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Anyone familiar with Kenny Taylor knows that he always has plenty to do and something new to offer to Fort Wayne music fans. A veteran of the local music scene and known for his involvement with everything from Blue Moon Boys to Deuce, Taylor continues to have a lot of projects which allow him to share his love of guitar music and his eclectic taste for and encyclopedic knowledge of musical genres not always tackled by other musicians. One of his more inventive endeavors is the Tikiongas, an instrumental surf music combo which is turning some iconic songs into tiki classics. Much as Todd Rundgren did more than a decade ago with his CD With a Twist, a remarkable reworking of his own catalog to make it tiki bar suitable, Taylor is finding a unique way to express some very familiar songs in unfamiliar ways.
“I wish we had a Polynesian tiki bar here,” says Taylor. “I really love the records of Martin Denny who was an American jazz musician. He had a record called Quiet Village and about seven other albums that had these exotica covers, and he’d have these jungle noises in the background. His drummer did bird calls, and it was all of this great surf music. I grew up hearing surf music on television, and some of the Elvis movies had a surf sound, and I really thought it was cool.”
Finding old records at places like the Salvation Army, Taylor found yet another way to make his guitar talk. With the Tikiongas he’s merged everything from alternative rock to pop classics to put a surf spin on well-known songs. A video for “Surfs Like Teen Spirit” can be found on YouTube, a conceptual video Taylor speaks of with pride.
“I really think that’s a fun video. It usually takes a gestation period of six or seven weeks to get it all right, but after playing it for awhile we finally got that song to sound right. We also do ‘Surfin’ with the Devil,’ which is from ‘Runnin’ with the Devil,’ and ‘Sultans of Layla,’ which is ‘Layla,’ but the middle guitar section becomes ‘Sultans of Swing.’”
Helping him accomplish this surf revival are drummer Jamie Simon and bass player Andy Pauquette, and Taylor says they’re always looking for more songs to remake in their surf glory.
“We just worked out an arrangement for Madonna’s ‘Material Girl,’ and we have people come up to us a lot and suggest other songs that would be really great as a surf song.”
Another inspiration for Taylor’s love of surf music is Dick Dale, a guitarist that Taylor is especially quick to praise.
“I hear songs all the time and think, ‘This would be a great song for Dick Dale.’ I would love to do a whole night of Dick Dale songs.”
The Tikiongas had their origins several years ago when Taylor first started formulating his plan to pay homage to surf music, but it took him awhile to get the project off the ground.
“I first started the Tikiongas six or seven years ago, but it just fizzled out after three months or so. But I never completely let go of it and just decided a year or so ago that I just needed to do this.”
One of the obstacles Taylor faces is time, the enemy to anyone who has too many great ideas and not enough hours to accomplish them all. His full-time job since May has been as guitarist for Fort Wayne legends Spike & the Bulldogs, which Taylor says has allowed him to further expand his abilities.
“It’s a real honor to play with those guys and to play music from the 50s and 60s. I’ve played 50s music before but not much doowop, which requires forceful singing while playing the guitar. It’s a real learning opportunity for me. I’m just a cog in the machine, and I have to learn my parts, which requires me to be more disciplined.”
He also plays a couple times a year with El’s Angels, an Elvis tribute band, along with various solo shows and the Farmland Jazz Band.
“The jazz band isn’t my band; it’s the band of Ed and John Renz. I’m the old guy in the band, which is cool, and I get to play the banjo in a Dixieland style. I’ve had this banjo around for years just waiting for a chance to play that kind of music.”
Taylor says he has many more irons in the fire, including a possible gig with rockabilly goddess Wanda Jackson at a December performance.
“It’s an event in honor of Pearl Harbor Day, and I’ve been hired to be in Wanda Jackson’s backup band. It’s a big deal, and I have my fingers crossed that it all happens. They could have picked any guitar player in the U.S. and picked me. I about fell over when I got the call.”
Also this year is his annual October celebration of Chuck Berry’s birthday, a performance he shares with Mitch Frazier as the Kenny Taylor Rockestra in which they play all of Berry’s hits in their original key. It’s those kinds of things which have defined Taylor’s career, one dedicated to not traveling the obvious roads.
“I like to do things that are a little different. If someone else is already doing it, I’m probably not interested in it.”
While he keeps busy doing his own thing, it’s a distinctive path which allows him to remake and revisit the music he’s loved over the years, the material which has drawn him to a career playing guitar. He says he has a wealth of “grand, glorious things” he’d like to do if money were no object (like turning El’s Angels into an 18-piece band), but he’s happy enough if he’s always working, never standing still and sounding like Kenny Taylor.
“I always try to sound like someone else, but no matter what I do it always sounds like me. I just try to pay homage to the guys who were heroes of mine and play a big bag of crazy guitar music.”