Taylor, Johnnie Harrison (1937–2000)

By: Scott Jordan

Type: Biography

Published: December 5, 2006

Updated: July 6, 2016

Johnnie Harrison Taylor, singer, was born in Crawfordsville, Arkansas, on May 5, 1937, to Willie Taylor and Ida Blackman. Taylor grew up in West Memphis, Arkansas, but spent much of his adult life in Texas. Inspired by blues and gospel music, he recorded with a doo-wop group called the Five Echoes during the early 1950s. While still a teenager, he joined such gospel groups as the Highway QCs and the Texas-based Soul Stirrers, in which he replaced Sam Cooke as lead singer. The Soul Stirrers, who traced their origins to Trinity, Texas, in the mid-1920s, are considered the founders of modern gospel, an urbane, secularized variation of rural church music. One of their innovations was to employ two lead singers.

In 1963 Taylor was signed to Cooke's SAR label, where he recorded the hit single "Rome Wasn't Built in a Day." Although by that time he had found secular music more lucrative, Taylor's vocal style continued to reflect his strong religious roots. SAR folded after Cooke's death in 1964, and Taylor signed with Stax Records in Memphis in 1966. There he recorded his biggest hit to that time, "Who's Making Love?," which went to Number 1 on the R&B charts in 1968 and sold a million copies. This was followed by a string of bestsellers, including "Take Care of Your Homework," "I've Got to Love Somebody's Baby," "Steal Away," and "Cheaper to Keep Her." Although such big names as Otis Redding, Booker T & the MGs, and Sam & Dave all recorded with Stax, Taylor was that label's all-time best-selling artist.

During the early 1970s Taylor continued to score with Top 10 R&B singles, including his second Number 1 in 1971, "Jody's Got Your Girl and Gone," and his third in 1973, "I Believe in You (You Believe in Me)." When Stax folded in 1975, Taylor went to Columbia Records, where, in 1976, he had the biggest hit of his career, "Disco Lady." The song was the first single ever to be certified platinum for two million copies. Eargasm, the album from which the single came, was banned by many radio stations because it was considered too suggestive. Nevertheless, the record's success demonstrated that Taylor's sexually-charged soul music appealed to popular audiences. Because the single was released in the middle of the 1970s disco era, Taylor found himself incorrectly tagged as a disco artist, a label he disavowed.

Temporarily unable to generate additional success, Taylor left in 1982 for Beverly Glen Records, where he climbed back onto the charts with the single "What About My Love?" His final stop (1984) was at Malaco Records, where he made well-received albums throughout the 1980s and 1990s, such as This Is Your Night, Wall to Wall, and Gotta Get the Groove Back. Although his career had waned considerably, Taylor continued to tour across the country and draw respectable crowds in various R&B venues. Known as the "Philosopher of Soul," during his long career he incorporated blues, soul, pop, and funk into his repertoire. He scored eleven Top 40 hits on the Billboard pop chart, and recorded about twelve albums for Stax alone. Taylor was the recipient of the Rhythm and Blues Foundation Pioneer Award in 1996. He made his home in Duncanville, Texas, and died of a heart attack in a Dallas hospital on May 31, 2000. He was buried in Forest Hill Cemetery in Kansas City, Missouri.

During his life, Taylor was married twice and openly acknowledged his paternity of six children. He died intestate, and during probate proceedings, three more individuals (one woman and two men) came forward as his children. DNA tests confirmed their claims, and Taylor’s estate was divided equally among his nine children. The case was later featured in an episode of Investigation Discovery’s documentary series The Will: Family Secrets Revealed in 2011. In 2016 Taylor’s life and career were featured in an episode of the documentary series Unsung .

H. Wiley Hitchcock and Stanley Sadie, eds., The New Grove Dictionary of American Music (4 vols., New York: MacMillan Press, 1986). Living Blues, September–October 2000. Julia Rubiner, ed., Contemporary Musicians: Profiles of the People in Music (Detroit: Gale Research, 1994). Robert Santelli, Big Book of the Blues: A Biographical Encyclopedia (New York: Penguin Books, 1993). Stax Records, "Johnnie Taylor: Biography," Johnnie Taylor Special Memory Page (http://staxrecords.free.fr/jtaylorspecial.htm), accessed November 26, 2011. Jeff Stevens, "The Philosopher of Soul, Johnnie Taylor, dies at 62," BluesMusicNow.com (http;//www.bluesmusicnow.com/taylor60.html), accessed November 26, 2011.

  • Music
  • Genres (Rock and Roll, Rhythm and Blues, and Rockabilly)
  • Peoples
  • African Americans

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Scott Jordan, “Taylor, Johnnie Harrison,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 27, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/taylor-johnnie-harrison.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

December 5, 2006
July 6, 2016

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