It was 1997, just a couple years into what would become a two-decades-long holiday tradition for people in Wheeling and beyond. I was already a bit of a fangirl. Taylor’s “Vitamin L” was in heavy rotation when my 10-year-old self was skating laps with my friends at Wheeling ‘Round on the island.
Phyllis had given me the promotional Christmas CD from B.E., and I was enthralled. These were no ho-hum, hum-drum hymns and carols. Lots of musicians have covered Christmas carols, but B.E and his crew crawled inside them, teased out their essence, then translated them back to the masses with fresh, creative vocal and instrumental arrangements.
I shared it with my mom and sister, who enjoyed it as much as I did. One of my favorite Christmas memories was the year I got to take them both to the show. I spent the entire show watching their faces rather than the stage!
So I was excited and nervous to talk to the “Vitamin L” guy, but even more so to talk the man behind such unique and inspired renditions of Christmas carols. I didn’t know then what it took me five minutes on the phone to figure out: He couldn’t have been more kind and down-to-earth. He even told me to call him Bill, as he was known to friends and family.
I asked a million questions, and he talked for two-and-a-half hours. Of course, anyone who knew B.E. knew his knack for making a short story long! What was remarkable to me, though, is he spent much of that time talking about other people — his parents, his brothers, his wife Veronica, his children Tahnee and B.C., his bandmates.
SHINE, SHINE, SHINE
Fast forward. It’s 2019, and I have interviewed B.E. Taylor a couple of dozen times in my career. I wrote the preview for his last concert in 2015 before his death in August 2016. His Christmas CDs — he and his band would record three in all — are the soundtrack for my holiday season.
For 20 years, his Christmas concerts were a tradition for thousands at The Capitol in Wheeling and beyond, as he took the show on the road to Heinz Hall in Pittsburgh and throughout western Pennsylvania, West Virginia and even New York, Illinois and North Carolina.
It’s been three years since B.E. Taylor died. That first Christmas in 2016, there naturally was no B.E. Taylor Christmas concert tour. How could there be, with no B.E. Taylor?
Then something unexpected happened.
Fans started writing emails and posting on social media, asking the Taylor family to bring B.E.’s band back for Christmas. Of course, it wouldn’t be the same without B.E.’s soaring vocals on “O Holy Night” and “Joy to the World.” Fans would miss seeing his radiant smile, his trademark hair, his onstage antics with best friend, musical partner and guitar player Rick Witkowski.
But, as he told me in my very first interview with him and the many that followed, the show is bigger than B.E. Taylor.
The B.E. Taylor Christmas concert, of course, was Taylor’s renditions of amped-up carols with threads of reggae, rock, blues, gospel, soul and calypso. And, of course, it was B.E.’s original songs, especially “Feel the Love of Christmas,” from his second Christmas album, an upbeat anthem that encourages us all to keep the Christmas spirit going all year long.
But the B.E. Taylor Christmas concert also was backup singer Hermie Granati serenading the crowd on vocals and battering the keyboard with the bluesy Beatles tune “Oh! Darling.” It was Rick shredding his way through a solo as he tore up and down the aisles and head-banged with folks in the front row. It was B.C. and Rick’s center-stage drum battle with glow-in-the-dark sticks.
Then there was the gospel choir from B.E.’s hometown of Aliquippa, dressed in their white-and-red robes belting out “Joy to the World.” There was the local children’s chorus on “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” the high school drumline beating their way down the aisles and up onto the stage on “O Come All Ye Faithful,” and B.E.’s three nieces singing in perfect harmony, accompanied by Rick on the ukelele.
Not to be underestimated, the B.E. Taylor concert also was a feeling. The fans felt like part of the band, too. While listening to the first CD on the way to work this morning, I could feel the electric vibe of hundreds of people around me singing “Merry Christmas, everyone! Merry Christmas, yeah!” on “Mary’s Boy Child” and “Shine, shine, shine — shine for me!” on “We Three Kings.”
B.E. Taylor — ask anyone who knew him — was born to be in the spotlight. But it was his willingness to let others shine that made it possible for the show to go on after his final curtain.
I WILL REMEMBER
So in 2017, B.C. planned a two-night-only Christmas tribute concert at The Capitol Theatre. It was called “I Will Remember,” from the title of another of his original songs about Christmases past. The first night sold out almost immediately. The second night was packed.
It was magical. But to B.E.’s family and bandmates, it made perfect sense.
“Because of the way B.E. shared the stage … there’s a connection that was built with the audience that they, through the years, have gotten to know everybody in the band,” his younger brother Dan said. “If (B.E.) would have been your typical phenomenal artist … and came out, sang his butt off like he always did, did a phenomenal show entertaining, then left the stage, everybody would love the show, but Rick and Hermie and B.C., they would just be a backing band.”
“He was so generous with the spotlight,” said B.C. “He would always say the show was bigger than him. There is such a truth to that because if it were just about him, there could be no way we could be doing these shows. No one would know who (we) are.”
Dan said B.E. was so inclusive that any time he talked about the Christmas show, he would say “we,” not “I.” It has become a pet peeve of Dan’s when a superstar says “Thanks for having me” or “I am happy to be here.”
Looking back on some of my articles published in The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register, I found a perfect case-in-point on Dec. 19, 2004. B.E. said:
“The fact that we have become a Christmas tradition for so many people is humbling. … They will tell us it’s not Christmas until they come to the show. They decorate the tree to our music; in some cases people play the CDs all year long. Knowing that we are creating Christmas memories with so many people is special to us. We had no idea that the Christmas CDs and shows would have become such a special part of so many people’s lives, so please if I’m dreaming, don’t wake me.”
Noted Dan: “It was genuine. He wasn’t doing it for any other reason than he wanted to see you stand out. And that’s a quality you don’t often find in people of his stature.”
B.C. has followed in his father’s footsteps. He is a professional musician in Nashville and plays drums for the up-and-coming artist Filmore. He says he couldn’t have had a better role model than his dad.
B.C. learned nearly everything about the music industry from his parents, who built the B.E. Taylor Christmas phenomenon from the ground up.
From promoting to booking venues to designing T-shirts, B.C. learned how to “troubleshoot and put out fires in a graceful way” and how to treat people in the industry “with respect and still get what you need done done.” He also saw his dad work with “eight different personalities on the stage and bring out the best in each person.”
B.C. was one of those personalities. He has been in the show since the age of 11, when he and his sister took The Capitol stage in 1996 to sing “O Come All Ye Faithful.” In high school, he played percussion in the band, and as a senior, he marched in the drumline. Then he became the band’s lead drummer. For several years in a row, he and B.E. sang a touching duet of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.”
I can see in my mind’s eye a photo from 2014 or 2015 of the two of them perched on stools on stage, big smiles on their faces, B.E. looking at his son, radiating love. I get chills when I think about it.
FEEL THE LOVE
The overriding theme of B.E. Taylor’s life and career was love. He was the Vitamin L guy after all — for the uninitiated, the “L” stands for love. He recorded an album of original love songs called “Try Love.” Then there’s “Feel the Love of Christmas.”
Said Rick, who played music and palled around with B.E. for 40 years: “His whole thing was, he wanted to show God’s love through his actions. He didn’t hit people over the head with it. He didn’t preach.”
B.C. said out of everything that his dad taught him, the love is what matters most.
“If you turned on any record that my dad had been a part of, the underlying message is love. And that is such a legacy to leave behind. He sang about what he lived, and he lived a life of love and compassion. … If you took everything else away, and I was just trying to get to that benchmark to try to be like the man he is, he was, that is a totally honorable goal, and it’s something I’m working on every day.”
After the “I Will Remember” tribute concert, B.C. and the rest of the band decided to do it again the following year and add some of the old venues for a bonafide tour. They called it “Feel the Love,” and it was a success.
This is the last year for the “Feel the Love” Christmas show because, simply put, it’s time to move on, said B.C.
B.E. used to say in his interviews with me that he never took the fans for granted and knew it couldn’t last forever. Fans may have assumed there would be a next year, but B.E. never did.
As B.E. said in that 2004 article:
“We don’t know if someday, one year, we’ll have 200 people show up in a house that seats 2,000; then, we’ll know it’s ‘Bill Taylor, thank you for your time,’ and that’s it.”
That never happened in B.E.’s lifetime, and it won’t happen now. Suffice it to say well over 200 people showed up at Heinz Hall Monday night and last night.
B.C. said doing the tribute shows these last few years, one thing has become clear: “People really loved Dad.”
MERRY CHRISTMAS, EVERYONE
B.C. said he hopes to pack the house for the “Feel the Love” tribute on Monday, Dec. 23, at The Capitol.
“I don’t want anybody to miss out on an opportunity to see the show one last time,” B.C. said.
It’s the end of an era for the family, the band, the fans.
“I’m excited to play again, but when I think about it being the last one, I think, ‘Oh, man,'” said Rick. “We do want to make it the closest thing to a B.E. Taylor Christmas concert without B.E. being there live. One last time for anyone that wants to see it and get that feeling.”
B.C. and Rick will be joined on stage again by Hermie Granati and Jeff Jimerson on vocals, Wheeling’s own multi-instrumentalist Jamie Peck, Herb Schweitzer, Anthony Rankin, Don Liberati, Ryan Gleason, Pete Wilson, and Dan’s daughters, Jordan, Sydney and Bailey. Bailey will perform a solo as she has done the past few years. She is following in her uncle Bill and cousin B.C.’s footsteps pursuing a professional singing career in Nashville.
Dan, who for years did B.E.’s soundchecks because his voice is so similar to his brother’s, also will be in the show. He filled in for B.E. in 2014 on “I Saw Three Ships” because B.E. had a sore throat. Then he had the opportunity to sing it with him in 2015.
The show might end, but the memories — and the recordings — will live on indefinitely.
“People are thanking me for this show, but really it’s the other way around, I’m thanking them. … I am so thankful that people love the show enough and trust me enough that they will come and celebrate with us. It’s such an honor,” B.C. said.
“All good things come to an end at some point,” said Dan. “We want to celebrate what this show has meant to so many for so long. To him, the most important things were celebrating the birth of Christ and feeling the love of Christmas. So we want everybody to come out, feel the love with us, celebrate that birth, and let’s celebrate one more time together.”
• Betsy Bethel-McFarland lives in Martins Ferry with her husband Dave, daughter Emma Skye and dogs Isabelle and Harley. She enjoys reading, writing, watching movies and playing the Highland pipes. She worked for 23 years as a newspaper reporter and editor and now works at Youth Services System Inc. as the communications manager and grant writer.