Johnnie Taylor was born in Crawfordsville, Arkansas, but grew up in West Memphis, Arkansas. Like most black kids of his generation, he was introduced to singing and performing through the church. In 1953 he joined a gospel group called The Highway Q.C.’s, replacing Lou Rawls, who had joined in 1951 when Sam Cooke left to join The Soul Stirrers, so there was a good pedigree.
The Highway Q.C.’s were based in Chicago and made their first recording in 1955 for Vee-Jay Records. When Sam Cooke went solo in 1957 and left The Soul Stirrers, Johnnie Taylor was an obvious replacement. Cooke formed his own record label a few years later and Taylor signed for the new label. He was building his career in the shadow of Sam Cooke and that was a good place to be. Unfortunately SAR Records folded when Sam Cooke was shot and killed in Los Angeles in 1964 and Taylor was left to find his way again.
In 1966, Taylor signed a contract with Stax Records in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was dubbed “The Philosopher of Soul”. Between 1966 and 1975, when the original Stax closed, Taylor released twenty-four singles that charted on the Billboard R&B chart, with sixteen of them also entering the Billboard Pop chart. His songs display a mastery of several styles and show a remarkable consistency, due to Taylor’s vocal ability, the quality of the Stax song-writers and the strength of Booker T & the MGs who did most of the backing work. Taylor also recorded eight albums during this period.
The first hit was “I Had a Dream”, a slow blues written by David Porter and Isaac Hayes, which peaked at number nineteen on the R&B chart. It might well have been offered to Otis Redding. Later in 1966, Taylor’s second Stax single did better, reaching number fifteen. “I’ve Got to Love Somebody’s Baby” was another Porter/Hayes song, with a hint of Chicago blues.
After two minor R&B hits in 1967 and early 1968, Taylor finally made a breakthrough when “Who’s Making Love” was released in the summer of 1968. The song was written by Stax staff members Homer Banks, Bettye Crutcher, Don Davis and Raymond Jackson. Don Davis also produced the track. It went to number one on the Billboard Hot R&B singles chart and number five on the Billboard Hot 100. As usual the Stax house band played on the track, The song featured Booker T & the MGs, plus Isaac Hayes on keyboards, and showed that Taylor could also sing in a more funky, up-tempo style, much closer to the songs of Sam & Dave. “Who’s Making Love” sold over one million copies, gaining gold certification. Taylor was also Grammy-nominated for the Best Male R&B Vocal Performance in 1969, but he lost out to Otis Redding for “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay”, which was awarded posthumously.
Taylor tried to repeat this success early in 1969 with his next release “Take Care Of Your Homework”, written by Homer Banks, Raymond Jackson, Thomas Kelly and Don Davis. The production was taken care of by Davis and Al Jackson Jr., the MGs’ drummer. The style is again in the Sam & Dave mould, and it was another big-seller. The song reached number two on the R&B chart and number twenty on the Billboard Hot 100. An indication of what Taylor was up against shows his quality; Marvin Gaye was at number one on the Billboard Pop Singles chart and on the R&B chart for seven weeks, from December 14th 1968 to January 25th 1969, with “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”, sandwiched between the two Johnny Taylor hits.
Taylor’s next six singles all entered the top ten of the R&B chart and the lower echelons of the Pop chart. Taylor’s reliability was a major plus for Stax Records, who had been hit in December 1967 by the shock death of its biggest star, Otis Redding. Together with Isaac Hayes, Taylor helped the company through the difficult days of 1968 and 1969. The first three were all released later in 1969: “Testify (I Wanna)”, “I Could Never Be President” and “Love Bones”, with two more top four hits in 1970: “Steal Away” and “I Am Somebody Part II”.
“Jody’s Got Your Girl and Gone”, written by producer Don Davis with Kent Barker and Cam Wilson, and produced by Davis, was released in December 1970, reaching number one on the R&B chart and number twenty-eight on the Billboard Hot 100 in February 1971. There were five more singles over the next two years, which charted on the R&B listings between number ten and sixteen.
Then in June 1973 Stax released “I Believe in You (You Believe in Me)”, written and produced by Don Davis. Davis had started writing the song in 1965 and had cut the basic track in Muscle Shoals with the famous rhythm section of bassist David Hood, drummer Roger Hawkins, guitarist Jimmy Johnson and keyboardist Barry Beckett. Later Davis overdubbed strings at the United Sound Recording Studio in Detroit, which he had purchased in 1971. “I Believe in You (You Believe in Me)” soon became one of the biggest hits of Taylor’s career, reaching number one on Billboard’s Hot Soul Singles Chart for two weeks and number eleven on the Billboard Pop Singles chart. The single was also certified gold by the RIAA in 1973 for sales of one million copies.