Hello there! This week our blog features a terrific parody blues tune, Steamroller Blues. First we will discuss the song written and popularized by James Taylor. Next, we will show the song as it was covered by Elvis Presley, and finally by the TCB Band.
James Taylor and Steamroller Blues:
We have previously discussed James Taylor for his covers of The Shirelles’ tune Will You Love Me Tomorrow, the Marvin Gaye song How Sweet It Is, and Handy Man. So here we will give a brief review of Taylor’s life and career.
James Taylor was born in 1948, the second of five children to Isaac Taylor, a physician who became the dean of the medical school at the University of North Carolina, and Gertrude Woodard Taylor, who was an aspiring opera singer before she got married and settled down with Isaac.
The family moved to Chapel Hill, NC when James was three. Taylor has fond memories of his family’s home in the country outside Chapel Hill. In addition, the family spent summers on Martha’s Vineyard.
At age 15, Taylor met a young musician named Danny Kortchmar during a summer on Martha’s Vineyard, and the two began playing folk and blues at MV coffee houses.
In 1966, Taylor and Kortchmar recruited some of their friends to form a band called Flying Machine. They played coffee houses in Greenwich Village and achieved some regional fame; unfortunately, James also developed a nasty heroin addiction. Aggravated by recurring psychological issues, it would take Taylor decades before he could kick the habit.
James Taylor’s debut solo album was released by Apple Records in 1969. Although it contained some fine songs, commercial sales were disappointing.
However, in 1970 Taylor released his second album, Sweet Baby James, which became a blockbuster. Sweet Baby James is currently listed as #103 in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
Below is a photo of James Taylor circa 1970.Embed from Getty Images
Steamroller Blues appeared on the album Sweet Baby James. The song was written when Taylor was in Flying Machine. He describes the genesis of the song:
There were a lot of white guys playing the blues, college students singing Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, and it seemed comical to me. “Steamroller” was just meant to be a take-off.
The song was a parody of blues songs where the singer boasts of his sexual prowess (e.g., Led Zeppelin, I’m gonna give you every inch of my love …). This is all made explicit in the lyrics to the song.
Well, I’m a steamroller, baby
I’m bound to roll all over you
Yes, I’m a steamroller, baby
I’m bound to roll all over you
I’m gonna inject your soul with some sweet rock ‘n roll
And shoot you full of rhythm and blues
Well, I’m a cement mixer
A churning urn of burning funk
Yes, I’m a cement mixer for you, baby
A churning urn of burning funk
So, the singer describes his lovemaking in a series of rather violent metaphors, comparing himself to a steamroller, a cement mixer, a demolition derby (“a hefty hunk of steamin’ junk”), and a napalm bomb.
JT and Danny Kortchmar worked out guitar parts to the song and it was recorded in a single take at Hollywood’s Sunset Studios. The rhythm section was subsequently overdubbed on the original tune.
But probably the best-known version of this song was included on Taylor’s 1976 Greatest Hits album. That was a live version that he recorded at LA’s Universal Amphitheatre.
So here is James Taylor in a live performance of Steamroller Blues.
This took place at Blossom Music Center in 1979. Here James is accompanied by his long-time backing band. Everyone gets into the act here. After JT starts us off on acoustic guitar and plows into his over-the-top vocals, we are treated to a fine solo from Don Grolnick on keyboards.
Next up is a guitar solo from Waddy Wachtel; then we get a lovely sax solo from David Sanborn; and finally Danny Kortchmar contributes another guitar solo. JT is clearly having a great deal of fun with this tune.
Now it’s time for a pop quiz. Near the end of the song, James sings Bokonon, Bokonon. Name the literary reference for this line. You get 10 points for knowing this was Kurt Vonnegut Cat’s Cradle (half credit if you simply guessed Vonnegut).
Well, since he hit the big time James Taylor has continued to be one of the most popular “soft-rock” singer-songwriters. His vocal work is very expressive, and he gives impressive renditions of both original songs and covers.
James Taylor is also a terrific guitarist. His acoustic guitar work is technically proficient and really sublime. JT’s Greatest Hits album has sold over 20 million copies, and overall Taylor has sold about 100 million records.
From 1973 to 1982, Taylor was married to fellow singer Carly Simon. The two frequently contributed to each other’s records. Since 2001, James has been married to Kim Smedvig, who was previously the director of marketing for the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
We are happy to report that James Taylor successfully kicked his heroin addiction and that he now appears to be healthy again. JT was inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2000, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 and received Kennedy Center Honors in 2016.
OK, JT, keep it going – both your singing and guitar playing are phenomenal.
Elvis Presley and Steamroller Blues:
Elvis Presley is one of our favorite rock musicians. We have reviewed his songs in our blog posts here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here. So in this post we will briefly review his life and career.
Everyone acknowledged Elvis as “The King” of rock and roll. Ever since he exploded out of Memphis, Elvis was more like a legendary hero than a ‘normal’ star. Seeminly overnight, Elvis Presley achieved worldwide fame, sold an unheard-of number of records, and dominated the record charts for about five years.
Here is a photo of Elvis Presley performing to adoring fans in 1956 in his hometown of Tupelo, Mississippi.Embed from Getty Images
However, in March 1958 Elvis was drafted into the Army. After his tour of duty ended, he struggled to regain his form. His records still sold and his movies invariably made money; however, interest in Elvis waned, and things got worse once British Invasion musicians dominated the headlines.
So here is Elvis in a live performance of Steamroller Blues. This took place in Honolulu, Hawaii in January 1973.
Here we have “The King,” dressed up like royalty. His white suit is covered with rhinestones (and look at those rings he’s sporting!). While James Taylor sings Steamroller as parody, Elvis gives the song a more earnest take.
And it works: the song is quite successful as a straight 12-bar blues tune. Elvis plays off his reputation as a sex symbol, kissing one of his fans at the start of the song and dropping his scarf into the crowd at the finish.
Here, Elvis is accompanied by his backing ensemble the TCB Band, who will be the subject of the next section of this post. He supplies his trademark call to lead guitarist James Burton, “Play it, James” prior to Burton’s guitar solo. By the way, note Burton’s trademark paisley-print Fender Telecaster guitar.
At this point in his career, Elvis was significantly heavier than his earliest days, but was not really fat. Over the years, Elvis gained much more weight until near the end of his life, when he became grotesquely heavy. However, right up to the end Elvis retained his wonderful voice.
Unlike most rock musicians, Elvis had a serious aversion to alcohol and drugs. So one might have expected that he would live a long, healthy life. Sadly, Elvis put great trust in his doctors, who prescribed for him an astonishing array of powerful pharmaceuticals. The dashing young king of rock ‘n roll slowly but surely morphed into the shockingly bloated and over-medicated figure who died in 1977 at age 42.
What a tragedy. Elvis would have been 83 in January 2018, but his music lives on.
TCB Band and Steamroller Blues:
The TCB band backed up Elvis for the last 8 years of his life. In 1968, after several years without any notable live performances, Elvis roared back into the public consciousness with his NBC TV “Comeback Special” performance from Las Vegas.
In that concert, Elvis was joined by two of his original backup musicians, guitarist Scotty Moore and drummer D.J. Fontana (bass player Bill Black had passed away in 1965). After that concert, Elvis was ready to go back to live performances. However, as Fontana was returning to session work, Elvis needed to assemble a new band.
Not surprisingly, Elvis contacted James Burton, one of the great early rock guitarists. While still a teenager, James Burton had joined Ricky Nelson’s band, initially as a rhythm guitarist and then moving up to lead guitar. Many believe that what is considered Ricky Nelson’s “signature sound” was in fact James Burton’s sound.
Burton had authored several extremely influential rock ‘n roll solos on his trademark Fender Telecaster guitar. One of these was in 1957 when he created the guitar solo for Ronnie Hawkins’ Suzie Q, and a second was in 1961 when he crafted the solo for Ricky Nelson’s Hello, Mary Lou.
Burton also appeared (without credit) as a West Coast session musician. In 2001, Burton was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a sideman. His Hall of Fame bio states:
As a hard-working session musician on the busy Los Angeles scene of the mid-to-late Sixties, Burton played anonymously on countless records by the likes of the Everly Brothers, Beach Boys, Sonny and Cher, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, the Fifth Dimension and Phil Spector’s stable of artists. His signature sound combines flatpicking and fingerpicking on a Fender Telecaster, resulting in a fluid, sustained melodicism evocative of pedal steel guitar and taut, staccato bursts of notes known as “chicken pickin’.”
At Elvis’ request, Burton assembled a group that eventually included Glen Hardin on piano, Ron Tutt on drums, John Wilkinson on rhythm guitar, Jerry Scheff on bass and musical director Joe Guercio. The group was called the TCB band after Elvis’ mantra, “takin’ care of business.”
Below are some current members of the TCB Band, together with a life-size cutout of Elvis. From L: James Burton; Glen Hardin; Joe Guercio.Embed from Getty Images
The band first backed up Elvis when he began a residency at the International Hotel in Las Vegas (that hotel later became the Las Vegas Hilton and is currently the Westgate Las Vegas Resort and Casino) in July 1969. When Burton was about to begin a guitar solo with the TCB Band, Elvis would call out “Play it, James,” as seen in our preceding section.
When playing with Elvis, Burton produced a custom-crafted pink paisley Fender Telecaster. He was not sure that Elvis would approve of this, but when Elvis loved it, Burton used it in every show for The King.
So here is the TCB band in a live performance of Steamroller Blues. This took place at a concert in Paris in September, 2013.
Here the personnel are James Burton on lead guitar, Norbert Putnam on bass, Ron Tutt on drums, Shane Keister on keyboards, and Terry Mike Jeffrey on lead vocals and rhythm guitar.
It is always great to see James Burton perform – it’s like looking through a lens back to the earliest days of rock ‘n roll. Here his guitar riffs are very understated. On the other hand, keyboardist Shame Keister really takes off on this piece, and produces some scintillating licks.
Terry Mike Jeffrey’s vocal style is very much in the spirit of Elvis. He gives Steamroller Blues a straightforward and sincere take, very similar to Elvis’ performance of this song.
After Elvis’ untimely death in 1977, several of the TCB Band members joined Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band, and after that a few of them worked with John Denver.
Last I knew, the TCB Band was still touring, mainly in Europe, where they typically play Elvis songs. Long may they rock.
Wikipedia, Steamroller Blues:
Wikipedia, James Taylor:
JT, My Life in 15 Songs, Rolling Stone magazine, Aug 20, 2015:
Wikipedia, Elvis Presley:
Wikipedia, TCB Band:
James Burton, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame bio: