Over the weekend—inspired by the forthcoming release of The Disaster Artist, a film about my favorite movie—I finally saw Ed Wood. It took me way too long.
Ed Wood is a great film about a terrible filmmaker, as well as a great story about the creative muse, and how it sometimes doesn’t hit the cues of the popular taste. Wood’s masterwork, Plan 9 From Outer Space, doesn’t need any more words written about it—but the origin story of its reputation as the “worst movie” is nearly as fascinating as its creation. Long story short: It was included in a book of terrible movies, by fan request. (The late, lamented Dissolve has the full story.)
Lots of stories like this exist in both the film and the music sphere—on the audio front, The Shaggs’ life story has long been rumored as a possible film—but one of the most interesting of these tales might be that of Shooby Taylor.
Taylor, a man nicknamed “The Human Horn,” had the world’s briefest brush with fame of all time. His talent—an ability to make goofy-but-endearing horn-like scat sounds over pre-recorded music—was admittedly an acquired taste. While he was never successful, he was able to focus on music for a long period of time, thanks to a pension he received after an on-the-job injury while working at the U.S. Post Office. He spent a lot of time recording, and eventually, something that looked like a big break emerged.
Unfortunately for Taylor, that break came in October of 1987, as part of the amateur competition of Showtime At the Apollo. (Many reports, including on sites like AllMusic, date this performance to 1983; however, the TV show did not premiere until 1987.)
The performance is a tough watch. The episode’s comic, Rich Aviles, calls Shooby “Scooby,” something reflected in the video’s historic records. Taylor, who was game for the appearance, made an awkward autofellatio joke. (“I blow me,” he said. Accurate for the Human Horn, but why?)
And when he got on stage, he was booed basically automatically—and within a minute and a half, he was gone.
Big break, bust. At least Ed Wood got to share his art with the world in full. (To be fair, it’s a tough crowd. Lauryn Hill got booed that season too, and she has six Grammys.)
But Taylor got a second chance at notoriety, however brief. Like Wood, he came back to prominence because of a book—Irwin Chusid’s classic outsider music tome Songs in the Key of Z.
Chusid noted that Taylor actually had numerous second chances at the limelight he never even knew about: Rhino Records, a major label, briefly considered releasing his music, only to be scared off by the licensing fees associated with the tunes he sang over, and The Late Show With David Letterman entertained the idea of him performing on the show, until a casting agent had a change of heart. None of this happened with any of his knowledge.
Even if folks knew where he was, Taylor likely wouldn’t have been able to make the Late Show gig. Having suffered a stroke in the mid-‘90s, he disappeared from the public eye, only re-emerging briefly a year or two after Chusid’s book was released, thanks to the diligence of a WFMU listener. He died in 2003.
In an alternate universe somewhere, Shooby Taylor and Scatman John would be touring the world together, topping the charts with their unique takes on scat music. But instead, Shooby’s televised output is limited to a single 90-second clip in which he faced the world’s toughest crowd.