October 2011

Johnnie Taylor: a stormy voyage into love’s treacherous interior

Who’s Makin’ Love? Good Question.

On the reissued Taylored in Silk, Johnnie Taylor delivers a treatise on the complex nature of relationships

By David McGee

Johnny Taylor
Stax Records

Occupying an important place in the history of Stax Records, Johnnie Taylor came to the label in 1966, a year before Otis Redding’s death; a year after that horrible day, in 1968, he had one of the label’s biggest hits ever in the million selling Isaac Hayes-David Porter adulterous classic, “Who’s Making Love.” More than a mere chart-buster, ”Who’s Making Love” established Stax as a viable entity after the company had ended its distribution deal with Atlantic.

For Taylor, finding himself in pivotal situations was becoming old hat. He had launched his career in the gospel field, modeling himself on Sam Cooke, and indeed, walking in Cooke’s footsteps on his way to gospel prominence. First, he replaced Cooke in the famous Soul Stirrers, then followed Cooke into the secular world by signing in 1962 with the Cooke-J.W. Alexander-led SAR Records label and cut an affecting version of a Cooke co-write, “Rome Wasn’t Built In a Day,” only to find himself stranded without a label in 1964 after Cooke was shot to death in Los Angeles. At Stax he became one of the label’s most reliable hitmakers, placing him in league with the Staples Singers and Isaac Hayes as the brightest stars in Stax’s galaxy.

Pre-Stax, Johnnie Taylor, who had taken Sam Cooke’s place in the Soul Stirrers, was signed to Cooke’s SAR label and cut a Cooke co-write, ‘Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day,’ in a style imitative of Cooke’s. At Stax he would find his own voice, still rooted in gospel but minus the Cooke affectations.

A sea change occurred for Taylor in 1968 when he was teamed with new staff producer Don Davis, not a Memphis product but rather from Detroit, and a man with a plan when it came to Johnnie Taylor. Instead of the gospel-influenced slow blues ballads Taylor had refined in the studio with Booker T. & the MG’s backing him on some sophisticated songs penned by the Hayes-Porter team, Davis wanted to present Taylor in a grittier format. The immediate result was “Who’s Making Love,” an R&B chart topper that crossed over to peak at #5 pop. It also earned Taylor the memorable nickname of “Philosopher of Soul.”

Johnnie Taylor, ‘We’re Getting Careless
With Our Love,’ from the Don Davis-produced
Taylored in Silk

In 1973 Taylor and Davis crafted a remarkable album-length statement, Taylored in Silk, that played more into the artist’s balladeering/philosophizing strengths and less to the gritty, accusatory style of “Who’s Making Love.” With its low-key arrangements, lush strings, subdued rhythms, thematic cohesiveness and deeply nuanced Taylor vocals, Taylored in Silk was a hybrid Memphis/Philly Soul-style treatise on the complex nature of relationships. The philosopher in Taylor simply ate it up. Recorded in Detroit, with the strings done in New York and the rhythm tracks laid down by the estimable crew in Muscle Shoals, AL, the original album was a scant but potent eight tracks; as reissued by Concord, this new CD version adds additional context and content in the form of bonus tracks comprised of the A and B sides of three non-album single releases. More bang for the buck, to be sure, but the original eight tracks are really something, worth the price of admission alone.

Davis seems not only to have wanted to capitalize on Taylor’s balladeering skills, but to exploit the gospel force that was strong in the artist in fashioning an elegant, upscale soul sound. Several tracks feature a female gospel chorus behind Taylor, whose vocal attack leans toward compassionate sensitivity and preacherly equanimity in navigating through some trying romantic dilemmas. An adulterous affair is at the center of the album opening “We’re Getting Careless With Our Love,” in which Taylor warns his lover that they’re taking too much for granted and falling into predictable patterns in their illicit meetings--he even makes a sly reference to Billy Paul’s extra-marital predicament in “Me and Mrs. Jones”--against a backdrop of ever-intensifying strings and ever-more-urgent calls from the female chorus. Even at the end it’s unclear as to whether reason can surmount the lure of the flesh. Coming straight out of the church, the beautiful “Starting All Over Again” has a Percy Sledge-type sorrow hanging over it, as Taylor gets into the pulpit to plead with an old lover for patience as they try to begin again as friends, in a beautiful arrangement with sumptuous strings, a reverential organ solo and a robust chorus seconding Taylor’s sentiments. In this context, Taylor’s swinging delivery of Mack Rice’s “Cheaper to Keep Her” in a piano-dominated arrangement worthy of Ray Charles, is practically comic relief in its advice to smooth things over with your woman instead of splitting with her (“you gonna pay some alimony if you leave home,” Taylor warns). One of the real delights here is an amazing treatment of Little Willie John’s “Talk To Me” as seductive pillow talk, in contrast to the original’s rather desperate plea for communication. Effectively deploying strings, woodwinds, a tasty blues guitar and the cooing background chorus, Davis gives Taylor a sumptuous backdrop over which to croon his sweet nothings as the album takes a turn towards the positive. Davis’s own thumping soul ballad, “I Believe In You (You Believe In Me),” with a catchy ostinato organ riff and sensuous groove, finds Taylor in a bit of a Jackie Wilson mode at one point, using his falsetto to add a tender cry to his affirmative sentiments addressed to a woman with whom he’s weathering every personal storm and various outside jeaousies. The original album ended with an elegant arrangement of “This Bitter Earth,” a #1 hit for Dinah Washington in 1960 framed here by sumptuous strings, understated percussion and a distant, wailing alto sax setting up Taylor's testifying to his belief in the certainty of finding a significant other who could alter his view of life being “like the dust that hides the glow of a rose”--concluding a stormy voyage into love’s treacherous interior on a positive note.

Johnnie Taylor, ‘I Believe In You (You Believe in Me),’ weathering personal storms and outside jealousies with the woman he loves. From Taylored in Silk.

Of the bonus tracks, 1971’s “Hijackin’ Love,” by the Tony Hester-Richard Wylie team responsible for the Platters’ lively 1967 hit “With This Ring,” showcases Taylor’s hard driving style in a powerhouse arrangement that was potent enough to send the single into the top 10 of the R&B chart and to #64 pop. The B-side was the horn-enriched funk of “Love In the Streets,” another of Taylor’s sermons advocating for committed relationships as opposed to one-night stands. A year later Taylor was in a deliciously funky, testifying mode on “Shackin’ Up,” a pumping, horn-driven workout warning of the dangers of extramarital affairs, with Taylor strutting his stuff in a spirited, Julius Cheeks-style delivery serving an arrangement equally influenced by James Brown and Sly Stone. The two-part “Doing My Thing” closes out the revised Taylored in Silk on a tough, bluesy note that hearkens back to Taylor’s earliest Stax sides with the addition of some ominous guitar-horn interaction elevating the intensity to revival levels. The bonus tracks break from the mood Davis and Taylor so carefully cultivated on the original album, but they also offer a more complete portrait of how versatile and compelling a singer Johnnie Taylor was, whether he was dealing a sensitive ballad, a righteous, uptempo sermon or a sexy, grinding blues. Felled by a heart attack at the age of 66 in 2000, the old philosopher left a solid body of work as his legacy, but he hit some kind of high note in making each of the eight original tracks on Taylored in Silk a moment to remember. He was never better.

Johnnie Taylor’s Taylored in Silk is available at www.amazon.com

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024