Considering that this is a posthumous collection of outtakes and unused tracks amassed from Johnnie Taylor’s 16 years at Malaco, the first pleasant surprise is that these are all “real” songs: no drawn-out improvisations, no instrumental jams, and no obscure live and alternate versions barely discernible from the originals. The liner notes mention that Taylor was in the habit of recording a few extra songs than needed each time he recorded an album, so the recording quality here is unflaggingly professional; no demos recorded in Taylor’s living room here. As posthumous albums go, this is a dignified, honest effort from Malaco.
Taylor’s voice is strong and expressive and, when he gets his vocals around a good song, he definitely knows what to do with it. His shortcomings only become clear when he sings something reminiscent of something you’ve heard before from other, better singers and he falls short by comparison. Especially when the primary comparisons Taylor evokes are Sam Cooke first and Otis Redding second.
Of course, it’s not fair to compare most mortals with the likes of Sam Cooke or Otis Redding. One can even be an excellent singer without equaling either of them. But the truly excellent but still less-than-Cooke, less-than-Redding singers all carve out a niche for themselves, leaving a personal stamp that makes unflattering comparisons moot.
The problem isn’t that Johnnie Taylor’s odes to good times undermine his credibility as a ballad singer. The problem is that he never develops an adequate personal style that allows him to be judged purely on his own terms. So when he sings “Where Is Your Woman Tonight” (with good results, actually), it’s impossible not to think of Sam Cooke, whom, between the Big Three of Sam Cooke, Al Green, and Otis Redding, Taylor most resembles, though the rougher edge to Taylor’s voice also adds a hint of Redding. So take Taylor as a cross between Cooke and Redding, but without the inspired feeling of either.
Also take him as a soul singer with a touch of Robert Cray’s soul-inflected blues. The biggest difference between Taylor and soul music mentors like Cooke and Redding was that Taylor’s records present a bigger assman than the work of either of his influences. Compared to Cooke’s silky romanticism and Redding’s gritty romanticism, Taylor gets more action than your average soul singer. Here, he wink-winks and nudge-nudges his way through numbers like “Baby Sittin’”, “I’m in a Midnight Mood”, and “Crazy ‘Bout You Baby”. The latter, especially, rides an old workhorse of a blues riff and lyric after smoothing it over with soulful horns and vocals. Just as Cray has been (incorrectly) accused of selling out the blues to pop and soul, so too did Taylor, approaching the crossroads of soul and blues from the other spectrum, have to defend himself against being classified as only a blues artist.
However, for all Taylor’s blues-like odes to good times (the aforementioned songs) and being cuckolded (“You Know It Ain’t Right”), the resemblance with Cray is more stylistic than spiritual. For Taylor, there remains the promise of a better life and of redemption. Even when Taylor’s narrator is the presumable cuckolder, as in “Please Sign the Dotted Line”, he hopes that the woman he has fallen in love will be able to start a new life with him. Taylor may have taken on blues subjects, but never the sort of blues that, like “Death Letter Blues,” stares oblivion in the eye. Taylor remains a soul artist as much by his optimism as by his music. His good times do not carry with them a bluesman’s sense of fun in the face of nothingness; for Taylor, seeming one-nighters hold the possibility of a deeper, lasting happiness. It’s that glimmer of lasting happiness and the active pursuit of it (the album’s closer “The Second Time Around”, for instance) that make Taylor, at his core, a soul artist and a traditionalist at that (give or take the synthesized beats on “Second Time Around”).
Take him, then, as a litmus test for how much you like soul music. He’s not good enough to transcend his genre, but he works quite well within it. Taylor’s good enough to credibly build upon the stylings of the all-time greats without being able to create a viable identity for himself. The pleasures he offers are largely formalistic, the product of traditional elements well done. Nothing wrong with that, of course; hoards of rock bands have gotten much richer than Johnnie Taylor by doing the same (as genre-bound formalists in different genres, Taylor trumps the hell out of, for starters, Weezer; his songs actually have discernible narrative content and emotion). It all comes down to whether you like soul as an entire genre and not merely as a collection of unforgettable songs. If you’re in the latter group, this CD, like the rest of Johnnie Taylor’s oeuvre, won’t convert you to the former. If you’re already one of the converted, you already know what to expect from this album. But you won’t be disappointed.
// Notes from the Road
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