B.E. Taylor never intended to become a Christmas specialist.
The Aliquippa native was a pop rock singer throughout the 1970s and '80s, hitting the charts several times as the leader of The B.E. Taylor Group with such singles as "Vitamin L." Then he had a Billboard Music award-winning Christian music-themed TV show, "Lightmusic," in the 1990s.
But today Taylor, 57, is best known for his Christmas albums and tours, which he has taken on the road through western Pennsylvania and northern West Virginia for the past 15 years. His eclectic interpretations of classic Christmas music draw tens of thousands of listeners each December and last year's concert was recorded and played on PBS in more than 150 markets nationwide. (The concert will be shown again this holiday season; check local listings.)
"If you would've talked to me 20 years ago, and said, 'What will you be doing 20 years from now?' I'd have had a long list of things," Taylor said in a recent phone interview. "But have a Christmas album and tour around the country ... I don't think that would've been on the list.
"I couldn't have planned this on my best day."
The B.E. Taylor Christmas Concert will visit the Jaffa Shrine Center in Altoona at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Heinz Hall in Pittsburgh at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 12-13. At the Jaffa show, Taylor will be joined by the both the adult and children's choirs of the Blair Concert Chorale and the Altoona Area High School band's drumline.
If you go
What: B.E. Taylor Christmas Concert, with the Blair Concert Chorale and the AAHS band drumline
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Jaffa Shrine Center, Altoona
Tickets: $22, $25 and 28; Tickets available at www.ticketmaster.com or by calling 944-4043
The Altoona concert is being sponsored by Imler's Poultry.
"This is our first-ever food expo that we're having on the day of the 7th, open only to our wholesale customers," Keith McQuillen, director of purchasing and marketing, said. "But we chose a Christmas theme and we were looking for Christmas-related entertainment and heard about B.E. Taylor and his Christmas concerts."
Though the food expo is open only to Imler's wholesale customers, the concert is open to the public, and the response to the show has been great, McQuillen said.
"It's been positive," he said. "There are people from western Pennsylvania that live in this area and know of his work.
"We've had a great reaction from our customers about the expo, and we're already talking about doing something similar next year."
McQuillen also said Imler's will be hosting a Toys for Tots drive during the evening of the concert.
Taylor was just a "tot" himself when he began singing professionally.
"I've been singing just about all my life," he said. "I started playing small bars when I was in junior high school. That blossomed into building a fanbase in western Pennsylvania and in the panhandle of West Virginia."
After The B.E. Taylor Group broke up, Taylor "did a lot of session work," but at the same time he began to put together a solo album, "B.E. Taylor Christmas." The record included holiday standards like "Joy to the World," "What Child Is This?" and "Little Drummer Boy" - but the songs were given unique twists. There was a little blues, a little rock, even a little reggae.
"There's just all these different styles of music and I said 'If it bombs, I have myself to blame,'" Taylor said. "But it didn't bomb."
On the contrary, 1994's "B.E. Taylor Christmas" was a regional hit and two years later, he gave what was supposed to be a one-time live performance of the album at a small West Virginia venue.
"It started in Wheeling, W.Va., in a 2,500-seat theater, and it's grown into doing two shows at Heinz Hall," Taylor said.
One of the draws of Taylor's Christmas music - he released a second holiday album, "B.E. Taylor Christmas 2," in 2000 and is working on a third - is his unique interpretations of the music.
"I'll hear a song, and in my mind I'll hear an arrangement," he said. "When I hear a song, I can hear right away, 'Oh, I'll play it like this.'
"Someone in an interview said, 'I love the way you 'Taylorize' songs' and I said, 'I like that, can I use that?'" he added with a laugh.
Since his Christmas success began, Taylor has also released two solo albums of love songs and a patriotic music album. In 2010, conductor Marvin Hamlisch and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra built a series of performances around Taylor's patriotic song arrangements. He's also performed the national anthem and has served as halftime entertainment for at least one Pittsburgh Steelers game for the past 11 seasons (this year, he'll perform at the Steelers' Christmas Eve game against the St. Louis Rams).
But other successes haven't dimmed his fervor for his Christmas concerts.
"Every show that we do is the most important show," Taylor said. "I tell the guys, 'Let's perform like they've never seen us before and like they'll never see us again.'"
For the Jaffa concert, however, it's entirely possible that those attendees have seen him before; Taylor says he's very familiar with the area.
"In the earliest part of my career, we'd play Hollidaysburg at little clubs, we'd play at Penn State, at Johnstown, Portage - all those places," he said. "I look at all that as just fond memories. Some people may remember us and some people may not.
"We're really looking forward to coming to Altoona. Hopefully the people we performed for over the last 30 years will come to the show."
Mirror Staff Writer Keith Frederick is at 946-7466.