of mine on his radio station, then told me to go to Los Angeles to develop my craft.

I moved to LA on August 15, 1970 — driving my black 1959 Chevy.

I still think about that day at Staples, exactly 60 years ago today.

Charlie Taylor has spent the last 3 decades in Tennessee. He’s recorded with, written with and for, jammed with and learned from the likes of Gram Parsons, Minnie Pearl, Chet Atkins, Barbara Mandrell, Rick Nelson and Barry Tashian. 

Four years ago he wrote and recorded this tribute to Buddy Holly. He uploaded it to YouTube on February 3, 2015.

Downshifting Back In Time

They’re in their 70s now. But the men and women of Staples’ Class of 1960 who gathered today retain the youthful spirit — and rebelliously optimistic nature — of their heady, wonderful high school days.

The setting was the Westport Library. That seems a bit incongruous, for this was a reunion of Downshifters. That’s the hot rod club that flourished here in the 1950s and ’60s.

Downshifters

But the Downshifters were not hoodlums. One was president of his class; another became a liberal political activist.

The Downshifters had a court system. Anyone caught peeling out of the Staples parking lot had to deal with the club’s discipline. Cops who nabbed members for speeding let the group handle it.

They offered public service safety checks at Famous Artists School — founder Albert Dorne was a big Downshifters supporter — and had a car show in the police station parking lot.

The YMCA provided meeting space. At one banquet, a clergyman gave an invocation.

Parents Magazine named the Downshifters one of the 14 outstanding youth groups in the country. (“There must have been a father in town who worked for them,” someone quipped.)

Still, they were high school kids. Which is to say: no angels.

Mike James, with part of his video presentation.

Mike James, with part of his video presentation.

Mike James and Charlie Taylor led today’s event. It drew 30 or so former Downshifters, girlfriends and others (including Gordon Hall, a social studies teacher at the time who still lives in town).

Mike interspersed a history of the club with some social observations. “We were way ahead in both cool and cars,” he said. “But we built our cars. They weren’t given to us, like the rich kids.”

He described the role that music — especially jazz and rock ‘n’ roll — played in his and his friends’ teenage lives.

And what lives they were. Mike Katz sold tickets to anyone who wanted to watch him drive his 1948 Chevy off a cliff. (Principal Stan Lorenzen put a quick stop to that.)

They haunted La Joie’s junkyard in Norwalk, and another in Danbury. They traveled to drag strips in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine.

One member skipped school to attend a car show in New Jersey. When he forged an excuse note, vice principal Tommy Thompson nailed him: He’d spelled his mother’s name wrong.

A magazine story on the Downshifters.

A magazine story on the Downshifters. The “radical rod” shown was Eliot Willauer’s. It was a ’32 Ford.

The Downshifters made growing up in Westport memorable — and those memories remain, 55 years later. Soon after Charlie Taylor moved to Westport from rural Kentucky, he went hunting. A state policeman saw him sauntering down the Sherwood Island with a rifle, and put a quick end to that.

Charlie’s introduction to Staples as a sophomore might have been rough. He fancied himself James Dean, in a non-James Dean town. But Lance Gurney took Charlie under his wing, and introduced him to the Downshifters. His life here was forever changed.

The Downshifters and their friends sifted through all those memories today. It was a wonderful morning.

xxx former Downshifters gathered at the Westport Library today.

11 former Downshifters gathered at the Westport Library today. Mike James is 2nd from left; Charlie Taylor is on the far right.

When it was over, a former hot rodder asked if all the stories would be on “06880.” “I don’t want my grandchildren to know all this,” he half-joked.

Don’t worry. His grandkids don’t want him to know everything they’re up to as teenagers today either.

Then again, let’s hope they’re making their own adolescent, funny-then-and-funnier now, life-on-the-edge memories. Which — if they’re lucky — they’ll share with their still-good friends at their own 55th reunion, which comes up sooner than they’ll realize in 2070.

 

Downshifting

Well-known fact: Michael Douglas was a teenager in Westport.

Less well-known: He was a member of the Downshifters hot rod club.

Virtually unknown, unless you grew up in Westport in the late 1950s and early ’60s: Westport had a hot rod club.

Meetings were held at the Y.  Members brought their girlfriends — but they sat outside.

Inside, there were formal presentations on cars — carburetors, brake systems, that sort of thing. Dues were collected, officers elected and minutes recorded.

Michael douglas 2

But the Downshifters were not a book club or sewing circle. They found spots around town to race (like “the asphalt near Mahackeno” — presumably, now the entrance to the Y). They “had something to do” with the Dover Drag Strip, just across the state line in Dutchess County.

The Downshifters are now receiving Social Security. The gears they shift are probably automatic.

But the club lives on in the memories of all its members (and their girlfriends, who sat outside).

Charlie Taylor, today.

Charlie Taylor, today.

As part of this weekend’s Staples High School’s Class of 1960 reunion, Charlie Taylor and Mike James will talk about the Downshifters. They’ll show photos and memorabilia, and discuss the possibility of a movie about the group. (Michael Douglas, anyone?)

Charlie and Mike are great storytellers. (They also have intriguing, non-hot-rod back stories. Charlie is a noted Nashville musician, while Mike was a prominent political activist.)

On Saturday though, they’ll concentrate on their Downshifter days. Those engines provided the soundtrack for some of the best times of their lives.

(The Downshifters talk is this Saturday, September 19, 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m., in the Westport Library 2nd floor seminar room. It’s free, and open to the public.)

 

Brad Tursi Kicks It In Nashville

When Brad Tursi was a Staples High School soccer star in the mid-1990s, he dreamed of playing before huge crowds in big stadiums.

He’ll do exactly that tomorrow, at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey.

But he won’t be kicking a soccer ball. Instead, the 1997 Staples grad will kick it big-time with his band, Old Dominion. They open for Kenny Chesney, on the country megastar’s summer tour.

Brad Tursi

Brad Tursi

The road from Westport to Nashville is not well traveled. But Tursi is not the first Staples alum to make his name there.

Charlie Taylor graduated from Staples in 1961. After roaming from Greenwich Village to LA — with stops in between — Taylor spent the last 3 decades in Tennessee. He’s recorded with, written with and for, jammed with and learned from the likes of Gram Parsons, Minnie Pearl, Chet Atkins, Barbara Mandrell, Rick Nelson and Barry Tashian.

Tashian is also a Staples grad. His route to Nashville began in Boston, where he fronted the legendary rock group The Remains. They opened for The Beatles on their final tour, appeared on Ed Sullivan and Hullabaloo, and were called by Jon Landau “how you told a stranger about rock ‘n’ roll.”

Brad Tursi continues a small but strong Westport-to-Nashville connection.

Brad Tursi continues the Westport-to-Nashville connection.

After the group broke up, Tashian landed in Nashville. He’s been there ever since, playing with the Flying Burrito Brothers and Emmy Lou Harris, and carving out (with his wife, Staples classmate Holly Kimball) a rewarding performing, recording and songwriting career.

Tursi continues that small but strong Westport connection. He co-wrote “A Guy Walks Into a Bar” — a certified gold song that Tyler Farr took to #1 earlier this year — and “Save It For a Rainy Day” for Chesney.

Tursi’s band Old Dominion got a shout-out last month from Sony Music CEO Doug Morris.

In an interview in The Tennessean newspaper, Morris predicted that the band  would join Chesney, Carrie Underwood, Brad Paisley and Garth Brooks as providing “a new foundation for the company’s country music division.” The day after he heard Old Dominion’s EP, the 76-year-old CEO was singing their lyrics.

You probably are not headed to MetLife Stadium tomorrow, for the Kenny Chesney concert. But if you want to hear the opening band — Old Dominion — check out the video below.

Brad Tursi’s 2nd from the right, manning the oars.

(Hat tip: John Guadagno)

Remembering The Bedford Years

A momentous moment seems to have passed by in Westport, almost unnoticed.

Lucie Bedford Cunningham Warren

Lucie Bedford Cunningham Warren died earlier this month, at her Green’s Farms home. She was 104.

The granddaughter of Edward T. Bedford — who was a director of Standard Oil, founder of the Westport YMCA, namesake of Bedford Middle School — she was no slouch herself.

A benefactor of countless causes, Lucie volunteered at the Norwalk Hospital until she was 96, and the Pequot Library Book Sale through age 97. A champion golfer and sailor, she and her 1st husband — 1958 America’s Cup champion Briggs Cunningham — won numerous European sailing titles.

She was the mother-in-law of former US congressman Stewart McKinney, and grandmother of current State Senator John McKinney. She is survived by 3 children, 12 grandchildren, and 25 great-grandchildren — as well as her sister, Ruth Bedford.

Charlie Taylor did not know Lucie Bedford Cunningham Warren. But he knew Ruth very well. Lucie’s death prompted these recollections, about an earlier — and fascinating — time in Westport.

I worked as a landscape gardener and laborer for Ruth Bedford and her father Fred (Edward T. Bedford’s son) on their Beachside Avenue estate from 1958 — when I was a Staples sophomore — until I graduated from college in 1965. What a great place to work!

Edward T. Bedford — Fred’s father, and Lucie’s grandfather — built an enormous estate on Beachside Avenue.

My dad had encouraged me to go to Nyala Farms to get a job at the dairy, as a 15-year-old. (NOTE:  The 52-acre farm, now bordered by Green’s Farms Road and the Sherwood Island Connector, had been owned since 1910 by the Bedford family. Fred Bedford named it after the beautiful “nyala” — antelope — he’d seen on safari in Africa.)

Louis Gordon — chief gardener and estate caretaker — intercepted me. He told me to report on Saturday “down on the Shore Road. I’ll put you to work on the Bedford Place.” I stayed for the next 6 summers.

It took up 17 acres, mostly on the Sound. I spent all day cutting the front and back yard of the house, with a 6-foot Locke mower. I started at $1.10 an hour, for an 8-hour day.

There was a greenhouse where we grew cut flowers for the main house, and a truck farm across the road. I was in charge of storing a year’s supply of coal to fire the furnace for the greenhouse. A truck came at the beginning of June, and dumped a small mountain of coal. It took me 6 days — 8 hours a day — to move the coal into the bin.

The main house included a big game trophy room, and models of hulls of 12-meter racing boats.

The Bedford estate (front view).

The dock went probably 120 feet into the Sound. A little house at the end received guests in bad weather. Stairs went down into the water, to ease passengers onto the dock and walkway that led to the expansive backyard and rear entrance to the main house.

Mr. Bedford kept a long, black Cadillac limo for trips to his homes in New York and Palm Beach.

Numerous car commercials were shot on the estate, especially the semicircular pea gravel driveway. Every Friday I raked all the tire tracks from the driveway, in preparation for the weekend. It was so long, the job took 4 hours. I also weeded the driveway.

The Bedford estate gardens.

One day I was clearing brush. Mr. Gordon was talking to the man who owned the property next door. It was J.C. Penney himself. We were never introduced.

My favorite times were Friday evenings, at quitting time. Mr. Gordon would ask if I had a date that night. If I did, he’d whip up a corsage of carnations or other flowers for my date. If I was staying home, he’d make up an arrangement for my mom.

When I was in college, Mr. Gordon occasionally let me take dates down to the dock, to swim. He told me to be very discreet, however. And I was.

Charlie Taylor, today.

Mr. Gordon sent me on some dangerous assignments, like 50 feet into huge old elm trees to prune, or onto chimneys at the main house to cut back ivy. But I gained confidence during those summers. I learned to work and give all-out effort. He accepted nothing less than the best. There were no slackers on the Bedford payroll.

He made me very proud of myself. When he chewed me out, I deserved it. More to the point, he explained why he was chewing me out, and the importance of doing a good job.

I owe Westport, and the Bedfords, a lot. Miss Ruth, if you read this, thanks for the week I caught poison ivy so bad that when I showed up for work with a face and fingers so swollen, you sent me home — but you still paid me my $80 for the week I missed. I learned a lot from you too, Miss Ruth. Thank you.

(Charlie Taylor is now a senior development officer at the Vanderbilt University School of Engineering. He’s also a long-time musician. To keep busy while mowing the Bedford lawn, he made up song lyrics. He later studied songwriting at UCLA, and worked with musicians like Gram Parsons, Billy Preston and others. Charlie’s 3rd CD will be released soon.)

Charlie Taylor back in the day, with Kitty (Amanda Blake) and Dale Evans.