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Pop Whiz

Roscoe croons one for the ladies.
Paolo Vescia

The army on the tiny Chez Nous dance floor is a microcosm of the Valley's population, of ethnicity, age, size and gender. White, black, brown, smart, stupid, silly, happy, drunk. There are slinky strippers with moneyed suitors. There are divorcée moms going out. Cocksure gents work every angle. Snow-haired couples with decades of connubiality behind them.

This diverse hive materializes whenever the three-piece is onstage, offering worthy renditions of an old Wonder gem or Smokey or old Detroit. Or anything.

The band is called Roscoe Taylor and Company. Its singer is Roscoe Taylor. And he's pop star abundant -- slender hips, lady-killer grins, mighty hairline and spindly Marvin Gaye charm. One wouldn't imagine this gent to be born the same year "That Doggie in the Window" topped the charts. Hard to believe the man is three years shy of 50.

And the man is a study in patience. Of the record the group hopes to have out this year, he says: "Hopefully, I'll be successful. I'll take my time and put out a product that is gonna sell. That is the key, to put out a good product."

When Taylor speaks, it's the sound of crumpling aluminum. When he sings, he spans octaves, the tone of a 12-string guitar.

A Phoenix native, Taylor started singing gospel at the Emanuel Church of God and Christ. The drums were his first instrument. He went to Memphis and landed a gig on a gospel tour that had him on the road for six-month stretches. At 19, he was living in California, whacking the kit behind some of the biggest names in gospel, reverends named James Cleveland and Cleophus Robinson.

Back in Phoenix, he was Shirley Caesar's drummer whenever she was passing through. He'd drum for all the major R&B and gospel groups coming through with records to promote, groups like the Clouds and the Violenaires.

He got out from behind the kit when he was 22.

"Everybody used to say, 'Hey, man, why don't you get off your drums and be a lead singer?' They'd say, 'Guy, you need to be singin' out front, you don't need to be sittin' behind those drums.' So finally I just got up off the drums."

He taught himself how to sing the blues by listening to B.B. King and Eric Clapton, among others. Area legend Big Pete Pearson also helped.

"I used to be in gospel groups with Big Pete Pearson as a kid. My inspiration to learn how to do the blues was through Big Pete Pearson," Taylor says. "He really helped me learn the blues. To focus. He was like my biggest critic. And Patti Williams, too. They were like my tutors. I would ask them things like, you know, 'What do you think?' They'd say, 'Well, you're getting there.'

"If you can take good criticism, then you'll go back and work harder. That's what I like about it. I never figure I am the best. I figure that I am still trying to get there. Every day I feel like that. As you feel like that, you know it's fun."

Roscoe once was a Drifter, filling in for an ill tenor. This was at The Hanger in Scottsdale.

"They came into a record shop and the guy that I knew was working there. They say, 'Hey, man, we need a tenor singer to sing with us this week. Do you know anybody?' He says, 'Yeah, I know Roscoe, he sings with everybody.' They called me up and a guy came around and picked me up in a limo."

In a Scottsdale hotel room, he learned the group's whole act in an hour.

"The next you know, I am onstage doing their routines, singing. For two weeks, I was a Drifter. I had a ball."

He hesitates, laughs, then adds, "I even led a song. I led the song and turned the place out!

"In my business, you never know who's gonna come into town and need something. I filled for a lot of people. That was great for me. I got to meet Ray Charles. I got to kick it with the Temptations when we opened up for them. It was great."

A stint in Vegas ensued. At Caesars Palace, Taylor worked days as a porter and got to know Larry Holmes when the fighter was training for a championship bout. Sometimes Taylor would join Holmes on his 4:30 a.m. jogs around Caesars. Taylor chirped R&B standards at the Riviera and did session drum work behind different bands. He found himself in a tux singing tenor with the Platters at the Dunes.

When Taylor sings a song, he has the ability -- that gift -- to actually justify its existence, even if it's a disco cover. Combine that skill and the sexual tension he oozes, and its no wonder nearly everybody who sees him perform is baffled as to why he isn't a major star.

"I have been in this music thing for God forever. You know, trying to make it is so hard. And everybody goes, 'Why haven't you made it?' And I go, 'Well, you know, I've been close.'"

He once had a seven-piece R&B band called Illusions of Music. The group did shows with Ray Charles, the Temptations and others. His manager at the time soured a relationship with the Temptations after the group showed considerable interest in the band.

"The guy that was our manager blew it for us. The Temptations were gonna help us move on, but the guy was such a smart mouth they didn't even want to bother.

"I was always workin' and doin' music. The last five years is my first time of doing music for a living. I was always afraid that I couldn't make it. It was that fear. It wasn't that I wasn't talented enough. It's just not knowing if you could make it."

Is Roscoe ever jaded or bitter that he hasn't topped the charts? That his own songs aren't standards, like the ones his band covers?

"I don't mind. I'm not insecure. I know what I want to do. I know how to have friends, how to enjoy them. I love all the people who come hear me sing. I never down them, you know, I pretty much love them for who they are. That's what makes this music thing so easy, because I just love them for who they are. Fat, skinny, whatever. It don't matter."

Taylor's mom and sister are gospel singers. His mom is a big inspiration. Gospel, he says, keeps him grounded, out of trouble.

"It keeps me in that comfort zone," he says of gospel. "If you don't have it [gospel], a lot of times you lose reality and you do something wrong. All it takes is a few wrong turns when you are down and the next thing you know you are in jail."

How does he stay looking sprightly, maintain that seductive persona?

"My 3-year-old daughter Tawny keeps me young," he says, laughing. "And, really, I'm just a loner."

Roscoe Taylor and Company is the shit. Catch them five nights a week at Chez Nous at Seventh Avenue and Indian School, or at one of their once-a-month weekend shows at the Bird Cage on Whiskey Row in Prescott. Look for their record, too. Soon, I hope.

Contact Brian Smith at his online address: brian.smith@newtimes.com


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