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Larry Taylor, Jerry Lee Lewis and Gear that Comes and Goes

Gear comes and goes in the most interesting ways, even if you''re Jerry Lee Lewis

We’ve all seen it. That guitar we saved so long for, that we swore we’d never sell, ends up paying the rent one month. The amp we lusted after as the ultimate font of tone all of a sudden becomes fair game for a trade. Or, we go on a hunt through the old milk crate for a stompbox we haven’t seen in a while only to remember that we last had it when we jammed with that one guy who left early, and mysteriously.

Larry Taylor has seen plenty of gear. Known to some as “the Mole,” he played in the seminal American blues band Canned Heat. If you’ve seen the original Woodstock documentary film, that’s him throttling a P-Bass for all it’s got, rocking out to the extreme at sundown on the first day. I could end this column right there, such is the magnitude of that statement. But Taylor’s crazy ride through rock ‘n’ roll—and the mountains of gear that have passed through his hands—would then remain untold. His story goes much further, much deeper, and much wider than almost any other living rocker, and it’s a great peek into how music and gear have evolved and changed and touched upon the lives of so many people worldwide. It offers an insight into how the people, the gear, and the gigs are all connected.

So for kicks, and for learning, here’s the story of when Taylor, at the tender age of 19, went on tour with Jerry Lee Lewis. Don’t worry, there’s gear talk in here. It’s mid-1961 and 19-year-old Larry Taylor is playing bass in a regular gig at the Sea Witch on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. The group is Wesley Reynolds and the West Coast House Rockers. (Reynolds, who has the distinction of having cut the classic single “Shut Down” for the Valor label, moved to Chicago a few years after the time of this little tale and was seen by a young guitarist named Michael Bloomfield, who would go on to say that it was Reynolds’ playing that compelled him to go out and learn to play the blues.)

Back at the Sea Witch, during a set break, a couple of girls tell Taylor that Jerry Lee Lewis is looking for a bass player. Lewis was playing that week at Jimmy Madden’s Sundown Club—which would later turn into the Red Velvet and then the Lingerie Club. Taylor gets himself an audition and is hired by The Killer on the spot. The next night he plays the first gig of what would become a year-and-a-half tenure.

After some gigs around Los Angeles, Taylor travels to Memphis in a four-door 1959 Cadillac with The Killer, drummer Russell P. Smith, and Lewis’ manager. A set of drums, a tweed Fender Bassman, and Larry’s sunburst 1957 Fender Precision bass with anodized pickguard make the trip in the trunk. After a couple of gigs in Memphis, the crew heads down to Lafayette, LA, then to Lewis’ hometown of Faraday, where Taylor is taken in by the Lewis family as one of their own. After a few days, the group leaves the small town to go on an extended tour of the Southern US, crisscrossing Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Texas, and Louisiana in their Cadillac, playing every good hall, every bad hall, and most every VFW in between.

Here’s how Taylor describes the gear situation at a Jerry Lee Lewis club gig in 1961 (think about it the next time you do soundcheck at your local non-smoking club where they have an 800-watt PA, floor monitors, and a mix for each guy in the band): “Most of the time, the place would have a Bogen PA, like the ones you see come up sometimes… 25, maybe 30 watts—tubes. Jerry Lee would mic his piano with a De Armond violin pickup. They were about the size of your thumb, maybe a little wider. He’d wrap it in a handkerchief and then shove that thing into one of the gaps in the back of the club’s upright piano, right up against the soundboard. Then he’d plug into the Bassman. I’d plug into the Bassman, too. There was only one set of controls on that amp, which he’d be in charge of. I’d adjust my tone on the bass. And that’d be it: a Bogen PA and a Fender Bassman.”

As the tour winds down toward the end of 1962, Taylor finds himself alone with the tweed Fender Bassman in a Memphis hotel room. Still in possession of his Fender bass, he had also acquired an early sunburst Strat, one of the first in Memphis—owned at some point by Sun Rockabilly artist Roland Janes. Without Jerry Lee, without a gig, and without money, Taylor decides the best thing to do is to make his way back to L.A. So he packs up the gear and sends it ahead collect, something you could do in those days. Then he hitchhikes his way back.

Back at the Sea Witch a few months later, Taylor looks down from the bandstand to see two of Mr. Lewis’ close associates giving him the high sign (or something similar). At break, they inform him that The Killer wants his gear back. Fessing up, Taylor tells them the Strat is gone, but they can have the Bassman. Fair enough, they say. Later that evening, Taylor drops off the Bassman at Lewis’ hotel room, no questions asked.

Gear cometh, and gear goeth.

Wallace Marx Jr.
Wallace Marx Jr. is the author of Gibson Amplifiers, 1933–2008: 75 Years of the Gold Tone