THE OFFICES OF TAG ENTERPRISES—where soul-blues singer Johnnie Taylor conducts his business affairs—are in a small, nondescript wood house on the access road alongside R. L. Thornton Freeway in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of South Dallas, just across the interstate from the Dallas Zoo. There’s no sign out front. The doors all have double locks. The only clue that something out of the ordinary might go on here is a black and red tour bus sitting out back.
The anonymous setting is not a bad symbol for Taylor himself, a man who attracts hardly any attention even though his 1996 album, Good Love!, a collection of mature ballads for the black generation that grew up on blues and then soul music, has sold more than 400,000 copies. For that matter, the trim sixty-year-old has been little recognized for most of his career, even though he has been at or around the heart of black music for four decades now, taking part in some of its greatest changes. He was among the first generation of black singers (following his mentor Sam Cooke) to leave gospel music for rhythm and blues. In 1968 his single “Who’s Makin’ Love” pumped new life into Stax Records, a label that defined soul music but was going through uncertain times; though Stax is better known for such household names as Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, the Staple Singers, and Booker T. and the MGs, the unsung Taylor is its best-selling artist. His 1976 hit for Columbia, “Disco Lady”—which, despite its subject matter, did not have a disco sound—was the first record ever designated as platinum, signifying sales of more than two million copies. And since 1984 he has settled into a comfortable groove at Malaco Records, a Jackson, Mississippi, outfit that thrives by sticking to Southern blues, rhythm and blues, and gospel at a time when those genres are mostly shunned by other labels.
“Southern blacks are incredibly loyal,” Taylor says with a smile and a shrug. It is a Friday in late April, and he is sitting behind his desk at TAG, smoking a cigarette and wearing cream-colored slacks and a lime-green “silk on silk” shirt that could make your eyes melt and pour out of their sockets. The stones on his rings are the size of walnuts. His tenth album for Malaco—the aptly titled Taylored to Please, which includes a remix of “Disco Lady”—was released just days earlier, but if he has any jitters about not matching the success of Good Love!, they don’t show. He answers questions tersely but without evasion, like a man used to being in charge.
Taylor first came to Dallas in 1963 “for a weekend engagement,” he says, “and I wound up just staying. There was lots of work here, and I needed a good place to bring up the last two of my six children.” He was born in Crawfordsville, Arkansas, in 1938 and raised in nearby West Memphis, where bluesman Junior Parker lived just a couple of streets away and stars like Howlin’ Wolf and Rufus Thomas had their own radio shows. At age ten, he joined his mother in Kansas City, Missouri, and he got his first taste of the good life when his gospel group, the Melody Masters, opened for Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers. But he soon opted for Chicago, where he formed a new group, the Five Echoes, and released a single that was locally popular. At sixteen he was invited to join the Highway Q.C.’s, a journeyman gospel group that once included Cooke. Gospel has always been a natural for Taylor. As a five-year-old in Arkansas he would hit the road singing behind a preacher, and he has been in and out of the ministry several times. (TAG stands for “Taylor and God.”)
Along with gospel music, Sam Cooke proved to be the other recurring motif in his early career, though Taylor quickly grows impatient talking about him today. The pair spent afternoons singing together at Cooke’s house on the south side of Chicago, and Taylor’s lead on the Q.C.’s “Somewhere to Lay My Head” sounded so much like Cooke that it was eerie. It was the mid-fifties, and Cooke was still singing with the Soul Stirrers, a group founded in Texas but based in Chicago whose early members were the fathers of the modern gospel quartet sound. He was putting sexuality into gospel, and that wasn’t the only line he crossed: In 1956 he shocked the black music community by leaving the group to go secular. “He just wanted to get a broader audience,” says Taylor, who replaced him in the Soul Stirrers and sang such Cooke-like leads on several gospel hits that it was as though Cooke had never left (Taylor still joins the group onstage when it passes through Dallas).
Yet like nearly every other strong black voice of the sixties, Taylor soon followed Cooke’s cue and jumped from the church to the nightclub. “I wanted to broaden my own audience,” he says. In 1959 Cooke signed the Soul Stirrers to his fledgling Los Angeles—based label, Sar Records, one of the first American businesses to operate on the ethos of black self-determination; in addition to recording the group, he talked Taylor into going solo to cut secular records. The 1963 single “Baby We’ve Got Love,” released by a Sar subsidiary, was his first hit, though the incandescent “Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day” was probably his finest effort.
And then fate intervened. On December 11, 1964, Cooke was shot dead under mysterious circumstances at an L.A. motel; Sar died with him. Taylor, who’d had a weekend recording session with Cooke just a few days before his death, performed mainly in Dallas and along the West Coast for the next two years. But it quickly became a grind, and with Cooke gone, L.A. lost its appeal. On tour in St. Louis one night in 1966, Taylor recalls, “I flipped a coin to decide whether to go to work for Motown in Detroit or Stax in Memphis. Tails came up, and I headed straight down to Memphis. They said, ‘Glad to have you, man. Where you been? You shoulda called us a long time ago. Here’s your contract.’”
At Stax, Taylor came into his own, shaking off the constant Cooke comparisons; sure, he could approximate his doppelgänger’s smooth, sweet serenity, but he now also revealed a harsh side of himself made up of raw nerve endings and rhythmic dexterity. For the first couple of years, his career was solid if unspectacular. Then came “Who’s Makin’ Love,” which opened with a full-throated wail and featured Taylor pushing his voice over a strutting rhythm section and horn bursts as a countryish guitar played stylish fills. The single sold between two million and six million, depending on whom you believe. After Otis Redding died in a plane crash and Sam and Dave began working for a rival label, Taylor was unexpectedly the money act at Stax, which was struggling to establish itself as an independent. He came through with gems like “Take Care of Your Homework,” “Love Bones,” “Jody’s Got Your Girl and Gone,” and “Cheaper to Keep Her” before the label folded in 1975.
After “Disco Lady” and eight years’ worth of lesser songs for Columbia and lesser labels, during which time he was often confused with bluesman Little Johnny Taylor, Taylor found his way to Malaco. He was 46, much too old to compete in the youth market, but his balladeering style—early Sam Cooke beefed up by his soul music chops—was right up the alley of both the label and the fans who bought its records. Malaco reminded him of Stax: “A couple of ol’ boys running the company, and brothers doing all the music,” he says. And he knew he could sing blues. One of his best and most underrated albums for Stax was Raw Blues, which featured Taylor backed by Booker T. and the MGs and was as funky as a three-in-the-morning bowl of barbecued spaghetti at a Beale Street diner. Back then he laced his soul music with a little blues; today, as he puts it, “I am doing more blues than ever, and somebody is listening. But I never wanted to be credited as a blues singer per se—only someone who could sing blues if he had to.” So he laces his blues with a little soul.
The irony of his landing with Malaco is that although blues has a bigger white audience than ever, the label—the closest thing there is to a modern, down-home blues operation—rarely sells outside the working-class black South. Except for Bobby Blue Bland, Malaco artists, including such autumnal legends as Little Milton, seldom get to white audiences. All those big-spending white kids who automatically buy the newest Buddy Guy or Coco Montoya records ignore Milton and Taylor.
And even if one of Taylor’s records does sell, it may not get the proper recognition. His Good Love! album went further outside his mold than usual, thanks to the title track’s unlikely fusion of blues, soul, and hip-hop (“I like hip-hop fine, long as it’s tasteful,” Taylor declares). It was on the blues charts for two years, including twelve weeks at number one, and as of this past March, it had sold 312,000 copies according to SoundScan, though Malaco says it had sold 390,000. SoundScan is the “official” computerized system that reports sales directly from record store cash registers to Billboard magazine, which keeps the charts, but it doesn’t get reports from the mom-and-pop stores throughout the South that sell a lot of product by people like Taylor. And the lower sales figures usually mean less radio play, which can stall a career.
But Taylor can look out for himself—literally. He is one of the few artists in the music business who directs his own career; generally, only acts with the stature of Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones get away with it, and he was doing it long before they were. Typically, it never occurred to him that this was unusual, and it still doesn’t. “In the early years nobody wanted to do it because there was no money in it,” he says. “So I started making deals and doing it myself. When I worked it up to a point where there was money, I thought, ‘What the hell. I might as well keep doing it.’”