He’s played with Stevie Wonder, Billy Preston, Cher, Jimi Hendrix and Elton John. He once stayed at George Harrison’s home to record an album. Little Richard heard him play at the age of 14 and purportedly said, “Honey, when I heard you play the drums, my big toe just shot straight up in my boot. It made me want to scream like a white lady!”
This happened when Alvin Taylor was working as a hotel busboy, and he was called upon to sit in with Soul Patrol; the regular drummer was too drunk to play. Also in the audience that night: Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Billy Preston.
In the years since, Alvin Taylor has played on 78 gold records, 48 platinum records and 18 diamond records, yet the Coachella Valley resident is largely unknown.
And then there’s the racism.
“Recently, I pulled up to a car wash in Palm Springs, and told them what kind of wash we wanted,” Taylor said. “I took our stuff out of the car; then I asked my wife, who is Mexican American and light-skinned, if she had any cash on her, so I could give a tip to the person who does the final details at the end. Since she didn’t have any cash, she went to the bank around the corner, came back and handed me $5. The owner, who didn’t know I was a customer, suddenly came out of his office, saw me standing on the side of the car wash, and said to my wife, ‘I’m sorry ma’am; we don’t suggest you do that.’ I thought it was a joke. The man went on to say, ‘We don’t suggest you do it, because they will always keep coming back.’ He saw me as a poor Black person and singled me out.”
His wife became angry and explained to the owner that he was talking about her husband—a famous rock drummer. “You stereotyped the wrong person,” she told him.
When Taylor went to pay the bill, the man was looking at a page on the internet showing Taylor with Stevie Wonder. “He looked up at me and said he was very sorry,” Taylor said.
Taylor has been dealing with this kind of stuff his entire life. As a replacement drummer on a tour, his pay was a quarter of what the white drummer would have earned. George Harrison, however, gets special praise from Taylor.
“He was the nicest and most loving man I ever met,” Taylor said. “He invited me to stay in his castle, where I met the greatest musicians on the planet. George treated me like a king, and even put me inside his album cover, while many didn’t.”
When he was a child, his family lived in Palm Springs’ Section 14, a one-square-mile plot of land in downtown Palm Springs owned by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. Taylor’s mother worked as a maid for Lucille Ball, and his father was a carpenter; when they were denied a bank loan, they saved enough money to build their house on Section 14.
However, in the 1950s and 60s, hundreds of people lost their homes when they were razed by the city to make way for development. Taylor said his family was evicted with 30 days’ notice.
“I remember coming home when I was 10 years old, and seeing my house and the other houses being destroyed,” Taylor said. “We lost everything—our churches, clubs and community centers. We were thrown out in the cold. We received no compensation, no timely warnings, and no legal proceedings.”
He helped found the Section 14 Survivors Group, which now has 500 members. The group filed a claim with the city of Palm Springs, asking for reparations. An economist working with the group, Julianne Malveaux, estimates the damages could range from $400 million to $2 billion.
Life’s strains and the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle took a toll. For many years, Taylor said, he was addicted to cocaine, but thanks to rehab—including a stint Crossroads Centre Antigua, founded by Eric Clapton—he’s kicked the habit, he said. He also said the process has improved other aspects of his life, and he takes things one day at a time.
“The mask has finally come off. I always felt like something wasn’t right,” he said.
He credits his wife, Delia Ruiz, for keeping him on track. They’ve been married for 11 years, but he’s known her since they were children in Section 14; he said he even had a crush on her back then.
“Without my wife’s support and encouragement, I don’t know what my life would be like,” he said.
Her view on things: “Coming from Section 14, and all he’s been through, Alvin continues to grow and mature. I’m so proud of how far he’s come.”
One of his proudest moments came on Feb. 24, 2018, when he became an inductee on the Palm Springs Walk of the Stars. Taylor said that then-Mayor Robert Moon said to him, “Alvin, I’m so sorry about what happened to you as a child growing up here in Palm Springs.”
“He had tears in his eyes,” Taylor said. “It was like a big, bright light, and I felt like a worthy citizen for the first time in my life.” Feb. 24 is now Alvin Taylor Day in Palm Springs.
Taylor, who will turn 70 in March, continues to perform. David Lautrec, a pianist/keyboardist who played with Taylor in Desert Redux, sang his praises.
“I enjoyed every moment we performed together, as well as each time we met to speak about subjects other than music,” Lautrec said. “He has been a gift to me musically and personally. … He has a rare gift, of which he is well aware. Although cognizant of his greatness, he does not use it as a hammer. It is a quiet confidence and self-acknowledgement of his once-in-a generation, God-given talent.”