Morgan Taylor, Inventive Children’s Performer, Dies at 52
Morgan Taylor, a children’s performer who with fanciful songs and hand-drawn animation drew youngsters into the world of Gustafer Yellowgold, a saffron-colored explorer from the sun who shared a house with an eel and enjoyed music by a rock band made up of bees, died on Aug. 11 in Miamisburg, Ohio, near Dayton. He was 52.
His death, in a hospital, was caused by sepsis, said his wife, Rachel Loshak. Mr. Taylor, who lived in Chatham, N.Y., was visiting family and friends in Ohio when he became ill.
First in his native Ohio and then, beginning in 1999, in New York City, Mr. Taylor toiled for years in relative obscurity as a guitarist in minor rock bands and a sound engineer. Occasionally, for his own amusement, he would record nutty songs he’d written. About 20 years ago, his wife, a singer-songwriter, suggested he try writing a children’s book, and he went back and gave those nutty, just-for-him songs another listen.
“I had accidentally built this entire universe in these scattered pieces that all fit together as I wrote song after song over the years,” he told The Philadelphia Daily News in 2011. “All I had to do was shake the sieve.”
One ditty in particular, “I’m From the Sun,” inspired him to create Gustafer Yellowgold, whom Mr. Taylor introduced in 2005 in a CD and DVD, both called “Gustafer Yellowgold’s Wide Wild World.” He developed a stage show to go with that release, singing songs from the record while animated videos he had made played on a screen.
Mr. Taylor said his Gustafer songs and stories — two of his albums received Grammy nominations — were “about the roller coaster childhood can be.”
The target audience was younger children, but Mr. Taylor was nothing at all like Raffi or the Wiggles. His songs had a rock sensibility and, he hoped, wouldn’t make parents cringe.
“It’s really for adults,” he said in 2011, “and it’s really for people who enjoy humor and absurdity and good pop music.”
He performed his Gustafer shows all over the country, including at Symphony Space in Manhattan, where Darren Critz, the director of performing arts programs, was always glad to book him.
“Morgan’s music, through Gustafer Yellowgold, reflected everything a parent could dream to see in their kids’ lives: joy, a love for life, creativity, wonder, and even a touch of rebellion,” Mr. Critz said by email. “All of it encouraged kids just to be who they were, and to never stop growing into who they wanted to become. What a great gift for parents to be able to share these ideals with their kids through music, rather than a pep talk that would inevitably bring about toddler-style eye-rolls.”
Mr. Taylor released a series of Gustafer CDs and DVDs over the years, and they grew more ambitious as they went along. “Gustafer Yellowgold’s Infinity Sock” (2011), his fourth release, was the first to have a narrative thread (Gustafer searches for the toe end of the longest sock in the universe), which carried through all 10 songs.
“For me it’s easy to make up stuff that’s freaky and funny,” he told The Dayton Daily News of Ohio that year. “The challenge is to pull it into some semblance of organization, so I thought it was important to have a plot. It was a good challenge for me because it’s easy to be absurd, but I wanted it to be absurd and linear.”
Mr. Taylor’s songs were full of colorful word juxtapositions — one was called “Wisconsin Poncho,” another “Melter Swelter” — and the kind of absurd plotting that makes perfect sense to a child. The song and video “Gravy Insane,” for instance, told the story of a family of bats that was adept at making gravy and had to establish an impromptu gravy store on the roadside when its gravy-laden truck jackknifed (“’cause bats can’t drive,” the lyric explained) and the spilled cargo drew a crowd.
“Gravy Insane” appeared on “Dark Pie Concerns,” a 2015 Gustafer release that was nominated for a Grammy Award for best children’s album. “Brighter Side,” released in 2017, was also nominated.
Morgan Andrew Taylor was born on Sept. 5, 1969, in Kettering, Ohio, near Dayton, to Gordon and Elizabeth (Young) Taylor. At his memorial service on Aug. 18 at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Dayton, among the stories told about him was one that noted his ability, as a child, to imitate an assortment of sounds convincingly. His version of the end-of-the-period school bell was so accurate that he would sometimes get his class dismissed early by employing it, leaving whichever teacher he victimized baffled as to why no other classes were funneling into the hallways as Mr. Taylor and his classmates were sent on their way.
He graduated from Kettering High School and attended a local college for a time, though he never completed a degree. More formative than classroom learning, he said, was his discovery in 1988 of the Minnesota rock band Trip Shakespeare.
“I was completely blown away and became obsessed with their music,” he told The Pioneer Press of St. Paul, Minn., in 2011. The infatuation is why, when he developed Gustafer’s origin story years later, he had the creature arrive on Earth by landing in a Minnesota lake.
After playing in bands in Ohio, Mr. Taylor moved to New York in 1999. He found a job as a sound engineer at the Living Room, a Lower East Side club that showcased local musicians. Ms. Loshak sometimes performed there, and, as Mr. Taylor recounted to The New York Times in 2006, one night “she stayed after her gig, and we talked, and all of a sudden the sun was coming up and we were kissing on a street corner.”
They married in 2004. In addition to his wife, he is survived by their two sons, Harvey and Ridley; his mother; a brother, Grant; and a sister, Ann Wiseman.
Mr. Taylor built Gustafer Yellowgold into a modest franchise, which included plush toys he designed. He also had a radio show on WKNY in Kingston, N.Y., and had recently created a podcast about Trip Shakespeare.
Jim Munson, that group’s bassist, memorialized Mr. Taylor in a statement.
“He made the realities of growing up less scary for all of us,” he said, “parents and children alike.”