The Man With the Ukulele
Inside The Uncategorizable Music of Melvern Taylor
Melvern Taylor has been a part of the Merrimack Valley music scene for decades, but someone needs to tell him he is doing this musician thing all wrong.
Why? First, he refuses to live anywhere but Lowell. Second, he plays the ukulele, for cryin’ out loud. Third, well, here’s how he describes the music he makes with his backing band the Fabulous Meltones: “We sort of approximate older sounds without bothering to learn the techniques of those older sounds. It’s music that’s a little ‘off.’ ”
Despite this unusual approach, the Meltones have a dedicated following. The band performs regularly, including every other Thursday at Cambridge music venue Toad.
Truth to tell, these idiosyncrasies make Taylor’s original music so intriguing and oddly infectious. Because he has chosen a route that doesn’t chew him up in the music industry’s typical star-making machinery, he can stay true to his muse and not worry about all that other stuff.
Don’t let the 48-year-old Andover native’s seemingly casual comments convince you he is anything but a stone-cold music addict. “The first time you are in a room with some other dudes and play a song together,” he explains, “it’s the greatest feeling in the world, and that’s it. You have to do it all the time.”
That’s as perfect an explanation of the alchemy of music as you are ever likely to read.
Like most musicians, Taylor has trouble describing his “sound,” but any lengthy conversation with him reveals a wild mix of influences that somehow shows up in his performances and original songs.
“It’s like folk music, but it’s not,” he says. “It’s like jazz … but it’s not. It’s like rock … but it’s not. It has elements of all those things. I never know what to call it. It does have an old-timey flavor to it. But my music is influenced by Irving Berlin and also Aerosmith.”
Most musicians have experienced a moment when everything changed and they knew they were going to make music for the rest of their lives.
Taylor is no exception, though his moment certainly was. “I saw Andy Gibb on, I think it was “The Mike Douglas Show,” and he was wearing a silk jacket and playing the guitar so effortlessly, and I thought that was it, I had to do that.”
Taylor, a self-taught musician, began learning guitar by working his way through the Eagles’ songbook. In his teens, he did his time in a series of heavy metal bands.
But it wasn’t until he discovered the ukulele that everything changed. “I always kind of liked the ukulele,” he says, “and I like a lot of older music.” So, while in high school, he asked his father to get him a ukulele as a Christmas present.
His father couldn’t find one and ended up getting a mandolin instead. Taylor would not be denied. He saved up and bought himself a ukulele at Haverhill Music Centre and began the task of figuring out how to play the obscure instrument.
That was about 20 years ago, and he admits that when he first brought a ukulele-based song to his band, they all looked at him and said, “Really?”
“But once I started playing it,” Taylor says, “I now had a sonic vision of where I wanted to go with my music.” And that was not just into the past.
When he took up the instrument, he says, “a lot of people playing it were pretending the last 50 years never happened. But I can’t pretend the Who aren’t the most amazing band in world, and I love Kiss, too.”
Of course, the ukulele has become a trendy instrument in recent years, seen in the hands of everyone from Paul McCartney to the Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl.
“When I first started playing,” Taylor quips, “you couldn’t find a decent ukulele player. Now, when you pull one out onstage, everybody rolls their eyes and thinks, ‘Another guy with a ukulele,’ and I wanna say, ‘No, no, I am THE guy with the ukulele.”
And so he is — THE guy with the ukulele, who also may be the Mill City’s biggest fan.
“My family is from Virginia,” the UMass Lowell grad explains, “and everyone I am related to is from the South somewhere, and they have all moved back. I am the only person left here. But it has never occurred to me to live anywhere else. Once I moved to Lowell in the early ’90s, I fell in love with it. It’s a great city and has everything you want. I have no interest to go anywhere else. I have lived in the same 3-mile radius my entire life, and that seems fine with me.”
While Melvern Taylor is focusing this summer on recording with newly formed Merrimack Valley supergroup PiNTO LOCO, you can still see
him July 11, July 25, Aug. 8 and Aug. 22 at Toad in Porter Square. See their website for more details: ToadCambridge.com.