How Drummer Alvin Taylor Discovered His Passion for Music

Responsible for the bang, thwack, thump at the heart of songs by Elton John, Little Richard, and Diana Ross, drummer Alvin Taylor tapped his passion as a kid growing up in Palm Springs.

Maggie Downs Arts & Entertainment

Alvin Taylor with his custom Warlock drum set.

Alvin Taylor sat crouched on a curb in Palm Springs when he discovered his life’s purpose.

It was sometime in the late 1950s. Taylor was about 5 years old. (He’s admittedly bad with dates.) The whole town had gathered along Palm Canyon Drive to watch the Desert Circus parade. Little boy Taylor hunkered down on the street curb, waiting for the festivities to start. There was energy in the air, the crackle of anticipation.

Finally, it was time. About a mile up the road, the marching band began to play. He knew it by the whistles and cheers. As the musicians moved closer, Taylor felt the heavy thud of each beat. His shirt practically vibrated with the sound. He felt his pulse quicken. His breath caught. His heart thumped along — boom, boom, boom.

“I could see the drum major with the big hat, and I heard the sound of the drums. Right then, I knew that’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” Taylor recalls. “That was all I ever wanted to do.”

Alvin Taylor couldn’t have known it then, but he’d go on to be discovered by Little Richard, open for Elvis Presley, fly on private jets with Elton John, and perform with Billy Preston on the premiere episode of Saturday Night Live. All he knew for certain on that sunny day at the Desert Circus parade was that he felt the beat, as if for the first time, and it would become an essential part of his life from that moment forward.

Taylor’s Warlock drum set is composed of 74 pieces. When other companies tried to get him to adjust his playing style to their prefabricated kits, this brand reached out and offered to customize the placement of each component to Taylor’s specifications.

When Alvin Taylor gets behind the drums, he puts every ounce of his body into it. Though he admits to slowing with age, his movements still seem to be faster than the eye can process. He sits, stands, whistles, and hammers with the might you’d expect of someone who counted Elvis and Little Richard among his fans. 

“Alvin, you live here?”

When Taylor strides onto a coffee shop patio in downtown Palm Springs, it’s laden with tourists posing for Instagram photos and shooting TikToks. Nobody stops to gawk at the seasoned drummer in a dapper patterned button-down and shiny leather jacket, even though he has Presence with a capital P. At 71, he’s lean and sleek, with a face that’s almost all smile. His voice is warm, like an embrace.

This is Alvin Taylor now, not far from the place on Palm Canyon Drive where he first discovered what he wanted to do with his life. He orders a caramel macchiato and settles into a seat next to Delia Ruiz, the girl who caught his eye back in third grade. He used to tease her that he was going to marry her someday. Decades later, they reconnected, and she became his bride.

Palm Springs has a long history of affluence, and then there are the people who take care of the affluent folks. Taylor came from the latter group. His dad was a carpenter — “he built half the town,” as the drummer tells it — and his mom was a maid for well-heeled clients including Lucille Ball.

This was a time when stars casually popped up in unexpected places. Taylor remembers selling a newspaper to John Lennon and riding a dune buggy with Steve McQueen. Ruiz recalls running into Frank Sinatra eating ice cream with Yul Brynner at Baskin-Robbins. And then there was the everyday glamour, as the well-to-do would cruise down Palm Canyon Drive in their shiny, fancy cars.

Armando’s Bar

“That was the fun of hanging out in Palm Springs, just kicking back and watching the big cars pass by,” Taylor remembers with a smile. “As a little boy I was like, ‘One day I’m gonna have me a Mercedes-Benz and live in a castle in the Hollywood Hills.’ And sure enough, I did.”

Taylor was always filled with big dreams, says Jan Alejandro, who has known him since childhood. He tells a story to illustrate the point: After one of their Little League Baseball games, the coach offered to drive all the kids home in his pickup truck. When asked where he lived, Taylor gave an address in an upscale neighborhood.

“It wasn’t quite a mansion, but it was a giant house,” Alejandro remembers. “I knew where Alvin lived, but I didn’t say anything. So the coach drops him off at this big-ass house, and all the kids were surprised like, ‘Whoa, Alvin, you live here?’ ”

Taylor walked up to the door as if he belonged.

“The truck takes off, and all the kids are talking, just amazed at Alvin’s house,” Alejandro says. “But I looked back and saw Alvin hop the fence, starting to walk back home.”

Until 1962, Taylor and his four siblings lived in Section 14, a neighborhood named for the numbered plot of land that was part of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians Reservation. During a time of segregation, the community was one of the few places in town where people of color were allowed to live. As the city grew, and it became clear the land could be used for more lucrative ventures, Section 14 was razed and ultimately developed as an expansion of the downtown area.

Armando’s Bar

The forced relocation had a profound effect on the family. Taylor’s father and mother separated. The children ended up in Las Vegas with their dad for a bit, then returned to Palm Springs with their mom, where they found a home in North Palm Springs. “It was traumatic, and for a long time, people didn’t acknowledge how traumatic it was,” Taylor says.

Music was Taylor’s safe space, like a loved one standing on a porch to welcome him home.

After watching that marching band parade down Palm Canyon Drive, Taylor set out to master the sticks, jumping behind a drum kit whenever he had the chance. Even at church. Every Sunday, Taylor attended a Pentecostal church with his mother. During service, congregants were often moved by the Holy Spirit. One week, the church drummer left his post to dance down the aisle. Taylor was so moved by his own spirit, he leapt onto the stage and grabbed the drumsticks.

“I saw my opportunity, and I took it,” he says, laughing. He describes the moment as going into a trance. Without any formal training, somehow, he knew what to do.

Taylor’s Warlock drum set is composed of 74 pieces. When other companies tried to get him to adjust his playing style to their prefabricated kits, this brand reached out and offered to customize the placement of each component to Taylor’s specifications.
Alvin Taylor.

Taylor’s Warlock drum set is composed of 74 pieces. When other companies tried to get him to adjust his playing style to their prefabricated kits, this brand reached out and offered to customize the placement of each component to Taylor’s specifications.

Taylor was good. His mother knew it. The other churchgoers knew it. And so they allowed him to keep playing after the service.

That propelled him into the band at Palm Springs High School and into rock and funk bands formed with his friends. Finally, Taylor was passed a literal baton, becoming a drum major for the marching band like he’d always imagined.

“Music gave us something to look forward to, and it gave us a reason to keep going,” says Alejandro, who played in several bands with Taylor. “It wasn’t always easy, but music helped us keep our dreams and believe that anything was possible.”

“My big toe shot straight up”

Anything was indeed possible. How else could you explain what happened next?

Taylor had worked his way up the ranks at The Biltmore, a popular hotel in Palm Springs, first as a dishwasher, then he became a busboy. He noticed the drummer of the hotel band, Soul Patrol, often got too drunk to keep the beat, so he talked the band into letting him play in between restaurant shifts.

The set is estimated at $50,000.

The set is estimated at $50,000.

One day, Taylor was at the drums when a mighty quartet strolled into the joint: Frank Sinatra, along with Sammy Davis Jr., keyboardist Billy Preston, and rock ’n’ roll pioneer Little Richard.

After his set with the hotel band, Taylor bussed a few tables and was back in the kitchen when Little Richard cornered him.

As Taylor tells the story, “He was screaming and yelling, ‘Where are you from?’ I said Palm Springs, and he squealed, ‘Oh my God, a little wizard from Palm Springs!’ ”

Armando’s Bar

Taylor with with bassist Leland Sklar and Australian singer-songwriter Billy Thorpe.

He does a Little Richard impression when he explains what happened next: “This man says to me, ‘I’m Little Richard, and I’m the innovator, the emancipator, the originator, the architect of rock ’n’ roll. And I ain’t never seen anyone like you since I left Macon. When I saw you play those drums, my big toe shot straight up in my boot, and I wanted to screeeeam like a white lady.’ ”

He wanted Taylor to be the drummer for his band. But first, the idea had to pass muster with Taylor’s mom, who said, “Absolutely not.”

Little Richard’s manager, Bumps Blackwell, assured Taylor’s mother that he would receive a tutor on the road, as well as a bodyguard, and would be under constant adult supervision. The money was also good. She relented.

The tour was a whirlwind, practicing in the same Hollywood building as The Jackson 5, opening for Elvis at the International Hotel in Las Vegas (now Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino). The band was tight, with Billy Preston on the organ, a guy on guitar named Jimmy James (later known as Jimi Hendrix), and an 18-piece orchestra. Wherever they went, they pulled celebrities into their orbit, from world leaders to football players, Ann-Margret to Burt Reynolds. Beyond the thrill of it all, the experience nourished Taylor.

“It was a real family, because Richard took great care of me,” Taylor says. “He was more like a big brother or a kind of father figure.”

The whole situation was so unlikely, says songwriter Billy Steinberg, a childhood friend of the Taylor kids. Steinberg himself achieved the seemingly impossible — the son of a table grape farmer in Thermal who went on to  pen such enduring  pop hits as “Like a Virgin” for Madonna, “True Colors” for Cyndi Lauper, and “Eternal Flame” for The Bangles (alongside writing partner Tom Kelly).

Armando’s Bar

Taylor at the barbershop.

“It’s like something out of a movie. Alvin accomplished a miracle,” Steinberg says. “To be a 14-year-old Black kid in Palm Springs, which was very segregated, who becomes a world-famous drummer, that’s a stunning achievement.”

“Taking you on a journey”

When Little Richard went on hiatus, Billy Preston helped Taylor move into session work. That’s when Taylor got a real toehold in the business, working with heavy hitters like Rick James, Stevie Wonder, and Diana Ross, and booking  gig after gig.

“You’ve got to be an awfully gifted musician,” Steinberg says. “There’s only room for a few, because everybody wants the best. Nobody wants the 33rd best drummer in Los Angeles.”


Taylor joined The Eric Burdon Band after Burdon left War and appears on the throbbing rock album Sun Secrets. He went out on the road to support Leo Sayer’s “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing” single and caught the attention of Elton John’s producer, who arranged for Taylor to play on the albums 21 at 33 and The Fox. He was welcomed into Sly and the Family Stone for the album Back on the Right Track.

“Being an independent person, I never really wanted to be in just one band,” Taylor says. “Instead, I was in many bands.”

Taylor played on George Harrison’s Thirty Three & ⅓  album, recorded at Harrison’s sprawling Friar Park estate in England. It proved to be an immersive experience that transformed Taylor’s drumming style.

George Harrison approached things from more of a movie director point of view than a musician, and he made you feel like you were a very special part of making this movie. First, he would describe his vision, what the movie was about, the picture he was trying to create with his songs,” Taylor says. “I had never had that before. With other sessions, it was like, ‘One, two, here we go. Oh, do do, do do do,’ and that was it. But George was taking you on a journey. It changed the way I play.”

Armando’s Bar

Taylor with his wife, Delia Ruiz, and their dog, named Taylor Taylor. 

There was a stint in the 1980s when Taylor left music, returning to Palm Springs to run a security company that patrolled private residences and local banks.

“I wanted to feel normal for a while, because I’d left home so young and never had that experience of clocking in for a day of work,” he says. Normal was fun for a bit, he laughs, “But then I needed to go back to L.A. and get in some trouble.”

He did get into some trouble. Typical rock star stuff. Drugs, alcohol. But Taylor doesn’t like to linger on that. He’s sober now and sees only a clear path ahead. He launched an artist development company called ATM Productions, returned to the Palm Springs area about a decade ago, and has found the balance between normalcy and the spotlight.

“Since the pandemic, I thought to myself, I don’t need to be on the road,” he says, then smiles at his wife. “I keep thinking about how wonderful it is sleeping in my bed with my sweetheart and my little dog.”

Still, Taylor stays busy. He was the focus of a recent special that aired on Sirus XM radio called 1, 2, 3, 4. He’s involved with the nonprofit Raven Drum Foundation, which supports trauma survivors through drum circles and other programming. And he will be sharing his own story in a forthcoming memoir, tentatively titled From Drum Major to Major Drummer.

The drummer poses in a Little Richard–inspired ensemble. Ruiz hand-placed every rhinestone.
The drummer poses in a Little Richard–inspired ensemble. Ruiz hand-placed every rhinestone.

The drummer poses in a Little Richard–inspired ensemble. Ruiz hand-placed every rhinestone.

It’s part of a larger trend of session musicians finally getting their due. Recent years have brought several documentaries focused on the artists behind the artists, like Immediate Family on the Los Angeles session musicians who played on legendary tracks in the 1970s and ’80s; The Wrecking Crew, about the band that provided backup for Sinatra, The Beach Boys, and Bing Crosby; and Standing in the Shadows of Motown, on the Detroit musicians behind the Motown stars.

“I’ve played on so many albums, but most people don’t turn over the sleeve and look at who the drummer was. They just listen to the music,” he says. “I’m a well-known drummer but not necessarily a well-known name. But in the end, it’s the music that matters.”

the location

Commissioned in 1948 by America’s Sweetheart, the rustic Mary Pickford Estate sprawls across 2.12 acres in the historic B Bar H Ranch neighborhood of Desert Hot Springs. Book a stay here through Airbnb or VRBO. Search for “Mary Pickford Estate.”