Sister Kate comes out of the shadows
by Seth Rogovoy
(PITTSFIELD, Mass., January 7, 2004) – She’ll always be known as “Sister Kate,” in part because she is the only sister among five siblings, in part because she’ll always be overshadowed by her more famous brothers James and Livingston.
But when Kate Taylor decided to name her first album “Sister Kate,” she had another motivation that had nothing to do with her position in the family vis-à-vis her brothers.
“It had been my nickname for a while, ever since I heard Tom Rush sing a song called ‘(I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My) Sister Kate’ as a teen-ager,” said Taylor, who performs at La Choza Cantina in a benefit for the Colonial Theatre on Saturday at 8, in a recent phone interview from her home on Martha’s Vineyard.
“Being the only sister, and having a mad crush on Tom Rush, I just sort of had an affection for that name,” said Taylor, who will be accompanied by vocalist/guitarist Taylor Brown, a music student at Vassar College, and her two daughters. “I guess maybe there are people who think I was trying to rub it in, but it wasn’t my intention when I called the album ‘Sister Kate.’
“In any case, I think I’ve kind of outgrown the term. Now I’m auntie Kate.”
It’s been 33 years since Taylor made her recording debut with “Sister Kate” on Atlantic Records. The album included the Jerry Ragovoy-penned tune, “Look at Granny Run, Run.” Over three decades later, Taylor looks back and says, “It was one thing when I was nineteen and I sang that tune. But maybe on the cusp of grandmotherhood I could sing it again.”
By the end of the ‘70s, Taylor had recorded two more albums for Columbia Records. But then there was silence, a quarter-century gap in her recorded output until last year’s “Beautiful Road,” which she released on her own label, Front Door Records.
“I started to have a family, and the reality of going on tour and having music as a profession or a career was really not my highest priority,” said Taylor, explaining the 25-year gap. “I was raising a family on Martha’s Vineyard, and music was always a part of our lives. My husband and I were writing songs. The beat was going on.”
With their children grown, over the last few years Taylor and her husband, Charlie Witham, set out to record her comeback album. They enlisted the services of musician/producer Tony Garnier, best known as longstanding bassist and musical director for Bob Dylan, and recorded the album in fits and starts in the gaps between Garnier’s incessant touring schedule.
They also enlisted an all-star cast of musician friends, including Mavis Staples, Rolling Stones keyboardist Chuck Leavell, Levon Helm and Richard Bell of The Band, Mindy Jostyn of Carly Simon’s band, Vance Gilbert, and brother James, who lends subtle vocal harmonies to several tracks on the album.
The bulk of the songs on the album were written by Witham, who also co-produced. But Witham didn’t live long enough to see the album released; he died on September 12, 2001, after a long illness.
“There is bittersweetness to it,” said Taylor. “But what he would have wanted is for me to be singing. I miss him every day. But also I kind of hear him every day. I feel like he’s around, and I get inspiration from that, the things that he gave me. It really is a true gift to have created something together that lives on. Anything I do for it keeps him alive.”
Growing up in the Taylor household in the 1950s and ‘60s apparently meant becoming a musician. Only brother Hugh didn’t launch a full-fledged recording and performing career, although he did play in rock bands and appears on recordings by the likes of Jimmy Buffett, Carly Simon, and James and Kate Taylor. Brothers James, Livingston and the late Alex all carved out careers in music, and a whole new generation of Taylors – including James’s children Ben and Sally – are carrying on the tradition.
“Hughie’s son is a wonderful songwriter and singer, and his daughter is also,” said Taylor. “Alex’s son James plays the drums. It’s fascinating and wonderful to see the kids coming up and expressing themselves, hear the similarities and then their own elements of who they are.”
What was it about being a Taylor that made all the children seemed destined to carve out careers in music?
“We had the opportunities to study music and play instruments when we were kids,” said Taylor. “I believe also that in our generation it was music that we all communicated with. There was a lot to communicate about: civil rights, the Vietnam war, the assassinations of our leaders. There was so much to reach out to each other about that we might not even know we were doing. But as a generation we needed to bond. And the music was the way to do it.
“Also, my mother is a musician, and she has a great ear. When she was a student in Boston she studied voice. My father was a doctor, but he played harmonica and when he felt lighthearted they would sing around the house. I don’t know what made it, it just so happened that it we all gravitated toward that one thing.”
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[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on January 9, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]
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