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Johnnie Taylor had the vocal talents, but he was seeking a voice to call his own. Before arriving at Stax in 1966, he had already soared among the greatest stars of the gospel music world and even had a taste of secular hits. He’d proven his charisma, had established his star qualities — all he lacked was an identity. Despite his achievements, he was often mistaken for another R&B hitmaker with a similar first name, Little Johnny Taylor. He was also confused with emerging superstar Sam Cooke, who Johnnie sounded like and whose career path Johnnie was following, mentored by Sam himself. Johnnie had lived in Los Angeles, Chicago, West Memphis and Kansas City but where the story of Wanted One Soul Singer starts, he was an artist seeking a home.
Born in Crawfordsville, Arkansas, JT was raised among the rural sounds of West Memphis cotton farmers until around 10 years old, when his family moved to Kansas City, where he was baptized in sophisticated jazz. The rural sound was all about guts and feeling, and the urban was built on restraint and a studied coordination between band members. Johnnie was comfortable in a place where those overlapped and where he could convey both, or either: the cultured suave of a big city, the authenticity of dirt farmers. Yes, he’s ready to get down and dirty, but first, please note, he seems to say, he’s a real clean dude.
His professional gospel career took a giant step when, at 17 years old, he was plucked from a Chicago whiskey joint by the Highway Q.C.’s, who needed a new lead vocalist after Sam Cooke left them for the famed Soul Stirrers. And when Sam went secular, Johnnie followed Sam’s path again, from leading the Q.C.’s to leading the Soul Stirrers — until Sam signed him away to his new secular label. Sam Cooke produced Johnnie singing “Rome Wasn’t Built In a Day,” and many listeners assumed the vocalist was actually Sam. Still, the success was promising, but the plans were dashed in late 1964 with Sam’s murder.
An established Black performer with roots in gospel and R&B seeking a distinct identity? Johnnie’s resume was perfect for Stax Records. He claims he was at a career crossroads one day in St. Louis and flipped a coin: Heads would be north for Motown, tails would be south to Stax. When he showed up in Memphis, Al Bell, the Stax executive, reportedly said, “We’ve been waiting for you!”
Taylor was assigned to work with Isaac Hayes and David Porter, songwriters and producers who’d recently helped Sam & Dave establish their own distinct sound. Their approach was somewhat holistic — they’d spend time with the artist, get to know them, hear some of their stories and then sculpt songs that fit that person’s history. They’d had success with Carla Thomas, Mable John and others. Working with Johnnie, when they drilled to his core, he’d proven himself as a gospel singer, he’d achieved a taste of pop success, but the essence Hayes and Porter found was the blues.
Their first single, “I Had a Dream,” though the title evokes Martin Luther King Jr.’s memorable speech from the March on Washington, is a dream of another sort: That Johnnie’s girl has been stepping out while he’s putting in on the graveyard shift. “I Had A Dream” is blues, deep with the intensity of gutbucket blues, but also elegant: the backing is spare and precise, a black velvet cloth that shows off his bejeweled voice. There’s a full band playing behind him, but rarely does everyone play at once; it’s not that the band is constrained, it’s that they’re restrained, and they respect their role as complements to the star, which is Johnnie’s voice. The opening guitar riff is a run of single notes. It’s not complicated, but the way the piano and the horns join to accent it is artful and polished. No one is overplaying, allowing Hayes’ piano to get down on the blues trills in a way that more upbeat music would crowd out. Johnnie’s not pushing his Sam Cooke timbre, instead finally ready to stake a place of his own.
Over and over during this album, the musicians seem to share knowing smiles, the mutual enjoyment of making this music: Hayes on keyboards with Booker T. sitting in, Steve Cropper’s guitar, Duck Dunn on bass, Al Jackson Jr. on drums (Al also had a hand in producing Johnnie) and David Porter off-mic coaching Johnnie’s delivery. If you snap your fingers as you’re listening, their work is succeeding.
Before becoming a producer, songwriter and keyboardist, Hayes was a saxophone player and, with this project, he exercised his arranger’s muscle, especially with the horn parts. All over the album, he keeps those brass players blowing, sometimes evoking Duke Ellington and classic jazz, other times the dirt floor juke house low-down sound. The horns on “Little Bluebird,” the second single preceding the album’s release, are quite refined. This song is co-written with Booker T. Jones, who provides a tweeting, chirping organ that is subtly mixed to interplay with the desperation of JT’s desire. Based on a traditional song, Hayes, Porter and Jones created a blues standard. Johnnie digs deeper into his gospel background for this one, his outbursts nearly overtaking Bobby “Blue” Bland for master of the exclamatory preacher’s squall.
The final single became the album’s lead track, setting the tone for Johnnie’s new identity: If you came to Johnnie seeking more Sam Cooke pop-style crooning, back up and come back with unprejudiced ears. On “I’ve Got to Love Somebody’s Baby,” the first guitar chord hits and holds, making the listener sit up until the chord slides down like the liquid that remains when the empty shot glass hits the bar. The piano tinkles, tears hitting an icy lover’s back. Immediately, the music declares its refinement, an uptown album, a carefully arranged presentation. Johnnie Taylor is creating a stage with a spotlight that shines on him, and it feels like the gig was supposed to finish a half hour ago, but the band’s gone into the place beyond the music. The audience is sweaty, the ladies are swinging their pocketbooks over their heads and slinging their underwear onto the stage; the men’s eyes shine. With “I’ve Got to Love Somebody’s Baby,” this album says we’re inside the club when the bouncer pulls down the shades and locks the front door, when the glitter of sequins casts a cozy penumbra, when the groove may be a bit slower but the reduced pace makes it more intense. And there’s Johnnie Taylor, center stage, causing all the ruckus and looking like he just exited the dry cleaner. It’s more bluesy than gospel fans might be comfortable with, meaning that it’s Johnnie working to establish his independence.
Like the set of a good stage, Johnnie tailors the album’s pacing with a couple early upbeat numbers. “Just the One (I’ve Been Looking For)” is jaunty, an easy song that reflects the excitement of writers Al Bell and Eddie Floyd, who’d come to Stax only months earlier, here collaborating with Stax stalwart Steve Cropper. Cropper’s guitar is spotlighted in the mix, melding powerfully with the horns.
Time and again, these guys create rhythms that draw us into that studio to observe them interacting, and into their audience in that imagined warm club. When one player fills the space with the exact right riff — the notes needed for that riff and nothing more — heads bob and nod, big laughs explode with professional quiet, and you can hear the artists having a good time making this music. The epitome of the fun may be their interpretation of “Watermelon Man,” a funky Herbie Hancock instrumental built on a Latin rhythm called boogaloo; others began adding lyrics to this song, and here, Johnnie fashions some of his own. These master musicians know it takes talent and confidence to get powerful rhythms going slow rather than speeding up, and their slow funky groove on “Watermelon Man” hews a groove perhaps funkier than the original, definitely more salacious and suggestive. Johnnie knows it, too; listen to him laugh when he sings, “They make your lip go flippity flop” — and laugh with him because, while watermelons are never defined in the song, the man seems to be delivering something more than just a seasonal fruit.
The horns that open “Where Can a Man Go from Here” are a paean to 1940 jazz master big bands, and the intricate and unexpected runs of those classic brass sections. The song returns us to the mood of the album opener, and by this point in Johnnie’s set, he’s comfortable delivering a vocal line or two off-mic, stepping back and sharing a sense of space, of the singer standing at the mic and then moving away, as if a pretty girl in the front row caught his eye and he stepped toward her. This song’s arrangement is more like a Stax classic, a revving of the audience with horns that burst on the beats. It even evokes Otis Redding during the choruses when Johnnie’s voice has a raspy urgency. His vocal is more buried in the “Toe-Hold” mix, becoming an instrument of the rhythm section — which is working overtime on this upbeat number. From the opening drum beats, “Toe-Hold” beckons listeners to the dance floor. (Be sure to seek out Isaac and David’s production of this song by Carla Thomas.)
“Outside Love” is a classic regretful cheating song, but it also takes us closer to Johnnie’s newfound identity. With the opening line, he waxes philosophical — “Outside love ain’t nothing but inside pain.” Those kinds of word twists and provocative lyrics suited Johnnie, and as his career unfolded, he’d adopt the moniker of “The Philosopher of Soul.” The nickname was another reflection of his dual persona, evoking the gritty and the smooth, the simple and the complicated.
“Ain’t That Loving You” captures a mood that’s part conciliatory and part deflecting — it’s hard to say if a problem has occurred or if Johnnie’s singing to prevent one, which adds to the song’s lyrical depth. It’s a gentle song, one that brings the listener closer and brings two lovers together; Al Jackson’s drum and Hayes’ piano move around each other like trained tango dancers on summer holiday. Johnnie established this song, and many singers in a variety of styles have since tested their expressive mettle against Johnnie’s standard. When producers Hayes and Porter selected it, they helped initiate the career of one of Stax’s greatest songwriters, Homer Banks (who would be a writer on Taylor’s 1968 breakthrough, “Who’s Making Love”). Stax alumni often refer to the company as a family, and in that way, the “older” generation of Porter, Hayes and the M.G.’s are nurturing the next generation with this song, spreading the songwriting love to the newcomers.
Reaching back to the early 1940s, Johnnie radically updates and individualizes “Blues In the Night,” originally a pop duet by hitmakers Johnny Mercer and Jo Stafford. Where the original has a full orchestra, Taylor’s version streamlines the funk, understates it to create a driving, churning rhythm that captures drummer Al Jackson as the parade’s grand marshal, setting the rhythm as was his wont, with the band falling in behind him as theirs. Building from an a cappella opening, adding a guitar and then a piano, the sound snowballs, gaining mass, driving harder. Johnnie calls this boogaloo, but the rhythm also choogles — like that word, it’s so much fun. JT uses his phrasing, his hesitations to keep it funky. It’s a band workout, but Johnnie sounds utterly relaxed, making the entire effort sound effortless.
Another unusual selection is “Sixteen Tons,” the late-1940s country music hit by Tennessee Ernie Ford. The organ sets the pace, but listen closely to the opening riff to hear the guitar’s essential part. The country musician Tennessee Ernie might not understand what Johnnie’s command means when he interjects, “Do the boogaloo one time!” but Ford would understand the feeling Johnnie imbues: The song’s description of the long-haul truck driver translates very well to the sharecropper’s plight, cutting very close to Johnnie’s Arkansas bones.
Wanted One Soul Singer established firm footing for Johnnie Taylor’s definition of himself. The album sold well, and the singles hit the charts. The wandering vocalist stepped out from Sam Cooke’s shadow and had hits that distinguished him from the “Part Time Love” Johnnie Taylor. This album paved the way for Johnnie, and the next year he’d release the single “Who’s Making Love,” which became Stax’s biggest-selling single to date (more than “Dock of the Bay”!). The song energized the company when it needed it most, just after Stax’s separation from its longtime distributor and mentor Atlantic Records, when the company was, like Taylor, redefining itself. Taylor stayed at Stax just about until the company folded in 1976, when he jumped to the biggest label of all, signing to Columbia. There, he had his career-best hit with “Disco Lady,” the slow groove that let you get close to your baby and dirty dance on the brightly lit disco floor. “Disco Lady” sold so many copies a new category had to be created: Double Platinum.
Stax was a place where a person could walk in the door and the staff could see through them like an X-ray machine, diagnosing their true gift and drawing it out. Stax wanted a soul singer. And in Johnnie Taylor, they got it.
Robert Gordon’s books include Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion, Can’t Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters and Memphis Rent Party. His documentaries include William Eggleston’s Stranded in Canton and Best of Enemies. He’s won a Grammy and an Emmy. He lives in Memphis. (More at TheRobertGordon.com)