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Gene Taylor, Austin pianist who played with Fabulous Thunderbirds and others, dies at 68

Gene Taylor, a renowned blues and boogie-woogie pianist in Los Angeles in the 1970s and ’80s who moved to Austin in the 1990s to play with the Fabulous Thunderbirds, died Saturday at home in North Austin. He was 68.

Taylor’s housemate, filmmaker Monty McMillan, said Sunday that he found Taylor’s body in bed Saturday morning. The house had been without heat for five days as a result of statewide power outages related to the recent winter storm.

“I don’t really know exactly what happened.” McMillan said. “I don’t know if he had some underlying health condition, but I know the cold didn’t help.

Austin pianist Gene Taylor died Saturday at age 68.

“We both stayed in our own beds trying to stay warm. I came out of it OK, and he obviously didn’t.”

Born July 2, 1952, in Norwalk, Calif., Taylor had family ties in the Fort Worth area. Grammy-winning Los Angeles guitarist Dave Alvin, who played with Taylor in the roots-rock band the Blasters for several years in the 1980s, said Sunday that he’d known Taylor since they were both teenagers.

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As a teen in the 1960s, Taylor got gigs in Los Angeles with blues greats such as Big Joe Turner and T-Bone Walker. He played in bands around Downey, Calif., with Alvin’s older brother, Phil Alvin, in the early 1970s before getting hired to tour with the California rock band Canned Heat.

“He was the first guy to get out of Downey, so he was sort of our hero,” Dave Alvin said.

Taylor moved to Canada in the late 1970s and spent time playing with renowned musician Ronnie Hawkins, whose band the Hawks at one time included members of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame group the Band. After moving back to California in the early 1980s, Taylor joined the Blasters, recording and touring with the group for several years.

Between runs with the Blasters, Taylor also toured with rock ’n’ roll pioneer Ricky Nelson, who died in a plane crash Dec. 31, 1985.

“He was supposed to be on the tour when the airplane crash happened,” Alvin said, explaining that Taylor had ended up playing a couple of gigs with the Blasters that week instead.

'He was so looking forward to going back to Europe'

Taylor’s initial connection to the Fabulous Thunderbirds was another fateful encounter, on a night when both Alvin and Taylor simultaneously quit the Blasters. Band members “were fighting onstage in Montreal, and I just decided this was the end for me,” Alvin said, noting that the Thunderbirds had opened the show. Taylor made the same decision. Alvin recalls that “Gene walked directly onto the Thunderbirds’ bus and said, ‘Do you guys need a piano player?’ ”

Taylor remained based in Canada for a few more years after that — he shared a Juno Award with Austin’s Doug Sahm and Canada’s Amos Garrett for their 1987 collaborative album “The Return of the Formerly Brothers” — before moving to Austin in 1993 to join the Thunderbirds. He recorded and toured with the group until 2006.

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In addition to playing on albums by James Harman, the Red Devils, John Hammond and others, Taylor made three solo records: 1986’s “Handmade,” a 2003 self-titled album and 2013’s “Roadhouse Memories.” He performed often at nightclubs around Austin and had a weekly residency at the Continental Club with guitarist Chris Ruest in 2017.

McMillan said Taylor, who at one point lived for several years in Belgium, had been set to perform in Sweden in early 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic hit.

“He was so looking forward to going back to Europe to play,” McMillan said. “They loved him over there.”

Taylor stood out as a pianist because of the “percussive intensity of his playing, which harkened back to early blues boogie players,” Alvin said. “A lot of modern-day pianists, when they play that stuff, sound like they’re coming at it from the outside. With Gene, it always sounded like it was coming straight from the inside.”

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