As a three-time Grammy-nominated American recording artist and songwriter who performed a wide variety of genres, from blues, rhythm and blues, soul, and gospel to pop, doo-wop and disco, this singer somehow always managed to adapt to the times, and he parlayed that versatility into a recording career that spanned forty-six years.
We are talking about the singer Johnnie Taylor, not “Little Johnny Taylor” (some folks still get them mixed up, Little Johnny Taylor was best known for his scorching slow blues smashes “Part Time Love” (for Bay Area-based Galaxy Records).
When the national hits dried up, Taylor wound up as one of the most prolific artists on the Malaco label, a refuge for many Southern soul and blues veterans whose styles had fallen out of popular favor by the ’80s.
Nicknamed the “Philosopher of Soul” during his Stax days, Johnnie Taylor definitely lived up to that title. He may be best remembered for his 1968 R&B chart-topping smash “Who’s Making Love,” but far and away his biggest success was 1976’s across-the-board number one “Disco Lady,” the first single ever certified platinum (which at the time meant sales of over two million copies).
1966 Rome Wasn’t Built In A Day
1968 Who’s Making Love
1976 Disco Lady / Soul Train TV Show
1976 – On the Merv Griffin Show
Wall To Wall – Johnnie Taylor
Stormy Monday Medley – Johnnie Taylor
Medley with Bobby “Blue” Bland, Bobby Rush and Johnnie Taylor
Johnnie Harrison Taylor was born in Crawfordsville, Arkansas on May 5, 1934 (though he usually gave his birth year as 1938).
The son of Ida Mae Jackson and the youngest of three siblings, Johnnie was raised by his grandmother in West Memphis (Crittenden County). She was religious and made sure he attended church regularly. He made his church singing debut at age six, and inspired by both gospel and the blues, he decided at a young age that he wanted to make a living by singing.
Taylor moved to Kansas City, Missouri, at age ten with his grandmother, and during his teen years, sang with a gospel quartet, the Melody Kings. They occasionally opened for the famous, highly influential gospel group, the Soul Stirrers, whose young lead singer, Sam Cooke, befriended Taylor.
By 1953, Taylor left home and moved to Chicago, Illinois, and was singing with the doo-wop group the Five Echoes, with whom he made his first recordings on the VeeJay label.
Shortly afterward, he also began singing with the Highway QCs, a long-running, popular gospel quartet in which Cooke and Lou Rawls had previously been members.
The QCs made their recording debut in 1955 on Chicago’s Chance label with Taylor singing lead on “Somewhere to Lay My Head,” which made the group a nationwide gospel attraction.
Johnnie’s singing at that time was strikingly close to that of Sam Cooke’s, and in 1957 when Cooke left the Soul Stirrers, Taylor was chosen to be Cooke’s replacement. While a member of the that group, he became an ordained minister and preached his first sermon at Fellowship Baptist Church in Chicago.
After an automobile accident in which he ran over a little girl in 1960, Taylor was booted from the Soul Stirrers and went to Los Angeles, California, intending to preach full time.
In 1961, however, Cooke signed him as the first artist on his new SAR label, and Taylor, still stinging from being kicked out of the Soul Stirrers and determined to find his place in the music marketplace, began recording secular music.
His first solo single was “A Whole Lot of Woman” in 1961 (also recorded by Sam Cooke).
Another notable early R&B recording was “Rome (Wasn’t Built in a Day)” (1962)
In 1963 “Baby We’ve Got Love” was his first song to appear on Billboard magazine’s Top 100 chart.
Tragically in 1964 Sam Cooke was shot and killed. This left Johnnie with just a few singles on the SAR label and no longer with a record deal. SAR Records quickly became defunct after Cooke’s death.
In 1965, Taylor returned to Memphis, Tennessee and in 1966 he signed with Stax Records, where Stax executive, Al Bell of North Little Rock (Pulaski County), dubbed him the “Philosopher of Soul.”
At Stax, Taylor polished his musical style, which combined gospel, R&B, and blues, as well as his flamboyant appearance, and he proceeded to become one of the label’s top-selling performers, outselling such big stars as Otis Redding and Carla Thomas.
Johnnie recorded with the label’s house band (which included Booker T. & the MGs).
He had a prolific run on the R&B charts, beginning with “I Had A Dream” (1966).
His first song on the Stax label to break the pop Top 100 was “Somebody’s Sleeping in My Bed” (1967).
“I’ve Got to Love Somebody’s Baby”
In 1968, Taylor had his first major crossover pop and R&B hit with a funk/soul song “Who’s Making Love,” which reached No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and No. 1 on the R&B chart in 1968.
“Who’s Making Love” sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc. This success enabled Taylor to hire a superb, permanent touring band for the first time in his career, and he became a major performer on the “Chitlin’ Circuit” all across the South.
Subsequent hits included “Take Care of Your Homework” (1969), “Jody’s Got Your Girl and Gone” (1971) which reached No. 23 on the Hot 100 chart,
“I Believe in You (You Believe in Me)” (1972),
and “Cheaper to Keep Her” (1973).
By this time, he had perfected his style of smooth, soulful crooning, which incorporated gospel, blues, and soul.
In 1970, Taylor married Gerlean Rocket and they remained married until his death in 2000.
Record producer Don Davis’s 1972 hit “I Believe in You (You Believe in Me)” also sold in excess of one million copies. It reached No. 11 on the Hot 100 chart, and was awarded gold disc status by the R.I.A.A. in October 1973.
Taylor, along with Isaac Hayes and The Staple Singers, was one of the Stax label’s flagship artists, who were credited for keeping the company afloat in the late 1960s and early 1970s after the death of its biggest star, Otis Redding, in an aviation accident. He appeared in the documentary film, Wattstax, which was released in 1973.
When Stax Records went bankrupt in 1975, Taylor signed with CBS/Columbia Records, where he recorded his biggest success.
In 1976, with Don Davis still in charge of production, he released his first CBS album, titled Eargasm, which contained his biggest hit, “Disco Lady,” which went to number one on both the R&B and pop charts and became the first single ever to be certified platinum, selling more than two million copies. It spent four weeks at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and six weeks at the top of the R&B chart. It peaked at #25 in the UK Singles Chart.
Disco Lady (long version)
In May 1976 “Disco Lady” was the first certified platinum single (two million copies sold) by the RIAA. CBS pushed him to record more tunes in the disco genre, not taking advantage of the full range of his talent.
Taylor recorded several more successful albums and R&B single hits with Davis on Columbia, before Brad Shapiro took over production duties, but record sales generally fell away so Taylor began to look for another label.
In 1982, Taylor signed with a small independent label in Los Angeles, Beverly Glen Records and got back on the R & B charts with “What About My Love.”
After a short stay at Beverly Glen Records, Taylor signed with Malaco Records when the company’s founder Tommy Couch and producing partner Wolf Stephenson heard him sing at blues singer Z. Z. Hill’s funeral in spring 1984.
Johnnie became one of Malaco’s most popular artists.
Backed by members of The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, as well as in-house veterans such as former Stax keyboardist Carson Whitsett and guitarist/bandleader Bernard Jenkins, Malaco gave Taylor the type of recording freedom that Stax had given him in the late 1960s and early 1970s, enabling him to record ten albums for the label in his 16-year stint.
He released a succession of hit R&B albums for the label, beginning with This Is Your Night.
In 1996, Taylor’s eighth album for Malaco, Good Love!, reached number one on the Billboard Top Blues Albums chart (#15 R&B), and was the biggest record in Malaco’s history. With this success, Malaco recorded a live video of Taylor at the Longhorn Ballroom in Dallas, Texas, in the summer of 1997. The club portion of the Good Love video was recorded at 1001 Nightclub in Jackson, Mississippi.
Taylor released his final album, Gotta Get the Groove Back, in 1999. In that same year, he was given a Pioneer Award by the Rhythm and Blues Foundation.
Taylor’s final song was “Soul Heaven“, in which he dreamed of being at a concert featuring deceased African-American music icons from Louis Armstrong to Otis Redding to Z.Z. Hill to The Notorious B.I.G., among others.
In the 1980s, Johnnie Taylor was a DJ on KKDA-AM, a radio station in the Dallas area, where he had made his home. The station’s format was mostly R&B and Soul oldies and their on-the-air personalities were often local R&B, Soul, blues, and jazz musicians. Taylor was billed as “The Wailer, Johnnie Taylor”.
1989 – Live in Dallas / 1. Who’s Makin’ Love 2. Little Bluebird 3. It’s Still Called The Blues
Last Two Dollars
Johnnie Taylor died of a heart attack at Charlton Methodist Hospital in Dallas, Texas, on May 31, 2000, aged 66. He was buried beside his mother, Ida Mae Taylor, at Forrest Hill Cemetery in Kansas City, Missouri.
.. was making love to your old lady, while you were out making love
Taylor’s highly complex personal life was revealed after his death, with 6 accepted children and 3 others with confirmed paternity born to three different mothers, and the difficulties associated with executing his will were presented in the TV programme “The Will: Family Secrets Revealed: The Estate of Johnnie Taylor”. (Season 2, Episode 5. November 16, 2011).