Obituary: Don Taylor
Tuesday 16 November 1999
Sometimes compared to the boxing promoter Don King or Elvis Presley's manager "Colonel" Tom Parker, Taylor was a shrewd entrepreneur who learned his trade with various American rhythm'n'blues acts in the Sixties before helping Marley fulfil his international potential in the Seventies. Taylor subsequently fell out with the singer and became embroiled in legal disputes over the Marley estate.
He wrote an autobiography, So Much Things To Say: my life as Bob Marley's manager, published in 1994. The self-aggrandising title, never mind the suspect chronology and grand claims the book sometimes makes, gives a measure of this larger-than-life figure who travelled from the ghettos of Jamaica to a life of luxury in Miami, Florida.
Taylor was born in Kingston in 1943; his mother, Cynthia Llewellyn, was just 13 years old at the time of his birth, worked as a maid and lived with a black Jamaican called Taylor. However, Don was actually the son of Vernal Kidd, a white British soldier. Disowned by both parents, the young Don grew up hustling cruise- liner passengers in the downtown area of Kingston. Already, he was cutting deals with bar owners, selling American cigarettes or washing cars.
Meeting the American singer Lloyd Price gave Taylor the idea of setting up a valet service for other visiting performers such as Fats Domino, Ben E. King and Jackie Wilson. Impressed by Taylor, Wilson bought him a plane ticket to Miami in 1960. While there, he met Jerry Butler and ended up in New York, working for Little Anthony and the Imperials.
By 1965, Taylor had managed to convince the US military that his father was American; he was drafted for two years, giving him legal resident status. Following his discharge in 1967, he rose from road manager to looking after the affairs of Little Anthony and the Imperials. The vocal group were on the way down after hits such as "Tears on My Pillow" and "Goin' Out of My Head" but Taylor kept them working in Las Vegas and learned to operate in a "charged environment" which was under mafia influence. He also took the Motown artist Martha Reeves under his wing.
Asked by the Jamaican prime minister Michael Manley to organise a benefit concert for the Trench Town Sports Complex, Taylor suggested Marvin Gaye as the headline act, while a local promoter, Stephen Hill, added Bob Marley to the bill. During negotiations over the concert in 1973, Marley was puzzled by Taylor's appearance and business acumen. "You really is a Jamaican? How you learn the business so?" he asked.
The pair kept in touch. The following year, realising there was a buzz around Marley's group, the Wailers (Eric Clapton's version of "I Shot the Sheriff" had just become a hit) and hearing that the group had left their manager Danny Sims, Taylor travelled to Kingston, walked to Marley's house at 56 Hope Road, woke him up and offered the singer his services. The pair shook hands and, although they didn't even draft an agreement for another two years, Taylor convinced Marley to go on the road to promote the Natty Dread album.
After a successful tour of Canada and the United States, Taylor renegotiated Marley's deal with the Island Records boss Chris Blackwell for $1m, just as the seminal album Live! and the single "No Woman No Cry" were racing up the charts in 1975. Setting up a company in the British Virgin Island of Tortola to avoid UK and US taxes, Taylor also extricated Marley from his publishing deal with Danny Sims.
In late 1976, Marley decided to play a free show for his countrymen and Taylor suggested the grounds of Jamaica House. However, Michael Manley hijacked what was supposed to be a non-political event and called for elections to be held soon after the Smile Jamaica concert.
On 3 December, two days before Marley was due to play the concert, seven gunmen burst into his home in Kingston and shot him, his wife Rita, Lewis Griffith, a family friend and Don Taylor. Taylor was critically injured in the assassination attempt, but, by standing in front of Marley, arguably saved the singer's life. "I heard Bob say: they shoot up Don Taylor, Don Taylor dead or something," recalled Taylor, who lost a great deal of blood and was nearly pronounced dead on arrival at the local hospital, until a doctor examined him more closely. He was subsequently flown to Miami, where a bullet was removed from his spine.
Marley went ahead with the concert but then spent 18 months away from Jamaica, recording much of Exodus and Kaya in Britain. He eventually returned in 1978 for the One Love Peace concert during which he clasped both the hands of Manley and leader of the opposition Edward Seaga in a forced show of unity.
In 1979, Taylor bought Jimmy Cliff's publishing rights for $40,000 and set about rebuilding Cliff's career, which had been on the skids since the early Seventies. However, when negotiating separate advances for concerts by Cliff and Marley in Gabon, the manager was accused by Marley of "creative accounting" and dismissed. Taylor claimed that Marley later forced him to cancel their management agreement at the point of a gun. In 1980, Marley wrote "Bad Card" as a thinly veiled attack on Taylor for the album Uprising. By then, Marley had been diagnosed with cancer and he died in 1981 in Miami.
Taylor took care of the funeral arrangements in Jamaica but Marley's death hit him hard and he began using cocaine. He was also trying to sort out the singer's estate but, in the absence of a will, the dispute between various parties (Rita Marley, Danny Sims, Cedella Booker - Marley's mother - and so on) rumbled on until 1989 when Chris Blackwell bought the publishing rights to Marley's songs for $12m. In 1983, Taylor convinced EMI America to sign the Melody Makers featuring Ziggy Marley (Bob's son).
Taylor claims he was later targeted by the mafia but used his connections to call off the hitmen. Over the years, he also worked with Burning Spear, Gregory Isaacs, Prince, Soul II Soul, and the producers Baby Face and L.A. Reid. Tall, sharply dressed, charismatic, and nicknamed "Jaws" by those who disliked him, Taylor was fond of bragging to interviewers: "I made Bob Marley a millionaire! I'm a wealthy man. I don't have to work."
"Don Taylor, you know what I like about you is you no lickey lickey," was the nicest compliment Marley paid the manager who made him a multi- million-selling artist.
Donald Delroy Taylor, manager and promoter: born Kingston, Jamaica 10 February 1943; three times married (four sons, one daughter, and one son deceased); died Miami, Florida 1 November 1999.
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