Ron Taylor: Academy Heart & Soul
Updated: Jan 17, 2021
Throughout our 136 year history, the alumni of The American Academy of Dramatic Arts have been recognized by the world for their achievements in the performing arts, including many actors belonging to historically underrepresented groups. To commemorate these voices, The Academy will honor its alumni with a series dedicated to celebrating the accomplishments of the diverse members of our community.
Ron Taylor was born in 1952 and grew up in Galveston, Texas. He spent his formative years playing sports and it was while attending Wharton County Junior College that his trajectory changed. The school’s choir teacher happened to overhear Ron and his friends goofing around and singing a Temptations song a cappella. Moved by his deep, resonating voice, the teacher encouraged him to join the school’s choir. Drama soon followed and he became a fixture in the theater department. Proving to be a natural on stage, it was at the suggestion of one of his drama instructors that he should audition for a spot at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. He made it in and at the age of 19, he headed to New York City to begin his new adventure.
Ron Taylor graduated from the Academy in 1975 and began to take whatever came his way. In 1977, his first big role came through when he was cast as the Cowardly Lion in the first national touring company of The Wiz. He followed this with the role of Great Big Baby in Eubie!, and as Caiaphas in Jesus Christ Superstar. Ron hit the jackpot in 1982 when he was cast as the lyrical alien flesh-eating plant, Audrey II in the original off-Broadway production of Little Shop of Horrors. The show ran for five years and had over 2000 performances. He had said the role was one of his favorites, but it was a big adjustment as he had to sit in a small, closed-off area next to his puppeteer. The challenge was not being able to read and feed directly off of his audience. Regardless of the challenge, his performance as Audrey II was phenomenal, and it earned him a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Special Effects that he shared with Audrey II’s puppeteer, Martin Robertson.
While Ron couldn’t read sheet music or proficiently play the piano, he was able to have a relatively successful singing career. In between theatrical roles, he served as back-up singer to vocal heavyweights such as Etta James, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, and Shelia E. He appeared on numerous artist’s recordings and even co-wrote the song, “An Innocent Man” with Billy Joel in 1983. Later in his career, he would sing the US National Anthem at various sporting events and was an active member of the national touring blues group, The Nervis Bros.
The stage was always Ron’s home, but Hollywood just couldn’t resist his hulking stature and deep-rich voice. While the film roles were on the smaller size, they were in prominent, mainstream films like Trading Places, Who’s That Girl, Relentless, and A Rage in Harlem. He also found success on the small screen, appearing in shows such as Star Trek - Deep Space Nine, Twin Peaks, Ally McBeal, L.A. Law, and his most beloved role as Jazz saxophonist, “Bleeding Gums Murphy” on The Simpsons.
One of his biggest successes came while researching for the role of Rufus Payne in the 1987 production of Lost Highway: The Music and Legend of Hank Williams. The show was based on the Country-and-Western star’s rise to fame. Rufus, or “Tee-tot” as he was nicknamed, was a blues singer that was said to have mentored Hank Williams when he first began in music. Williams’ music was greatly inspired by the blues. Ron found himself inspired by the music as well and he began to think about all the bluesmen of the past whose music had been long lost, or forgotten. He wanted to create a piece that showcased and honored these vital members of American music. The idea for It Ain’t Nothin’ But The Blues was born at that moment. It was nearly 7 years later that he would develop the concept into a full show, and another 5 years until it became a smash Broadway hit.
The driving force of this production was the importance of not only honoring all the great blues musicians, but also showcase the evolution and history of the black musical style. He wanted to show the evolution of the early African chants brought to North America by enslaved Africans, into Pop music, Rock ‘n Roll, modern musicals, and many other genres. With the help of Lost Highway’s director, Randal Myler, as well as Lita Gaithers, Charles Bevel and Dan Wheetman, Ron created a unique theater experience. The show consisted of a live band backing seven featured vocalists (Ron being one of them), and had very little interactive dialogue or narration. While performing, visuals were projected of historical pictures and events that helped illustrate the birth of the blues. These were not the types of shows that garnered Tony nominations, and yet it earned two of them; Best Featured Actor in a Musical and Best Book of a Musical.
It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues debuted on Broadway in 1999 and became Ron Taylor’s longest, and last, Broadway appearance. It ran for eight consecutive months. While this was a huge success, it was during the 1999 Tony Awards show that things got a little interesting. During the show, one of the acts ran too long, and to keep the show on schedule, the producers decided to cut a musical number. They decided to cut the musical performance for the last Best Musical nominee, Taylor’s musical, even though the other four nominees had the opportunity to showcase. This opportunity on the Tony stage is vital in getting further exposure to a show and helps to gain interest from a national audience. This “slight” by the producers was not well received and was viewed as an insult by most of the theatre community. In an interview with the LA Times, Ron was quoted as saying, “I never expected what happened on the TV, that they wouldn’t allow us to sing. But even through that, I stood up on that empty stage with my producers and said, ‘God is good.’ I had my producers saying it with me: ‘God is good.’ It’s all going to work out, just do what you have to do. What happened here tonight is what the blues is all about.” It was hinted by many insiders on the Broadway scene that the decision was fueled by favoritism and even racism. With talks of a potential lawsuit looming, the CBS network, which televised the Tony Awards, quickly invited Ron and his cast to appear on David Letterman to have the opportunity to perform a piece from their show two days later. Shortly after Ron was struck by a mild stroke from a blood clot that formed on his optic nerve. After five weeks of recuperation, he was back on stage. Between Ron’s health challenges and the Tony Awards slight, the show’s run drastically slowed, and it left Broadway to do various regional theater tours. Ron began to slow down, but just a few years later, he would succumb to a heart attack, and passed away at the age of 49.
The gifts that have been given by Ron Taylor are immeasurable. Not only did he grace us with his immense musical and theatrical talent, he also served in many community building capacities. He supported many causes and donated his spare time to help teach vulnerable young people through many different projects. He knew how important it was to help youth find their paths and purpose. He was quoted as saying, “Things have come out of the air for me...I’m grateful; that’s why I work with kids.” It was important for him to spread the wealth to those around him, so that they too could follow their dreams. His story is one that inspires us all to follow our dreams, never give up, and always be true to who you are.