“You should make a movie of my life,” local jazz legend Myra Taylor (1917-2011) said to independent filmmaker Michael Assesandro years ago. He never forgot it.
Now, Assesandro is part of a team including Danny Cox, local acting and songwriting legend, and Harvey Williams, founder and director of KC Melting Pot Theatre, who plan to produce a play about Taylor’s life.
Taylor’s story is indeed a captivating one. Orphaned at age 7 in Bonner Springs, she and her sister were placed in foster care, where she suffered years of abuse. On her own, she fled to Kansas City to try her luck as an entertainer. At 14, she worked as a housekeeper but regularly sneaked into the clubs on 12th Street, and eventually was hired, first as a dancer and then as a singer. In an “Up To Date” interview on KCUR in 2007, she told Steve Kraske she walked from gig to gig: “$1.25 a night and they paid you in nickels.”
Taylor’s talent propelled her to Chicago. In the 1930s, she toured the Midwest with Clarence Love’s band. She performed in Chicago for a few years before moving back to Kansas City in 1940. She was the lead singer for Harlan Leonard and His Rockets, and together they wrote and recorded songs including “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire” and “Dig It” for RCA. She parted with Leonard over writing credit disputes.
In 1944, she joined a WWII USO tour with Eubie Blake’s band, playing to segregated Black units. Subsequently, she returned to Kansas City and had the hit song “Spider and the Fly” with the Jimmy Keith Orchestra.
Despite successes, Taylor never received any royalties, and, frustrated, she relocated to Juarez, Mexico, during the 1950s. Then there were several tours of Europe. She settled in Frankfurt, Germany, in the mid-’60s and managed her own club, “Down by the Riverside.” She joined USO tours in the Korean and Vietnam wars. The late ’70s found her working in film and television in Los Angeles. She had a recurring role in the TV show “The Jeffersons,” the lead in the film comedy “Scoring” and small roles in a number of other movies.
In 1994, she returned to live in Kansas City. She recorded “My Night to Dream” in 2000 and sang for many years with the group the Wild Women of Kansas City. Her 94th birthday concert was at Knuckleheads Saloon; she shared the stage with Samantha Fish and Mike Zito. Her final performance was at Jardine’s with the Wild Women in July 2011. She died later that year.
Assesandro first met Taylor as he was producing low-budget films in Hollywood decades ago. Taylor walked in and boldly asked to audition. She stated that she had learned of the audition from her friend, the actress Dorothy Dandridge. Impressed with her ambition, chutzpah and talent, he didn’t let on that Dandridge had died years before. That meeting began a lifelong friendship between the two and spurred in him a real interest in telling her story.
It was when Assesandro met with Conrad Pope, a music arranger, and Dawayne Gilley, Taylor’s manager for her last 13 years, that it was decided to produce Taylor’s life on stage rather than film — “a play with music,” perhaps a one-woman show, and Cox and Williams came on board.
All are now busy preparing for a summer workshop on the play, titled “All For a Song,” and a possible late fall premiere at KC Melting Pot. Next they will work to expand the play’s exposure and production nationwide.
Pope describes Taylor as “a force of nature.” She suffered through Hitler and Jim Crow. She was often taken advantage of but never became bitter. In Pope’s words, she lived “a life of great adversity that never diminished her joy.” She performed in more than 30 countries to audiences that included tribesmen and royalty.
Bringing her back to life in Kansas City in “All For a Song” just seems right. As Taylor herself once put it, “I always say I’m a swing singer. A swing singer with rhythm. And I got my rhythm right here in Kansas City.”