Thousands turn out for Taylor's funeral

Johnnie Taylor

A Man of Blues and Soul who touch everyone hearts and now pass on his legendary.  Almost every weekend, the soul man did what a soul man's got to do.

Johnnie Taylor, maybe Dallas' best-known ambassador of a pure American art form, would head to the airport or back his big tour bus onto Marsalis Avenue and move out on another smooth musical odyssey that would take him from Oak Cliff to points around the world. 

But as he left his modest office just off Interstate 35, the one decorated with his framed gold and platinum records, it wasn't just another road trip. When elegant and often private Johnnie Taylor would glide in the general direction of your neighborhood, he'd be preparing to preach about love and all its mysterious, smoky, inconsistent, incandescent and bittersweet vagaries:

Simply put, Johnnie Taylor, who died last week at 62 from a heart attack, was an impossibly cool and learned high priest of love:

Love lost, found, stolen, betrayed, sold, bartered, badgered and cheated on.

"The best way to put it," said his friend and peer Little Milton Campbell, taking time out from a gig in Las Vegas, "is that there was only one Johnnie Taylor. He was a soul man and there aren't many left."

In early May, as part of an annual celebration of his birthday, many of his musical friends and family members (including his children) came to listen to the legend in the fittingly legendary Longhorn Ballroom. It was, in a way, the appropriate final showcase for Johnnie Taylor - the Longhorn, for years, has served as the scene of the greatest blues, R&B and soul triumphs in the history of the city.

It was also fitting that his children, including the ones in his extended musical family, were there. In a way, Mr. Taylor was a godfather in a special, sadly unheralded pantheon that still sets Dallas apart from most American cities. For decades, Dallas has quietly had one of the most important concentrations of artists who have resolutely been perfecting and keeping alive what has generically been labeled "soul" - that achingly poignant brand of American music seemingly filled with the entire depth and scope of human emotion.

Among a few of the soul-inspired artists who have lived in Dallas, or camped out here for a while, are: Z.Z. Hill. Vernon Garrett. Charlie Roberson. Barbara Morrison. Bobby Patterson. Ernie Johnson. Gregg Smith. Millie Jackson. R.L. Griffin. Al "TNT" Braggs. Etta James. Sam Myers. Little Nicki. Brenda George. Harold Walker. Little Joe Blue. Tutu Jones. Andrew "Junior Boy" Johnson. B'nois King. Lucky Peterson. James Braggs.

But beyond the sheer number of performers, the Dallas soul sound is important stylistically. It is usually distinguished by an inescapable nod to the sophisticated marriage between deep blues and uptown jazz that Dallas' own Aaron "T-Bone" Walker (whose very first record in the early part of the 20th century was called "Trinity River Blues" - and was cut under the name Oak Cliff T-Bone) helped to invent.

But, like all good soul music, the Dallas sound is also always embedded in the church - and, of course, that's where you can find Mr. Taylor's musical roots. He was born in Crawfordsville, Ark., on May 5, 1938, sang in churches and then first recorded with the Five Echoes doo-wop group. He moved to the Highway Q.C.'s gospel ensemble and then, in his first important career move, replaced Sam Cooke as the lead gospel singer in the Soul Stirrers.

"Johnny was emblematic of the sound that came out of the church," said author and musicologist Peter Guralnick. Mr. Taylor had, he said, a combination of "gospel fervor and vocal sophistication." (Of course, it's no small coincidence that a special service was scheduled for yesterday at Good Street Baptist Church, where many of the most important memorials to Dallas' leading citizens have taken place over the years.)

For a while, Mr. Taylor even served as a preacher, until Mr. Cooke asked him to sing for his new label. Finally, after Mr. Cooke's death, Mr. Taylor gravitated toward the Stax label - and, during that label's heyday, he began his ascent into the first ranks of American soul singers. He uncorked a spray of hits, toured the world, was recognized for having the tightest bands in the business - and also dedicated himself to maintaining a relatively low profile around the media. Mr. Taylor did most of his speaking up on stage - including barreling through the South on what Bobby Bland still affectionately calls "the chitlin' circuit" of nightclubs and dance halls like the Eastwood Country Club in San Antonio or J.B's Entertainment Center in Houston.

But Mr. Taylor, much like jazz immortal Red Garland did late in his life, also decided to make Dallas his base of operations. He moved here in the 1960s and never left - and his presence often served as an inspiration to dozens of other soul artists struggling to keep their sound on the capricious airwaves.

"He was very, very important. He kept the trend going for about three decades," says singer and bandleader R.L. Griffin, whose nightclub in South Dallas was a place Mr. Taylor would frequently drop by. "He was one of our leaders."

That fact has been underscored by the outpouring of tributes to Mr. Taylor coursing across the Internet since his death. At a special memorial site set up by the Mississippi-based Malaco record label (his home for the last 16 years - and the home for other stalwarts such as Mr. Campbell and Tyrone Davis), there were messages posted from around the world. Among the laudatory notes was one from Karl Tsigdinos, host of The River of Soul radio show in Dublin, who said: "I have played the full variety of his songs on my radio show here in Ireland, and always receive many requests for his music, so I know he leaves a lot of fans on this small island. Music cannot afford to lose such talents - they are not being replaced." And, from Radio France, Jean Luc Vabres simply wrote: "It's a sad day here in France, J.T. will be in our hearts forever."

At Malaco, where Mr. Taylor and Mr. Hill were among the biggest sellers in the label's history, the founder and president didn't mince any words when it came to his own salute. "He was the last of the great soul men and nobody can replace him," said Tommy Couch.

In Texas, at least, it could be said that Mr. Taylor was rivaled in critical and commercial popularity by only one other soul man - Joe Tex, the native of Rogers and resident of Navasota. And the director of the Texas Music Office, a wing of Gov. George W. Bush's office, maintained that Mr. Taylor was an important Lone Star asset.

"Music lovers in this state were made better by his beautiful voice," said Casey Monahan. "I hope people keep him alive by listening to his music."

That shouldn't be a problem, according to Little Milton Campbell. He's someone who knows what life is like being one of the handful of internationally traveling soul men who have tried to stay the course - the artists who are unafraid to bring that sweet, aching music to either a juke joint in Elgin, Texas, or a sold-out stadium in Europe.

Love, and all its glories and pitfalls, will never go out of fashion. And, really, Johnnie Taylor's lessons are eternal. He was a preacher in the church for a while. And he was preaching, just on a different stage, right until he died.

"When Johnny would choose his material, it would be lyrics that made people go: 'Yeah, I've been there, I've done that.' He sang about everyday life. He maintained the heritage of recording about realism," says Mr. Campbell.

"The man was a hell of a singer."

 


CAREER ACHIEVEMENTS

 Born in Crawfordsville, Ark., May 5, 1938.

 In the early 1950s, began singing with a doo-wop group called the Five Echoes. They made their first and only recording for the Chance label in Chicago.

 Became a member, in the mid-1950s, of the Highway Q.C.'s gospel group and appeared on the song "Somewhere to Lay My Head."

 In 1957, was picked to replace Sam Cooke as the lead singer in the Soul Stirrers, the influential gospel quintet. Listeners said that his voice, at times, had an uncanny resemblance to Mr. Cooke's.

 After the Soul Stirrers, he served briefly as a preacher.

 When Mr. Cooke formed his SAR record label, he asked Mr. Taylor to join him. In 1962, Mr. Taylor had a hit with "Rome Wasn't Built In A Day."

 After Mr. Cooke's death, Mr. Taylor continued touring and singing and finally signed with Stax Records in Memphis in 1967. He began a seven-year string of hits for the label and often used different Muscle Shoals session musicians to round out his sound, either on the road or on record. Among his hits: "I Had A Dream," "I've Got to Love Somebody's Baby," "Who's Making Love," "Cheaper to Keep Her," "Jody's Got Your Girl" and "Take Care Of Your Homework."

 Signed to the Columbia label, he had his biggest hit with "Disco Lady" in 1975 - which sold 2 million copies and was reportedly the first single to be certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America.

 In 1982, he charted with "What About My Love" for the Beverly Glen label. Looking for someone to replace artist Z.Z. Hill (who was also living in Dallas, and who had scored one of the best-selling soul-blues songs of all time with "Down Home Blues") after Mr. Hill died in 1984, Malaco Records signed Mr. Taylor.

 For 16 years, Mr. Taylor recorded a number of critically and commercially successful albums for Malaco, many of them steeped in the classic soul music genre that he had helped to invent in the 1960s and 1970s.

 Died May 31, 2000. At the time of his death, his last album, Gotta Get The Groove Back, was at No. 100 on the Billboard R&B and hip-hop chart.

 A song from that last album, which Malaco was talking about releasing as a single earlier this year, is called "Soul Heaven." In it, Mr. Taylor sings about a man dreaming about dying and joining the roll call of the great, immortal soul singers in "soul heaven."

By Bill Minutaglio / The Dallas Morning News

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