Memorial Day remembrance of a friend, by L. E. Taylor
By 1965, the J. P. McCarthy drive-time radio shows were the highest rated in the Midwest. Boomed from WJR-Detroit (“The Great Voice of the Great Lakes”), they were part ‘platter’ with a lot of chatter. The afternoon “Focus” show was also call-in. One afternoon, as a novelty, J.P. played part of a recording by Robert Merrill, power-tenor of the Metropolitan Opera. Merrill had begun to get visibility as an occasional National Anthem performer for the Yankees.
McCarthy’s phone lines lit up and he took the oddest of the listeners, a plumber calling from a job site. Bob Taylor had a Master Plumber’s license, but singing was his passion. He informed a disbelieving J.P. McCarthy that Merrill had not sung the aria properly. With a hint of patronizing amusement, McCarthy asked, so how should he have sung it?
Taylor took a chest-full of wind and sent the needles on the control panel flying, along with the producer’s headset. With Bob’s credibility established, the conversation resumed. This was the beginning of what’s known in showbiz as the Big Break. Call-ins by “The Singing Plumber” became frequent, and he quickly became a regular, over the years, booking the show’s most appearances of any celebrity.
By summer, Fat Bob, the Singing Plumber had become the star National Anthem guy for the Detroit Tigers, then special guest performer at Lions and Red Wing events. The new descriptor, “Fat,” was Bob’s own invention. He was blessed with a handsome photogenic mug, adorned with trimmed black Van Dyke, and a full head of well barbered hair. He could sing both tenor and baritone, each clear and strong. And sensual. He was judged more romantic than Robert Goulet, more elegant than John Gary, and even more robust than Merrill of the Met.
But Bob Taylor was five-foot-three. Furthermore, he had a hard, muscular 52-inch waistline that brought to mind not Sir Lancelot, but the Vernor’s Gnome. So, with good humor and fearless brio, a great singer re-packaged himself and got on with his own American dream.
When my Dad and I took my son Christopher to his first game at Tiger Stadium in 1970, the place was SRO and we sat in the second deck, well down the left field line. The field cleared of player warm ups, and presently a tiny, round speck of a fellow strode across the infield and up onto the pitcher’s mound. The spectators were still; we stood at attention and faced the flag. He adjusted the mike downward and, a cappella, Bob Taylor did his thing. Instantly, we saw the rockets’ red glare as never before. Our hearts pounded with the peril of the nightlong bombardment. When Bob completed his magic before 55,000 citizens in “the home of the brave,” the cry of “Play ball!” jolted us back to reality. I looked at Dad. Eyes moist, he choked out, “Nobody does it better than that.”
It happened that Bob Taylor lived in Ann Arbor. Not only that, he lived in a modest house just one block from mine. We’d never met. One September afternoon in 1976 I walked up to his front door. From inside came a powerful double-woof. When the door came ajar the first thing I saw was the massive head of a St. Bernard, about belt buckle high. Bob moved the giant brute away by her studded collar and peered out at me. He wore bib overalls and a friendly smile. His free hand was on the vacuum cleaner he’d been running athletically when the bell rang. He mopped his face with a bandana.
I introduced myself and came to the point. My Dad, Elgan Taylor, had been dying of cancer for most of the year and would be leaving us within the next week. He’d always believed that Fat Bob was the greatest singer he’d ever heard personally, and I wondered if Bob would sing at his funeral. Quickly, Bob said, yes… emphatically yes!
In a few days, I dropped off the music. I’d had to make a few small changes to Stephen Foster’s 19th century classic “My Old Kentucky Home”. Bob said, “Consider this job done, my friend. I know where the funeral home is, I’ll be on time, just say when, and we’ll send your dad off in style.”
And he did. I gave the eulogy without embarrassing myself, and Fat Bob replaced me at the lectern. Everyone was thrilled with his soft, keening operatic rendition of ‘Old Kentucky Home’. When he glanced at my mother and smiled gently on the brave words, “Weep no more, my la-dy…” it took one’s breath away.
After a career of regional fame, appearances on The Merv Griffin Show, offers from the NY Met (declined), a couple of successful pop albums, and plenty of Las Vegas exposure, Fat Bob passed away in 1995. He’d hosted a mid-day radio show of his own in Ann Arbor, then bought a farm in the rolling green Michigan countryside not far away. He raised his own produce… and some goats.
There’s more, but on this Memorial Week, I must leave you with my favorite memory of Fat Bob Taylor. He was a red-white-and-blue patriot. He disapproved of the Vietnam War, as we all did, but he despised even more the radical America-haters and their attempts, both violent and subversive, to destroy our nation and our institutions. Occasionally, when the notion struck, he would adjust the mike at Tiger Stadium and deliver an unexpected stanza from “The Star Spangled Banner”. This is what we heard:
Oh, thus be it ever, when free men must stand
Between their loved home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heav’n-rescued land
Praise the Power that made and preserved our great nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just.
And let this be our motto: “In God is our trust”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Yes, it was the flag-burning, tantrum-ridden, dope-smoking sixties and seventies, and yes the final verse was in-your-face defiant. But the singer knew his heart and his audience. No one ever told him don’t do that. (Nobody could sing along with him anyway.)
Bob Taylor had decided long ago what was right and where his heart belonged. And he was a Canadian.