The Beat Goes On

Every musician faces a share of nerve-rattling challenges. But playing a first-ever sax solo onstage at New Jersey’s Meadowlands arena, backing Bruce Springsteen on “Born to Run,” with E Street Band sax hero Clarence Clemons looking on from behind the monitors? Franklinite Crystal Taliefero may be the only one to leap that particular hurdle.

“I almost died,” she says almost twenty years later, invigorated—but still awed—by the memory, a standout from her year-long early ’90s stint as a multi-instrumentalist in the Boss’s band.

Springsteen popped the challenge on Taliefero in the dressing room before the show, she says, and in two hours, she’d have to figure out how to “walk on that stage and not get booed,” standing in what was traditionally “Big Man” Clemons’ spotlight. She’d taught herself sax in her Gary, Indiana, youth, spurred (and a little shoved) by older brother/fellow musician Charles. But she focused on vocals, percussion, and guitar with Springsteen, and, “I never played a sax solo in my life, ever. I had no rehearsal with the band. I just had to do it. In Jersey.”

Taliefero resolved to “defuse the threat,” she says. “They’re expecting to see tenor saxophone. Tenor saxophone belongs to the Big Man, period. Don’t even go there. Don’t even go with a baritone sax. You better come in with a flute—a wooden flute. I transposed it on the alto (sax). By the time the audience got their bearings, the solo was over. I was done. I didn’t get booed. I looked over at the Big Man, and he said, ‘That’s pretty clever.’ He knew exactly what I was doing.”

While it was one of the biggest, that sax solo certainly wasn’t the first major musical challenge for Taliefero, whose decades-strong career as a background singer and instrument-swapping sidewoman has included stints with John Mellencamp, Faith Hill, Bob Seger, and, for some twenty-plus years now, pop titan Billy Joel. If Taliefero’s career has a defining characteristic, it might be that her comfort zone has become eschewing a comfort zone.

That tendency traces back to her early musical days, as the small-town-raised, pop-minded, and then-classically untrained Taliefero was auditioning for Indiana University’s respected—and more jazz- and classical-oriented—music program. “I came in there with a dream, with a long shot,’” says Taliefero, who showed up for the audition with a boom box and home-recorded cassette as accompaniment.

“I walk in there, and they said, ‘Where’s your accompanist?’ I said, ‘I don’t know what an accompanist is, but I’ve got this boom box.’ When I got done it was complete silence. Finally someone said, ‘We’ll give you a call.’” Taliefero braced for disappointment but found a probationary acceptance letter—with a minimum grade point average requirement for her first semester—in the mailbox a few weeks later.

“All of a sudden I got smart,” Taliefero says. “I got a 3.8 [GPA]. I was on the dean’s list. Something happens when everything is on the line and you have no choice—either you’re gonna make it or you’re gonna die.”

That mindset carried Taliefero over more than a few other high hurdles throughout her long, bold, name-studded career. “I learned how to be a soldier,” she says. “I learned how to get thick skin, all the tools that I needed in order to be able to survive as long as I have.”

Taliefero put her well-practiced adaptability to use after moving to Nashville in the mid ’90s, parlaying her line of rock jobs into stints with major country names, including Brooks & Dunn and Garth Brooks (during his Chris Gaines alter ego days). But the process of becoming a Nashvillian didn’t come without its challenges either.

Spurred by Springsteen to pursue her own music, Taliefero left New York to find fresh inspiration, a place to launch a studio, make music, and pursue a production career. She tried Los Angeles (“I just didn’t like that environment”), Florida (too few young people) and Austin (too transient), then made her way to Atlanta, into an open mic at an R&B/hip-hop club. “I go in there and sit down with my acoustic guitar,” she says, “and I get heckled. Wrong club.”

The Atlanta sting still fresh, Taliefero moved on to the last stop on her list: Nashville and the Bluebird Café. “I got in there, I started playing and it was quiet,” she says. “I didn’t hear boos, [but] I got so nervous that I got to the bridge and I went I’m sorry, my mind just stopped. I didn’t remember the bridge because I knew I’d be done before then. I started over, and at the end of the song I got a standing ovation.”

Now a longtime Middle Tennessean, Taliefero still tours with Joel and others, but she’s working to focus on home more these days, producing work for young artists, readying her own debut album (which she aims to release before 2012 is out) and spending more time with ten-year-old daughter Kadee. Looking back, she wouldn’t remove a single hurdle.

“It’s made me who I am now, and it’s unique,” she says. “I am so grateful. I wouldn’t change a thing. What an exciting way to learn.”

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