Biography of Johnnie Taylor

The Early Life of Johnnie Taylor

Johnnie Taylor, the youngest of three children, grew up in West Memphis (Crittenden County) with his grandmother. She was religious and made sure he attended church regularly. Taylor made his debut as a singer in the church at the age of six. He moved with his grandmother to Kansas City, Missouri, when he was ten and sang in the gospel quartet Melody Kings in his teenage years. Singers of the church occasionally opened for their famous and highly influential gospel group, the Soul Stirrers, whose young lead singer Sam Cooke eventually became Taylor’s friend. Influenced by gospel and the blues, he decided to sing for a living from an early age. 

In 1953, 19-year-old Taylor moved to Chicago, Illinois, where he joined the doo-wop group The Five Echoes and performed with the gospel group the Highway Q.C.’s. Taylor’s songs at the time were very close to Cook’s, and in 1957 he was hired to replace Cook in his gospel group, the Soul Stirrers. The Q.C.’s made their recording debut in 1955, featuring Taylor on lead vocals on “Somewhere to Lay My Head,” making the group a national gospel attraction. 

the gospel singer Sam Cooke in black and white picture taken in 1963 image

The Soul Stirrers, whose origin is traced back to Texas, are the founders of modern gospel, an urban, secularized variant of rural church music. One of the group’s innovations was the hiring of two lead singers. As a member of the Soul Stirrers, Taylor became an ordained minister. Upon leaving the group, he went to Los Angeles, California, to become a full-time preacher, but was persuaded by Sam Cooke in 1961 to become the first artist to sign to Cooke’s new label, SAR.

Taylor’s early career and association with Sam Cooke

Johnnie Taylor might well be known especially for oldies music fans as a musical chameleon. He could sing doo-wop, gospel, soul, blues, disco, pop and R&B and his versatility had brought him a long, successful career that lasted over 40 years.

Johnnie Taylor was born in Crawdfordsville, Arkansas in 1934, but spent his childhood in nearby West Memphis. His family later moved to Kansas City, Kansas. When he was younger, Taylor started out singing gospel and performed in a group named the Melody Kings, where he met and befriended Sam Cooke, lead singer of another gospel group Soul Stirrers.

In 1953, Taylor moved to Chicago, where he began singing secular music and performed with a doo-wop vocal group the Five Echoes. At the same time he continued with his gospel leanings by joining The Highway Q.C.’s, which used to be Cooke’s group.

Taylor’s vocal style had a striking resemblance to Cooke’s. In fact, in 1957 Taylor was recruited to fill in for Cooke as the Soul Stirrer’s lead vocalist.

When Cooke established his own label SAR Records, Taylor was signed as one of the label’s first artists. He made only one record on the label, the single “Rome (Wasn’t Built in a Day).” Unfortunately, Cooke was murdered in 1964 and so his label automatically folded.

After being label-less for a while, Taylor inked a contract with Stax Records in 1965 (or 1966). He recorded with this label’s resident band Booker T. & The MGs.

Formidable hitmaker on both pop and R&B charts

During his time at Stax, Taylor was eventually dubbed as “The Philosopher of Soul,” recording a number of hits there including, among others:

“Who’s Making Love” (#5 pop, #1 R&B)
“Take Care Of Your Homework” (#20 pop, #2 R&B)
“Testify (I Wanna)” (#36 pop, #4 R&B)
“Steal Away” (#37 pop, #3 R&B)
“I Am Somebody” (#39 pop, #4 R&B)
“Jody’s Got Your Girl” (#28 pop, #1 R&B)
“I Believe In You” (#11 pop, #1 R&B)
“Cheaper To Keep Her” (#15 pop, #2 R&B)
“We’re Getting Careless With Our Love” (#34 pop, #5 R&B)

However, Stax went bankrupt during the mid-70s music era, and Taylor signed with Columbia Records. It was at that label where he achieved his biggest chart success with the single “Disco Lady.” It topped both the pop and R&B singles charts in 1976. It also went to #25 on the UK singles chart, Taylor’s only entry there.

Stint at Malacco Records; later life and career

When his national hits began to see less action, Taylor switched to Beverly Glen Records for a brief time, and then to Malaco Records. With Malaco, he spent over 15 years there and recorded a total of a dozen albums, making him one of the label’s most successful acts. This time Taylor recorded a lot more blues than he ever had done before in his career. Although his chart performance wasn’t as strong as the years before, Taylor was nevertheless busy touring throughout the 1980s and the 1990s. Also during the 1980s, Taylor became a disc jockey for a local radio station in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, whose format was R&B, blues, soul and jazz.

In 1996, Taylor’s album Good Love, reached the top of the Billboard blues album chart, while it peaked at #15 on the Billboard R&B album chart. Three years later, Rhythm and Blues Foundation gave Taylor a Pioneer Award for his significant contributions.

In May 2000, Taylor succumbed to heart attack at a hospital in Dallas, Texas. He was 66 years old.