Love The Spider
Taz DiGregorio On Thirty-Plus and Counting Years in The Charlie Daniels Band and His New Solo Album
by Michael Buffalo Smith
After thirty-one years as a member of The Charlie Daniels Band, keyboard wizard Taz DiGregorio releases his debut solo album, Midnight in Savannah, and prepares to record his second, stressing the fact that he remains, and always will remain, a member of the CDB.
With a solo album just released, and riding high on the CDB’s new hit “This Ain’t No Rag it’s A Flag,” GRITZ spoke with the talented Taz DiGregorio a few days prior to his return to the recording studio.
Where were you born and raised?
Well, I was born in Worcester, Mass. and I lived there until about 1962 when I went on the road at that time. The first band that I played with was called Paul Chaplan and The Emeralds and they were famous for a song called “Shortnin’ Bread” and we sold about 250,000 records in 1959.
So you were on that record?
Yeah, it was one of those things when I was 17 years old and did not know much about life or music and knew about eight chords and I recorded the song and it hit. Then by 1960-61 the band was completely gone.
How early did you play music?
I started when I was about 16 and I learned a Fats Domino song called “Blue Monday,” I had been listening to Fats Domino and Little Richard and Elvis and that was what was going on at the time. I just sat down one day and played and sang the whole song. My sister was there at the time and it just totally freaked her out and she said “How did you do that?” and I said well, I don’t know. That’s how it all started.
Who would you say are your musical influences?
My biggest influence was Ray Charles, at the age of fourteen, in 1958 I hitchhiked 150 miles to see him. He had his original band with him. He had Fathead Newman, Hank Crawford, Margie Hendricks -- and I think she has passed on. He had about sixteen people with him and I was the only white person in a sea of about 5,000 black people in 1958. He was at that time the hero of all black people. I can see why -- it was like being in a church. I still draw from that one experience today. This was about a two-hour show and I was on the edge of the stage and soaked up the feeling and I still draw from that feeling. I can still see it in my mind today just like it was yesterday and it has been a long time.
Were you in any other bands before you hooked up with Charlie?
Well, yeah, I had bands of my own and toured with other bands and played in a house band in a place called the Golden Nugget in Worcester, Mass. and backed up Fay Adams and The Drifters and did my own kind of thing. But I learned early on from the Ray Charles experience up until I worked in that black section in Mass. in a black club and there were only three white people, me, the club owner and his son. I learned early on what that was to reach out and touch people from that experience.
When and how did you hook up with Charlie Daniels?
It was 1964 and I was in Orlando, Florida staying in a place called The Palomino Motel on Orange Blossom Trail. I was working in a lounge band that did just a variety of music. I sang and we did not use a bass player, I played bass pedals on the organ and the sax player, Jerry Kaskie was his name, well, he got drafted and then we hired a guitar player and he got drafted. Well, I was out of work for about four or five months and finally I got a job in a place called La Flame that was out near the air force base in Orlando. I worked there with just the drums and organ and I could do a five piece band with drums and organ, playing bass and singing. He came into the club as the main attraction one night and I was playing the breaks. His guitar player quit and he was playing bass at the time. He went back to playing guitar and the funny thing is when I met the man he said that he was looking for someone to start all over again with a band and he said let’s have lunch. So, we had lunch and he told me that if I would cut off my long hair and beard he would hire me to be in his band. It was very funny. That was 1963 and 1964. I played for a couple of years with him in a band called the Jaguars and I got drafted and he went to Nashville and played with Bob Dylan. We were playing -- not really writing -- and trying to figure out how to do it. By the time I got out of the army he had the flip side of “Kissin Cousins” called “It Hurts Me” and he was on his way.
After you got out of the service, was that when the original Charlie Daniels Band was formed?
Yeah, basically the original band was Charlie, Jerry Corbitt from the Youngbloods, Billy Cox from Band of Gypsys and Jeffrey Meyer and myself. That band did not stay together but about six months then it just dissolved. Then it was me and Charlie and Jeffrey and a guy named Earl Grigsby. The original Charlie Daniels Band still can be heard if you can find it. It is a bootleg and it is called Corbitt and Daniels, Live at Carnegie Hall.
We opened in 1970 for Delaney and Bonnie and it was a showcase and they brought Atlantic Records and all of these companies came and basically they wanted me and Charlie and did not want anyone else. We decided we would all stay together.
How did it come from that point to recording your first album?
The first album was supposed to be called Corbitt and Daniels, but what had happened in Carnegie Hall, Delaney and Bonnie’s sound man, whom we knew recorded our show also and after the show -- I am not sure what happened but something happened with Corbitt and he quit the band. Charlie was really very upset and they were supposed to go in and do an album called Corbitt and Daniels, the contracts had been signed and the money had been put up and Corbitt quit. So, I took Corbitt’s place on the first album. He sang half and I sang half and from the point on we just kept working at it until we finally hit on it.
Which album was that?
Te John, Grease and the Wolfman.
I have that one with the beautiful picture of you guys on the gatefold. (laughs)
(Laughs) That day that they took that picture, we had forgotten that they were coming. We were having the after recording party -- just the four of us on Long Island about 100 miles out of New York City. We were pretty partied out by the time they got there and we did not even know that they were coming. The guy just looked at all of us and said “What ever you do, please don’t look at the camera.” (laughs)
What did the title of that album actually mean?
Well, Te John was the bass player and Wolfman was the drummer and since I am half Italian and half French Canadian I was Grease. It was one of those things where Charlie loves to give people nicknames. That was one of those Southern Rock cultural things. Grease never stuck but Taz did! He hit that one right one the nose.
Taz is a nickname and is it a Tasmanian Devil thing?
It came about on the bus when we had the first road manager we ever had. Jesse Craig was his name and I had hair down past my shoulders and one morning and I was sitting up in the front of the bus about daylight and my hair was sitting straight up and the road manager was laughing at me saying I looked just like a Tasmanian Devil. He went back to bed. Then after a while Charlie got up and all of the guys started to kid me and laugh and on the next record that came out it just said “Taz and” all of a sudden I had acquired a nickname overnight.
That name has been well-known now for years and years and I remember hearing about you when “Uneasy Rider” first came out and people said that Charlie had this keyboard player named Taz. Early on in The Charlie Daniels Band you guys were opening for other people. Can you kind of give me a picture of what that was like, there was a lot of the Southern Rock and jam kind of thing happening? Give me some of the feel of that time period.
The whole Southern Rock thing was a brotherhood, a family and we were at that time when we started out. We toured with the Allman Bros. Band, The Marshall Tucker Band, Wet Willie, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Black Oak Arkansas and these people were gracious and loving people that allowed us to open shows and play in front of a lot of people. They allowed us and taught us. For instance, The Allman Brothers Band’s Red Dog taught us about road cases. He asked where our road cases were and we did not know what he meant. It was an education.
Marshall Tucker Band’s Tommy Caldwell came to Charlie and said he knew we were broke and gave us a thousand bucks and told us to take it and pay him back when we could. What a nice gesture of brotherhood. They really took care of us. We all worked together. We toured with Skynyrd a lot and would finish the shows and all pile into one room both bands and both crews in one hotel room and you can not get a better brotherhood than that. It was really something. (laughs)
I can imagine that was a pretty crowded room. (laughs) You’ve got to hope that everyone has had their shower...
The thing about that is that you have to worry about the hotel sending the cops up there!
You were talking about Tommy Caldwell. I did want to ask you about the Caldwells, they are near and dear to my heart because I grew up in Spartanburg and was always around those guys. I just wanted to ask you about them and get a memory of those guys and, of course, Charlie. If you could elaborate a little on them I would appreciate it.
Toy and Tommy were just incredible people. They were great musicians. As far as Toy is concerned, the only other guitar player that I ever saw in my entire life that played -- and I won’t say the same style but with the same technique -- it is B.B. King. Toy was so close to B.B. King and I did not understand it until he had passed away. Toy played with more of a country feel but they played with the same intensity, which is really something. Tommy Caldwell -- I had never in my life saw a bass player like Tommy. Tommy would with his feet just scoot up towards Paul Riddle and then the whole thing would come up. They were very good to us. Let us open shows for them and they helped us out and really helped us out a lot. They were one of the premiere Southern Rock bands because they touched on all types of music; they were good people and they were GIs in the Marines. Artimus Pyle was, I think, Toy’s buddy in the Marines. They were real Americans that played real American music. I don’t know anyone who plays like that anymore, not with that intensity. It just doesn’t happen anymore.
Moving on to my friend Charlie, let me tell you what. No one has ever heard this story before. When I came to the Charlie Daniels band, I had no earthly idea of what the basic fundamentals of how to write songs were and this man came and got me in Huntsville, Alabama in a hay wagon and put my B-3 on it and we came to Nashville and I lived with him for a couple of years. He taught me how to write songs and about life and this man has a heart like no other man I have ever met. This man can not only write songs but he is the most talented man I have ever met in my life. He does it all. In the studio he did what they call head arrangements and he is a totally brilliant man. This is how good of a friend he is -- I believe it was 1980, not really sure of the year but I think it was, we had an album called Full Moon. I had a song on that album called “No Potion For the Pain.” He allowed me to write, sing and just about produce one song on every album. No other artist would ever give anyone, another writer that opportunity. The record company said, 'Absolutely not’ and he went to New York City on a plane and said 'Absolutely yes,’ and we are going to do this whether you like it or not. He is about as much of a friend as you can have; it doesn’t get any better than that. He is a very understanding man and you cannot do anything that he hasn’t already done. He understands where you are coming from because he has already been there. There have been times over 31 years that it is not always the best of relationships because you are always going to have some disagreements, but we have always transcended that and the main goal has always been the band. A guy asked me the other day, what have I been waiting on to do the (solo) album? Well, I have been busy with the band; and as long as there is a Charlie Daniels Band there will always be a Taz in the band -- and that would be me!
What are some of the highest points for you personally working with Charlie?
One of the highest points was back about 1971 in a hotel in New York and playing the War Auditorium for the Vietnam war. We had done our part and were sitting in a hotel room and the phone rang and it was Al Kooper, and he was the guy that had produced Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Sounds of the South and The Southern Blues Project -- and he said to Charlie, 'Who is that guy that is playing the B-3?’ and Charlie said “Joe,” and Al said 'That is the guy you need.' I had just started and for me that was like getting a Grammy, getting a compliment from Al Kooper. There were lots of other things that have happened and I think it is great to see a 65 year-old man get a hit record like his “This Ain’t No Rag , It’s a Flag.” I am very proud for him.
I got an email and forwarded it to Charlie today from some people stationed in Germany and they are getting ready to be deployed to Afghanistan. They had heard the flag song and entered the contest to win a record and the single. They wrote this thing that would bring tears to your eyes about how much the song meant to them and I wrote back to tell them they did not have to wait to win but that I was sending them one out today. It’s amazing what effect that song has had.
We had a lot of songs like that for instance, “Still in Saigon,” that prompted death threats for about one year. We had “MIA,” that did really hit -- a lot of people liked it. We had “In America,” which at the time when “In America” was done it was on the West Coast Country Music Awards and we came out to a 60x80 flag behind us and did it but we did not have the product in the store the next day so that was a problem. I think that The Charlie Daniels Band has always been a people band and we have always done songs and write songs that people feel close to because of the lyrical content. This song came along at a time when it was needed. Whenever there is any kind of military action like that, I think the entertainers should do their part to let all the people that go into battle know that they are coming out of this alive and well and that we are praying for them. I am proud of him for coming up with this.
What compelled you to record this and tell us anything you can about this record. I think it is a great record.
It is a very funny story. I had a call and we had done 3-6 albums in a couple of years. We had done the blues album, the fiddle album, the greatest hits album and then this guy called me that I knew for 25 years and used to play in the band. Buddy Davis is his name and he called and said, 'why don’t you do an album?’ I told him that I did not want to do that now because it takes too much time and we have to spend lots of time on it.
He insisted that I send him some stuff and he would put it out. So I sent him some stuff and he thought it was good and that I did need to do it. He called back and said, “Are you crazy? These 12-15 songs are great.” I started feeling like maybe it was time to do it and got some studio time and went and did it. I had started writing a lot and I realized that by holding on to demos, my writing would never get any better and by holding onto those demos I would never go any further. It was time to do it.
Who plays on this album besides yourself?
There is a guy that plays guitar that played with us in 1972 and his name is Barry King, a great guitar player. He played on it and he’s from Louisville. Jack Wessell who plays with Leon Russell and Pat McDonald who is an incredible drummer and now plays with the Charlie Daniels Band and my friend Bonnie Bramlett, who said that if I ever did an album and I did not let her sing on it she would kick my butt...
And she would, too...
Yes sir! And then Carolyn Corlew sang and one of my favorite guitar players in the entire world named Tommy Crain -- whom everyone remembers as a former guitarist in the CDB -- played slide on “Born With the Blues” and “Standing in the Rain” and Charlie himself played on Spirit in the Dark and then Johnny Neel who used to play with the Allman Bros. who I think wrote the hit song “Good Clean Fun,” he played horns on “Ya No Me Duella Mas” and Jamie Nichols who played on Fire On The Mountain, he played percussion, and then my friend David Dunston who played strings on “Somewhere.” Also, Marty O’Jeda played sax.
This album is out now but I hear you are working on another record, is that right?
I am working on an album called Shake Rag, it’s a collection of songs that I wrote last year in about an 8-month period. It takes in Latin and Latin Blues formats -- formats that have really not been exploited, slick R&B and it is basically about every kind of Southern Music there is. Including original jazz that came from New Orleans.
Are there some of the same guys on it or new people?
These are different musicians. Barry King is playing on it. This is a funny story, everyone's on it, Barry King, the bass player is Shane and William Ellis who is a percussionist -- all of these guys studied at U.T. and are from Knoxville and they all have the same kind of mindset. The record Midnight in Savannah would never have come out if it had not been for a lady named Anita Walls -- she runs a company in Nashville called Masterworks and she is from Memphis. She has always told me I am from the wrong city and that I needed to be living in Memphis. On the 5th, 6th and 7th of December we are going into a studio and everyone is studying the script and we will do it one take, one time like we did Midnight in Savannah.
So, it is live in the studio.
Yeah, it is live in the studio. Midnight in Savannah was live in the studio. When we finally started to roll we did it in two days and solos were cut and we did it wham, wham and the solos were done and the first ones are usually the best. These musicians were real professionals.
Oh yeah, one person I need to mention is my long time co-writer, Greg Wohlgemuth. He’s from Oklahoma and co-wrote several of the songs on both “Midnight in Savannah” and “Shake Rag.” I can be in the room with him and the songs just come. It’s magic.
What’s next for you and then what’s next for the Charlie Daniels Band?
For me the next album will be Shake Rag and I have another album stuck in my brain called Pirate Moon and a fourth one in February I want to write called Scarlett Carnival. The Charlie Daniels Band is playing Jan. 26-28th and there is a golf tournament in Florida that Charlie hosts every year for charity called Angelus and we will be going to that. And on March 1st we hit the road again and from what I understand we are getting ready to cut the best CDB Record ever! We are always working and creating something and it you can do that you will never get stale!
Do you have any closing comments or words of wisdom to any of your fans?
If you want to be in the music business or have any musical aspirations, the best thing I can say to anyone is do it! Don’t ever quit. There is room for everyone, plenty of money for everyone, so get out there and do anything that you have to do. The world is a great place and there is room for everybody and you just have to go out there and persevere. I have been truly blessed. I have no musical education and cannot just sit there and write music but what I hear in my mind is a blessing from God and everyday that I get up I thank God for these blessings with this thing in my head where I write lyrics and music. If you are an aspiring songwriter, and you want to write great songs you have to clear all of the negativity out of your life and love everything in the universe. If you hate spiders you must learn to love them --love the spider. Love everything and just sit still and it will come to you.