ohnnie Taylor's first public appearance was at age eight; in church, on an Easter Sunday program. Through his early teens, he performed with various church choirs and groups around Memphis and Kansas City, while absorbing the singing styles of the current top gospel and blues talents.
He moved to Chicago at age fourteen and shortly thereafter became lead singer of the Highway QCs, one of the area's top gospel groups. But even before that, he had been part of Kansas City's Melody Masters. That group had the honor of opening several local dates for the Soul Stirrers as far back as 1951, which marked Johnnie's first meeting with his idol, Sam Cooke. Cooke was then lead singer of the Soul Stirrers, the group that set the pace for intense, inspirational gospel quartet singing.
A friendship developed, which led Johnnie to replace Cooke in the Soul Stirrers when the latter made his crossover into pop music. One of Johnnie's recordings with the Soul Stirrers was "Stand By Me, Father," a song later adapted into the pop hit "Stand By Me" by Ben E. King. Eventually, Johnnie also got the urge to switch over -- a decision that was hard to make.
"Really, I had little choice," he recalled. "They had cut gospel music off the radio. We could not be heard, we could not make a living, so it was kind of a forced issue. I spent two years in California, trying to get myself together. Finally I decided I couldn't sit on the fence any longer. If you can't make a living at your craft, you've got to do something else. So consequently I had to go with what was being heard on the radio."
When Cooke formed SAR Records in 1960, Johnnie became the first artist signed to the label. Nothing came of it, though, and when Cooke died in 1965, SAR folded up. Johnnie returned to Memphis and, on impulse, dropped in at the office of Stax Records.
"I knew Al Bill, the executive vice president of Stax, when he used to be a disc jockey," Johnnie said. "We talked about old times, and I mentioned that I had gotten into rhythm and blues and pop music. Two weeks later, I signed a contract."
Eargasm, his debut album for Columbia in 1976, put it all together, spearheaded by the single "Disco Lady."
"I've been singing for a lot of years and I've paid a lot of dues, so when that record hit, I was ready," said Johnnie. "You build up quite a following after so long, and I think when you get a "Disco Lady," it just kind of pushes you over the top. It created more work for me, but my style of living didn't change."
"Disco Lady" was Johnnie's first single for Columbia Records, and the first single of any kind to be certified platinum. With its throbbing, pulsating rhythms, "Disco Lady" perfectly captured the commercial moment, at the same time commanding attention for its evasive lyrics.
In retrospect, it was a little jarring for longtime fans, used to his romantic, astringent records, to see Johnny embroiled in a controversy over one of his songs. But it's true -- many radio stations banned "Disco Lady" because of its "suggestive" lyrics.
"Disco Lady" triumphed, though, and went on to become the best-selling record in Columbia's history.
Johnnie's last Top 40 pop hit was "Somebody's Gettin' It" (#33, 1976), although several of his singles appeared on the R&B chart through 1990. One of the most versatile and durable recording artists of the modern pop era, Johnnie Taylor continued to tour through the Nineties and also recorded a string of well-received albums, mostly in a soul-blues style, for the Malaco label during the past decade. He died at Dallas's Charleton Methodist Medical Center on May 31, 2000, at age 62, after being stricken at his home in the Dallas suburb of Duncanville. Perhaps prophetically, a posthumous single for Malaco, "Soul Heaven," told of Johnnie having a dream about a party in heaven with superstars from the past performing for one night only.
"I do love music because it's always loved me," Taylor told The Dallas Morning News in 1999. "It gives me a certain kind of feeling. The material I choose isn't black music or white music," he said. "It's just music -- real, honest music."
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