[29 March 2007]
Johnnie Taylor is not a household name like fellow soul singers Otis Redding and Sam Cooke, but at one time he was the talk of the R&B world. Taylor was Stax Records’ biggest-selling artist after Redding died (he was also, incidentally, a pallbearer at Redding’s funeral), and his 1968 song “Who’s Making Love” was a defining smash, reaching number five on the pop charts and remaining at number one on the R&B charts for three weeks. Taylor, nicknamed “Philosopher of Soul”, ravaged blues and R&B songs alike with an insatiable, gospel-born grit (before becoming a secular singer, he was Cooke’s replacement in the Soul Stirrers); “Who’s Making Love” anointed him a soul hound, but blues-based tunes like “Little Bluebird” appealed to his inner cheap-seat ballad belter.
Taylor is in rousing form on Live at the Summit Club, a Los Angeles show taped in September 1972 and recently released for the very first time on the reactivated Stax label. (Edited versions of three songs from the set were previously released on other compilations.) Taylor was supposed to perform with other Stax artists a month earlier at the Los Angeles Coliseum for the Wattstax festival, but was removed from the bill at the last minute, either due to overbooking issues, Taylor’s wounded ego (in his liner notes, Lee Hildebrand speculates that Taylor was jealous over Isaac Hayes’s closing slot), or a combination of both. As a result, Taylor’s small-club set is much more faithful to the cramped, sweaty sound of soul music, and an excerpt of his last song, “Jody’s Got Your Girl and Gone”, was a highlight of the Wattstax film released in 1973.
Throughout the set, Taylor maintains a great rapport with the audience, a packed house wildly receptive to his near-breathless call and response. At the same time, he’s obviously frustrated with his band, which repeatedly falls short of his perfectionist expectations. The band was likely comprised, at least partly, of some for-hire L.A. musicians—exact names, it would appear, are unknown, as the album does not include a roster of players—and it may have inadvertently gotten off on the wrong foot at the show’s onset, for you can hear the rhythm section hit the wrong changes in the lead-off track, “Take Care of Your Homework”. Taylor repeatedly instructs his band to start and stop, to bring it up and bring it down, to hold that groove and don’t lose it, and at times it almost sounds like his discipline is thinly veiled retaliation for appearing like he’s not in control. His heated stage banter smuggles in a few passive-aggressive insults aimed at the musicians (“Everybody quiet down, I’m gonna talk to the audience… I think I can get a better understanding out of the audience here right now”), and he even orders the Wattstax film crew out of his way—obviously, the Summit Club was getting mighty crowded, and Taylor’s ego had precious little room to move.
Part of the thrill of Live at the Summit Club comes from the tension generated by Taylor’s on-stage mood swings, as well as the band’s anxious desire to keep up with his demands. Still, those so-called annoyances are burdened by Taylor alone: little blips in pitch-perfect function aside, his band smokes through the evening’s set, nailing the hopalong grooves of “Who’s Making Love” and both attempts at “Steal Away”; and sizzling with slow-burn rapture on ballads like the remarkable “Hello Sundown”, with its candle-wax horns and rubbery lead guitar. The raw and tempestuous performances only add to the charged atmosphere of the club; the players, whoever they are, attack each song with that trademark Stax blend of earthy warmth and burgeoning carnality. Taylor’s just as good himself, his dog-eared croon tearing like shreds of sandpaper and vulnerable to James Brown-esque vocal sabotages. Live at the Summit Club may not boast a groundbreaking performance, but it harbors an archetypal one, one temporarily lost to history and now, at long last, ready to be discovered again for the first time.