Although not all bad music is funny, few things are funnier than really awful – as opposed to merely mundane – music. Provided, of course, that it was never meant to be taken seriously in the first place. You know, musical bloopers, clams, kacks, orchestral train wrecks, blown lyrics and so on. I’ve had a ringside seat on various bandstands for many of these over the years, which has no doubt warped my taste and judgement. I suppose the key to whether really bad music is funny or not mainly has to do with how long it lasts, and if you can easily make it go away or escape it at will.
In the spirit of this, if any of you are trawling on YouTube sometime and feel like some killer laughs, punch in Shooby Taylor and prepare to die, to enter a musical world of improbable and surreal horror. Only your sides will hurt, he’s ghastly, but mind-bendingly hilarious.
Shooby Taylor was an obscure (to say the least) American scat singer who billed himself, God knows where, as “The Human Horn.” He was so hysterically awful that he didn’t really have a career, yet he’s achieved a sliver of posthumous immortality because his singing, though rank, is also undeniably unique. There’s a kind of genius at work in its utter lack of talent. Presumably, this is mostly because nobody else would ever have conceived of trying to sound anything remotely like this. If they had, their friends and neighbours would have assassinated them.
What there was of Shooby’s “career” was almost entirely self-generated, not to mention self-delusional. He was mostly a postal worker in New York City, so his singing may bring a new twist to the term “going postal.” He’s mainly known for fourteen tracks he recorded in the early 1980s at his own expense, dubbing his insane and fruity scatting over various pre-existing tracks, including ones by the Ink Spots, the Harmonicats, Christy Lane, and others. I haven’t heard it, but I’m told there’s a track of Shooby scatting over part of one of the Brandenburg Concertos; if true, this may have earned Shooby his own personal circle of Hell. Or, he might be safely in Heaven, who knows? God could easily be a connoisseur of bad music, considering how much of it abounds. Anyway, these tracks were circulated among various tape-swappers and bad-music buffs over the years, acquiring a kind of underground cachet, a cult-following status. They’re available at the official Shooby Taylor website (www.shooby.com) or on YouTube.
The Shooby tracks have to be heard to be believed and I have no wish to ruin their surprise or impact by trying to describe the musical content in words, even if I could. As an added bonus, some bright and dedicated soul has also transcribed every one of Shooby’s scat syllables, or his scatology, if you will. This allows you to follow along with the “lyrics”, which only heightens the comedy. It also brings an appreciation for the fact that, while only a select few achieve greatness and many more settle for mediocrity, it’s not easy to be this bad. His unique glossary of scat phrases (such as his seeming favourite “Poppy, poppy, poppy”) forms the backbone of Shooby’s breathtaking and yodelling originality, along with his braying sound, execrable rhythm and, ahem, elastic sense of pitch.
Aside from being really funny, part of what I love about Shooby Taylor is that he unintentionally savages scat singing, which, with a few exceptions, I could generally do without. Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Carmen McRae are great exponents of it, but even with them a little goes a long way for me and I mostly prefer to hear them singing real lyrics. I’ve always thought the best scatters are not vocalists but rather jazz instrumentalists, especially trumpet players. Certainly Louis Armstrong – who invented it – is sensational and Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Eldridge, and Chet Baker are very good too.
Scatting has much more to do with improvisation – swinging lines, accents, spaces, jazz phrasing and time – than with proper vocal technique. So it’s not really surprising that jazz players are better at it than singers. Unfortunately, this hasn’t stopped a lot of singers from indulging themselves, as the music these days is too often saddled with a lot of nasal, infantile ooby-gooby-dooby tripe it would be better off without. Frankly, I’d rather hear Shooby Taylor than a lot of this vapid squiddly-doo shite; at least he makes me laugh rather than boring me to death.
The great drummer Terry Clarke and I have been trying to come up with a “no-scatting-zone” sign for bandstands, along the lines of the familiar No Smoking ones with the lit cigarette surrounded by a red circle and a diagonal slash through it. The question is, what to put in the middle of the circle to symbolize scatting? We were thinking maybe a photo of Shooby, but not enough people know what he looked like. Maybe a silhouette profile of a singer and microphone with “shooby-shooby-doo” coming out of the open mouth and a red diagonal slash through it all like an avenging, murderous arrow. That ought to do it.
Getting back to Shooby Taylor, among his YouTube entries is his only recorded live public appearance, at the famous Apollo Theatre, where he’s introduced as “Scooby” Taylor and booed off the stage a few short seconds into his act – sad, yet understandable. When I first heard Shooby, I just assumed he was white. Only a white guy could sound this square and unswingingly upbeat, I thought. But no, not only was Shooby black, he grew up in Harlem. Go figure. There can be no sublime without the ridiculous and Shooby’s lunatic vocal gymnastics certainly deliver on this count. They’re sublimely ridiculous.
I first heard Shooby a few years ago through David Braid, whose sextet just finished a Danish tour. Though a serious and very talented composer and pianist, Braid shares my taste for musical absurdity, and is an unswerving devotee of Shooby. Braid revived Shooby on our first night in the Danish town of Odense, the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen. We’d had a long day, arriving in Copenhagen that morning after an all-night flight from Toronto. We immediately jumped on a train for two hours, checked in, did a late-afternoon jazz workshop, grabbed some quick dinner, then played a club gig followed by a jam session with the teachers and students from a local music conservatory. Whew.
At the end of the day we were in more need of alcohol than sleep (or so we thought), but the club was closing up at midnight, so we decided to try the small bar in the lobby of our hotel. Sure enough, in a civilized place like Denmark, hotel guests may receive alcoholic refreshment at any hour in the lobby bar, it’s the duty of the night-desk clerk to double as bartender. What a country, I thought, I considered taking out papers right then and there. We ordered various libations and, as there was no one else around, and showing a flawless sense of timing, Braid busted out his iPhone and dialed up some Shooby, backed by a really cloacal Farfisa organ trio. We just fell apart laughing and I thought the somewhat stiff and polite night-clerk/bartender, all formal in his vest and bow-tie, might object. But as he listened I saw his disbelief give way to amusement – at first a blank stare, then the corners of his mouth began crumbling into a smile, followed by attempts at suppressing laughter, then finally outright guffaws. He’d never heard anything so wild, and I thought he might offer us a free round of drinks if we just kept Shooby going. That’s us crazy Canucks for you, making friends the world over, one bad singer at a time.
This revival of Shooby stood the band’s morale in good stead over the next week or so, as we attempted to deal with jet lag, playing Braid’s increasingly complex music, some tight schedules, iffy venues and other vagaries the road tossed our way. A sense of absurdity helps a band to withstand all of these challenges and we generally rely on our trombonist Gene Smith and his masterful impersonation of Tourette’s syndrome for this. Gene toured for several years with Woody Herman’s big band, which at the time had a trumpet player named Howie who suffered from Tourette’s. Cruel as using this for entertainment may seem, Gene says travelling with Howie and his disorder, set against the kaleidoscopic backdrop of the road, provided a lifetime of surreal moments and laughter. Gene has shown an unerring sense of when to break some of this out to crack us up and relieve tension. Now, with Shooby and his “poppy, poppy, poppy” and “bray-zaddle-a-doo-ways” echoing in our heads, the pressure on Gene was off, the band could just suddenly burst into crazy song at will, breaking ourselves up with our own vocal version of Tourette’s. We did so often, causing not a few Danish heads to turn. “Poppy, poppy, poppy.”
Braid again showed admirable timing after our last concert, as we were awaiting a train back to Copenhagen at Allerod station, about a forty-minute trip. There was nobody around on the platform and he busted out Shooby again, this time his classic scat over a country/pop version of the hymn “How Great Thou Art”, his own voice way up front in the mix. I hadn’t heard this one before and I just choked with laughter. In part it delighted me because this is one of the few hymns I don’t like – it’s always sounded kind of twee and mealy-mouthed to me in contrast to, say, “Abide With Me.” Laughing and trying desperately to not pee my pants in the cool night air, I voiced this opinion, which caused a rare musical disagreement with Mike Murley, who really likes this hymn. This led us into a brutal but good-natured exchange of mutual abuse in which he and I insulted each others’ ancestry, parents, manliness, musical judgement and other personal things in fairly ripe terms, which only broke everyone else up even more.
The road, it can do funny things to you, not the least of which is to make you appreciate someone like Shooby Taylor, if only for the laughs. Without them, you might not survive.
© 2012 – 2016, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.