Johnnie Taylor reportedly was born May 3, 1934, in Crawfordsville (Crittenden County), although he always claimed to be four years younger. He was raised in West Memphis by his grandmother. Like Lee County native Al Green and Sam Cooke, who was called Taylor’s mentor, Taylor got his start singing gospel in church.
But early on, Taylor also sang doo-wop with the Five Echoes, who recorded for the Vee-Jay and Chance record labels in the early 1950s. He also sang with two of the most influential gospel groups — the Highway QCs, and, in the late 1950s, the Soul Stirrers, where Taylor replaced Cooke. That group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989.
Both the Highway QCs and the Soul Stirrers had been around for years before Taylor joined them, and they existed for years afterward. Although gospel in nature, both groups played big roles in the development of R&B and rock music. Their emotionally charged performances added doses of the sexual into the sacred and blurred the lines of religious and secular music.
In the early 1960s, Taylor followed Cooke into secular music and signed with Cooke’s SAR label. Taylor enjoyed his first solo success in 1962, with “Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day,” obviously influenced by Cooke.
But Cooke’s murder in December 1964 left Taylor looking for a recording contract. Taylor claimed he flipped a coin to decide whether to try for Motown Records in Detroit or Stax Records in Memphis. The choice was Stax, by then headed up by Brinkley-born Al Bell, and it proved a good one for both Taylor and the label. From his first Stax single in February 1966, “I Had a Dream,” until the label folded in the mid-1970s, Taylor was among the most successful of Stax artists. At Stax, he gained the nickname “Philosopher of Soul.” Taylor also referred to himself in song as “J.T.”
In the fall of 1968, he cut “Who’s Making Love?,” a song Taylor initially disliked, calling it “the boogity-boogity song,” but surely he liked the song better after “Who’s Making Love?” sold 2 million copies, reached No. 1 on the R&B charts and No. 5 on the pop charts, and was nominated for a Grammy Award. Like so many of Taylor’s songs, the lyric was directed toward cheaters and asked, “Who’s making love to your old lady while you were out making love?” The song became Stax’s biggest single to date as well as Taylor’s signature song, and it was covered by many in R&B and rock.
After Stax Records folded in the mid-1970s, Taylor had other big songs, most notably the 1976 mega-hit “Disco Lady,” the first single to be certified platinum. Co-authored by Osceola’s Harvey Scales, the song featured keyboardist Bernie Worrell and Bootsy Collins from George Clinton’s Parliament/ Funkadelic band. But Taylor, the once-gritty soul singer, was by this time morphing into a smooth balladeer.
Johnnie Taylor died of a heart attack on May 31, 2000, in Dallas, the city where he had lived for more than 30 years. He had recorded for Malaco Records of Jackson, Miss., since the 1980s. His last single, “Soul Heaven,” issued on Malaco just before his death, ironically describes a heavenly rhythm and blues concert featuring deceased performers from the past.
• “Who’s Making Love?”
• “I Had a Dream”
• “Steal Away”
• “I Am Somebody”