The five years that Mick Taylor played lead guitar for the Rolling Stones was their greatest musical period. The World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band produced their best music and five classic albums.
Mick Taylor joined the band in transition and when he left them after l, the band was again in transition. Young but battle tested as a blues guitarist, Taylor joined the Stones as the 1960s pulled to a close and the band’s greatest decade about to being.
Keith Richard is a guitar master, able to spit out any riff or amazing chord progression, but not a true lead guitarist. Mick Taylor was a missing skill that fueled their greatest album output, as far as I’m concerned, as the Stones were prolific touring and recording during the Taylor period. They weren’t just a singled band as their albums were chocked full of heavyweight tracks. Taylor pushed Keith Richard as a guitarist, particularly as “Keef” spent the decade drowning in drugs. It was Taylor who was there when Richard was absent in the studio, finishing “Sway” and “Moonlight Mile” and sweetening other tracks that should have earned him co-writing status.
The hits that Taylor played on including“Happy,” “Tumbling Dice,” “Honky Tonk Women,” “Angie,” “It’s Only Rock and Roll,” “Bitch,” “Brown Sugar.” Mick Taylor’s guitar gave the Stones a hungry and foreboding sound. His blues background, courtesy of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, introduced him to the world of rock and roll and earned him an invitation to audition for the Stones after the departure of founding member Brian Jones. In fact, his first public appearance with the Stones was in what became a public memorial to Jones after his unfortunate death.
Taylor’s work with the Stones can be heard on Let it Bleed, his first full album was the majestic live album Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! where his slide and lead guitar took a wide turn through the blues.
Mick Taylor, as integral of his guitar was, he would never really be more than a sideman in the Rolling Stones. His sudden departure at the end of 1974, while a surprise to the world, was his ticket out. It would be four years before his first solo album would appear, greatly anticipated, but soon forgotten as it failed to make a splash in the rapidly changing musical environment. This was the time of disco and punk rock, and Mick Taylor’s rock/jazz/blues album was either too early or too late. He retreated to session and support work for a variety of musicians before resurfacing with more of a blues/rock focus. His own touring would be sporadic, but he seemed to keep working.
Around 2006, I happened to see him play at a small club called The Grand Emporium in Kansas City. His band included the veteran Max Middleton on keyboards and powered through a few covers, a Stones song or two, and some of his own music. He was incredible to watch, his guitar playing was a thing of beauty. Seeing him on stage in that small, worn club was a million miles from stadium tours with the Stones but it was almost like having a private audience with the greatest guitar the Stones ever had. After his set, as he was coming back from the restroom we asked if he’s sign an autograph, which he kindly did. He sat at our table as a flurry of fans handed him albums and photos to sign. He was gracious but seemed extremely tired as he probably thought about the miles he had to go before his next stop.
In the years since, Taylor has released a few albums, done the solo tour and appeared with the Stones as a “guest” on one of their recent tours. Fans anxiously waited for news that we would be on this year’s tour but it was not to be. The Stones were coy and vague in their response when asked about Taylor, in fact Richard referred to him as a “ghost,” whatever that means. Contained on It’s Only Rock and Roll is a gorgeous track called “Time Waits for No One.” Credited to Jagger/Richard, it is really a Jagger/Taylor song. As was the all too often case, Taylor was screwed out of co-writing recognition on what was the quintessential Taylor fueled Stones song. A listen to the song reveals the magnitude of Taylor’s ability to not only fit a solo to a song, but use that solo to life the song into a rarified orbit. Listening to his playing on that final Stones album makes you wonder “what if.”
Mick Taylor is not a ghost, he is really more of a mystery, appearing and then going off the grid for awhile. Former Stones bass player Bill Wyman had a solo album called Stone Alone, which foreshadowed the journey of Mick Taylor.