Johnnie Taylor, versatile recording artist whose styles ranged from soul, blues, gospel, disco and doo-wop, died May 31 of a heart attack in Dallas. Taylor had been scheduled to perform at the Chicago Blues Festival in Grant Park on June 11.
Taylor was born in Crawfordsville, Arkansas on May 5, 1938, but was raised in West Memphis. Taylor began his singing career in 1953 with The Highway Q.C. in Chicago. He left the group to join a Chicago doo-wop group called The Five Echoes in 1954, as a replacement. Taylor sang lead on a song called "So Lonesome" on the Sabre label, which was a subsidiary of Chance Records in Chicago. He also sang on "Why Oh Why" and "That's My Baby," which remained in the can until 1964 when the Constellation label put out a compilation album featuring Chicago doo-wop groups.
In 1957, Taylor became Sam Cooke's replacement in The Soul Stirrers, when Cooke began his secular R&B / Pop career. In 1959, Taylor, with The Soul Stirrers, performed on the Rate the Record TV show, where they sang "Wade in the Water" and "He Cares," the latter on which he sang lead. Their tune "Stand By Me Father" in 1959 became the secular crossover hit "Stand By Me" by Ben E. King in 1961. Yet Taylor left The Soul Stirrers in 1960 to become a traveling minister. Sam Cooke persuaded Taylor to return to singing and to sign up with Cooke's SAR label, and later the Derby label, as a secular R&B / Pop artist. SAR generally recorded more grittier soul material while Derby recorded more pop songs. Both labels were run by Cooke and J.W. Alexander. Taylor's first R&B hit in 1962 was a Cooke-penned number called "Rome Wasn't Built in a Day" which made the Top 40 on the R&B charts. The labels went under after Cooke's untimely demise in 1964.
In 1966, Taylor signed with Stax Records, which was originally a subsidiary of Atlantic Records, with a song called "I Had a Dream." He recorded bluesy, soulful numbers as part of the Memphis Sound. The Memphis Sound was known by its Southern blues element combined with the slickness of the Motown sound. Taylor performed "I Had a Dream" and "Rome Wasn't Built in a Day" on a short-lived syndicated soul TV show called The Beat in 1966.
In 1968, just as Stax became independent of Atlantic, Taylor recorded a different uptempo tune which relied less on the blues and was heavy on the horn section, called "Who's Making Love," which finally enabled him to earn a #1 on the Soul charts and a #5 spot on the Pop charts. Taylor would have other Top 10 Soul and Top 40 Pop chart records on Stax between 1968 and 1974. Taylor was one of the performers featured in the WattStax benefit concert in California in 1972, which was later released as a documentary concert film in 1973. Taylor also appeared on the Stax TV special produced by Merv Griffin in 1973, and made many appearances on Soul Train.
Stax went bankrupt in 1975 and Taylor signed with Columbia Records and finally hit #1 on the Pop charts with the single "Disco Lady" in 1976, and was able to appear on American Bandstand as a result of the crossover success of "Disco Lady." However, Taylor wasn't able to compete with the European techno-synthesized disco music that dominated the later '70s.
In 1982, Taylor briefly recorded with Beverly Glen Records but in 1985 moved to Malaco Records, where he remained until his death. Taylor was survived by his second wife Gerlean and four adult children.
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