Jesse “Guitar” Taylor was born on April 10, 1950, in Lubbock and grew up in its Arnett-Benson neighborhood, where a few doors down the street some older boys had a rock-and-roll band driven by electric guitars. His father was a laborer and alcoholic who left the family when Jesse was a child. His mother, Martha Fain, raised and supported Jesse and his two siblings. He worked the cotton fields and, with a little added money from his mother, bought his first guitar. The twelve-year-old taught himself to play, not by strumming chords like most beginners but going straight to the lead parts, trying to emulate his favorite musician at the time, guitar virtuoso Nokie Edwards of The Ventures. Soon Taylor formed his own band, The Epics, and played at junior high dances and small gigs around the neighborhood.
He developed rapidly as a guitarist, discovering the blues, in particular Texas artist Freddie King, and started hanging out at Tommy Nichol’s house on 8th Street in the Tech ghetto where a few Lubbock musicians met for impromptu picking sessions, among them Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, T. J. “Tiny” McFarland, and John X. Reed. With Jesse Taylor now among their number, the pickup players began calling themselves the T. Nichol House Band and soon were doing gigs all over town.
From the first, Taylor played every day, almost always for hours at a stretch. The intensity and single-mindedness with which he approached his art left little time or focus for much else, especially for school, where his long hair and his choice of music set him apart from his classmates, making him an easy target for the disciplinarians. He dropped out and spent the next couple of years hopping freight trains to play music in and around San Francisco, then in Austin. In 1967 he played in the band of rhythm-and-blues singer Angela Strehli, headlining in Austin at the Vulcan Gas Company and various east side clubs. By the early 1970s, Jesse was back in Lubbock, still playing guitar but without a regular band.
In 1973 he was hitchhiking along East Broadway when C. B. “Stubb” Stubblefield gave him a lift and a barbecue sandwich. From the friendship that developed between them came the now-famous Stubb’s Barbecue Sunday jam sessions, the informal performances that, among other things, provided an incubator for the Joe Ely Band. By 1975 the group, along with Joe and Jesse, consisted of Lloyd Maines on pedal steel, Steve Keeton on drums, Gregg Wright on bass, and Ponty Bone on accordion and had quickly established a strong local following there and at other important venues like the already-famous Cotton Club. Almost as quickly, the band began performing nationally, signed with a major Nashville label, and in its heyday toured both in the U.S. and abroad with the likes of Waylon Jennings, Tom Petty, Linda Ronstadt, the Crickets, the Clash, and the Rolling Stones.
Taylor left the Ely Band on New Year’s Eve, 1982, though he would continue to make occasional appearances with them. In spite of the infrequency of his role as a frontman, Jesse was enormously popular with audiences, especially in Europe, where he made frequent tours with his own band and with other performers, among them Terry Clarke, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Butch Hancock. Taylor was even more popular with musicians; he was in great demand as a sideman on both recordings and at gigs, working often with Billy Joe Shaver, the Hancock Family, John X. Reed, and a host of others.
He recorded four of his own albums: Last Night (1990), Rhythm Oil (with Terry Clarke and Michael Messer, liner notes by Johnny Cash, 1993), Texas Tattoo (1998), and South Side Guitars (with John X. Reed, 2001). He defined and set the standard for a powerful guitar style that was both raw and deliberate, intense and soulful. He had the reputation for being as kind and gentle in his person as he was intimidating and reckless with his instrument. After he was diagnosed with Hepatitis C, his musical endeavors slowed down, but he developed his talents as an artist in pencil drawing. He died on March 7, 2006, in Austin, Texas. He was buried in Resthaven Memorial Park in Lubbock. He was survived by three daughters. The day after he died he was honored at the Austin Music Awards with induction into the Texas Hall of Fame. Lubbock held its first annual Jesse Fest in 2009. Taylor was inducted into the Austin Music Memorial in 2013.