No matter what manner of material he wrapped his elastic low-tenor pipes around, Taylor was a song stylist of remarkable consistency and breathtaking authority. He considered himself a “salesman” of songs. “A song is a song,” he explained. “If you sing ‘Jesus’ or if you say ‘baby,’ it’s basically melodically the same. I think anything that makes people happy is good, anything that takes people’s minds off their problems.”
Taylor was born in Crawfordsville, Arkansas and raised in West Memphis, Arkansas, where he began singing in church at age 6. Inspired by R.H. Harris and his Soul Stirrers successor, Cooke, and by Archie Brownlee of the Original Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, he sang as a teenager with the Melody Makers, a gospel quartet in Kansas City, where he’d moved when he was 10. By 1953, he was in Chicago singing with the 5 Echoes, with whom he made his first record, on the Sabre label. In 1955, he was on Vee-Jay Records, singing with both the 5 Echoes and the Highway Q.C.’s. “I had always sang some rhythm and blues,” said Taylor, who credited Junior Parker, Joe Turner, and Louis Jordan as early secular influences.
When Cooke left the Soul Stirrers in mid-1957 to pursue a career in secular music, Johnny Jones of the Swanee Quintet was his immediate replacement. Jones’s tenure was brief, however, and Taylor was recruited. For the next two years, Taylor split leads with Paul Foster in the quartet. Among the Soul Stirrers recordings that featured Taylor were “The Love of God” on Specialty Records and “Stand by Me Father” on Cooke’s new SAR label.
Taylor quit the quartet in 1960 and toured as a preacher for a period. By the following year, however, he was recording r&b. The singer cut six singles for SAR and its sister label Derby, of which “Rome (Wasn’t Built in a Day)” and “Dance What You Wanna,” both penned and produced by Cooke, were regional hits. Taylor’s fortunes improved after he added to his live act the blues song “Part Time Love,” a massive 1963 hit by a blues singer who called himself Little Johnny Taylor. Johnnie began recording similarly styled blues for Cooke’s labels and continued in that vein after signing with Stax in 1966. The blues songs “I Had a Dream,” “I Got to Love Somebody’s Baby,” and “Somebody’s Sleeping in My Bed” gave Taylor moderate r&b chart hits in 1966 and ’67.
His direction changed in 1968 when he teamed up with Don Davis, a Detroit producer who Stax had brought to Memphis to give Taylor and others on the label a touch of Motown flavor. The hard-socking “Who’s Making Love” was a number one R&B, number five pop hit, transforming Taylor into a soul superstar. He and Davis maintained their Stax hit streak with such singles as “Take Care of Your Homework,” “Jody’s Got Your Girl and Gone,” and “I Believe in You (You Believe in Me).” Jumping to Columbia in 1976, the two men hit their career peak with “Disco Lady,” their first release for the label. Taylor remained with Columbia until 1980, signed with the Beverly Glen label in 1982, and, from 1984 until the end of his life, recorded soul and occasional blues for Malaco Records.