“Taylor developed and maintained relationships with musicians that lasted a lifetime.”
In his new autobiography (December 2020), What, and Give Up Showbiz?: Six Decades in the Music Business, Boston’s late legendary and iconic music impresario Fred Taylor reveals six decades of promoting, booking, and personal friendships with an A-list of musicians. With an ear for talent, endless energy, and a belief in the artists he promoted, Taylor made an indelible mark on the early career of performers who would later become household names in the music industry.
Anyone who met Taylor—artists, fellow promoters, talent agents, music enthusiasts—found themself to be part of a circle of interconnecting relationships. More often than not, you also became a lifelong friend of Fred Taylor. What, and Give Up Showbiz? details the people, places, and events that were part of this orbit, as booking agent, promoter, producer, and marketer from the early 1960s all the way through his gala 90th birthday bash.
Taylor breathes life into this narrative, having a conversation with you, including hilarious anecdotes and homespun punchlines. It’s like you’re reliving the moments with him. An extraordinary personal intersection occurs with a wide range of historical talent as the chapters progress, while Taylor, a gifted storyteller who is assisted in his memoir writing by local jazz author and historian Richard Vacca, walks the reader through memories of presenting artists such as Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Charles Mingus, Bob Dylan, Diana Ross, Pat Metheny, Norah Jones, and Bruce Springsteen, as well as comedic legends like Flip Wilson, Richard Pryor, and Lily Tomlin.
Remarkably, in an industry known for cutthroat contracts and cold marketing calculations that often treated artists as commodities, Taylor developed and maintained relationships with musicians that lasted a lifetime. Often, he would be working behind the scenes of his clubs, up to performance time, making sure all the pieces came together, to ensure the best possible exposure for developing talent. A loyal promoter, and night owl, he would be there for the final note of the last set.
In an early chapter, Taylor recounts the accident of a 1952 nightclub recording he made at George Wein’s Storyville club in Boston of a then-unknown Dave Brubeck. The experience would prove to be instrumental in the modern jazz pianist’s early career in the music business. In 1964, through his network of relationships, Taylor also brought a young folk singer to Boston who needed commercial exposure. The songwriter’s name was Bob Dylan, and Taylor would skillfully promote and market a sellout audience at the Boston Symphony Hall.
There are many instances like this throughout the storyline. Taylor strongly believes in these lines of coincidences, though clearly the biography reveals he has done the hard work to create these opportunities. Sue Auclair, president of Sue Auclair Promotions, who worked with Taylor starting back when Miles Davis was first booked at the Jazz Workshop in the early ’60s, reflects, “I’ve probably done about a thousand shows with him [Taylor].” He clearly lived the maxim of one of his favorite lines, “An overnight success is about 18 years.”
In 1965, Taylor and his business partner Tony Mauriello would finally have their own venue from which to stage talent. Purchasing two nightclubs on Boylston Street near Copley Square and renaming them Paul’s Mall and the Jazz Workshop, Taylor “broke” many upcoming musicians there, from Bruce Springsteen to Earth, Wind and Fire, and also comedians Lily Tomlin and Flip Wilson. With his love for jazz, Taylor’s two clubs particularly favored legendary musicians such as Ellington, Coltrane, and Getz, but they also pushed the developing jazz fusion scene. With the proximity of Boston’s renowned music school Berklee College of Music, leading jazz fusion players like Pat Metheny, John Scofield, Al Di Meola, and many others frequented the club in the ’70s.
He also recounts a special relationship with Davis. Known for eccentricities and directness, the legendary jazz trumpeter and composer squared off with Taylor his first night performing at the Jazz Workshop. Taylor asked how he’d like to “run his sets” and Davis replied, “I came here to play, man.” Taylor relates, “I told him we opened at nine and closed at two and he was in charge, and I went away.” After the set, Davis asked him what he thought of the band and Taylor told him that he thought they could be better. Surprised at Taylor’s directness, Davis said, “You know, you are right.” According to Taylor, “That little interaction set our relationship. Miles didn’t like any flattery or puffery.” They maintained a lifelong musical connection, and Davis would only come to Taylor for bookings in Boston, also breaking the seminal jazz rock release Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970) at the Jazz Workshop in 1970.
The second anchored part of Taylor’s nightclub business career was the genesis of Scullers Jazz Club at the Doubletree Guest Suites Hotel in Boston starting in 1991. Here, under his dynamic booking management, Boston and New England were exposed to an incredibly rich variety of renowned talent and upcoming stars, as well as second chances for musicians seeking a comeback—from Tony Bennett and Lou Rawls to Wynton Marsalis, Harry Connick Jr., Quincy Jones, Norah Jones, and Diana Krall.
And again, the personal touch was always there, caring for the audience and wanting feedback: “I liked to stand by the doorway afterward, mingling with the people leaving. I was gratified whenever someone said, ‘Keep this music going, this is wonderful.’ It made me feel like I was the keeper of the flame.”
His “ear” for talent surfaces in chapter after chapter, listening for what Taylor refers to as “a quality that stands out—beyond good, then there’s great.” In one example, Taylor, who is admittedly not a “specialist” in rock, heard a ballad singer at William Morris Agency in New York City in the early ’70s playing with a Dylan-like style and using street poetry. Taylor booked and promoted a then undiscovered Bruce Springsteen in his Boston clubs, and his sets sold out.
In 2004, child prodigy and jazz saxophonist and vocalist Grace Kelly came to his attention when she was 13 and her father Bob Kelly brought her for an impromptu audition, where she floored Taylor with her version of “Over the Rainbow.” With his support, Kelly would release two CDs by her 14th birthday; she has since performed around the world and recorded with Phil Woods, Dave Brubeck, Lin-Manual Miranda, Harry Connick Jr., Gloria Estefan, Wynton Marsalis, and many other stellar musicians. Throughout these professional chapters of Taylor’s life, his appetite for listening and seeking to have that “wow” moment never seems to have diminished.
What, and Give Up Showbiz? closes with the establishment of the Fred Taylor Endowed Scholarship Fund at Berklee College of Music in 2017. The honor completely surprised Taylor in the twilight of his career and life: “As you get older, you start to wonder if you made your mark, if you have a legacy that will be remembered after you’re gone. Here is the answer—very meaningful, I can’t tell you how humbling this is for me.”
In September of 2017, stars gathered at the Berklee Performance Center for a gala celebration for a scholarship fundraiser, delivering heartfelt performances. Taylor was kidded that for once he had no booking or promotional role. Many renowned members of the jazz community had words of tribute for the iconic booker that evening, thanking him for his ongoing support. Jazz guitarist, composer, and virtuoso Pat Metheny recalled Taylor’s sincere generosity: “Fred really listened to the music. … And there are standards set that represent honesty and decency … and an infrastructure that can only exist with people like Fred Taylor … otherwise we would not have had a platform.”