Taylor Made Soul
‘Come on, motherfucker, you can hit that note’
“He’s tougher than a $2 steak.”
Michigan’s John Dingell, the longest-serving congressman in American history, was referring to John McCain, the Republican senator recently diagnosed with cancer. But the same description could equally have been applied to Bobby Taylor, the Motown musician/magician who succumbed to leukemia on July 22. He had previously survived throat cancer more than two decades ago. When Bobby died in Hong Kong on Saturday, he was 83. “Tough” doesn’t begin to cover it.
I never had the opportunity to meet or interview the man, but was fortunate enough to see him in concert, leading the Vancouvers, even before the release of their Gordy debut, “Does Your Mama Know About Me.” The memory is vivid; they were exciting.
Performing at London’s Saville Theatre, on November 26, 1967, the six-man combo “proceeded to knock us dead,” I wrote at the time, “with socko versions of ‘All I Need,’ ‘Soul Man’ and ‘(I Wanna) Testify.’ The group had come over specially to back Chris [Clark], and are likely to back Miss Gladys Knight & the Pips on their forthcoming tour. They’ve already cut a number of songs in Detroit, and a single should be forthcoming soon. Look out for the name. They really are terrific!”
What followed is now a familiar narrative, being told again in the tributes to Taylor. There was that “forthcoming” single, a controversial song called “Does Your Mama Know About Me,” which introduced the Vancouvers to record buyers and the charts. Then, there was Bobby’s recognition of the talent of five young brothers from Gary, Indiana, when they played at Chicago’s Regal Theater in July 1968. He saw the Jackson 5 during a “Battle of the Groups,” staged at the venue over ten days; the other contestants included Taylor’s Vancouvers, the Artistics, the Vibrations, the Esquires, and Dyke & the Blazers.
But there’s no need for that oft-told story here. Instead, by way of recognising Taylor’s remarkable talent, here are a few facts which may not make the obituaries. The Vancouvers’ recording of “Does Your Mama Know About Me” (produced by Berry Gordy) was completed at Hitsville in December 1967, just a couple of weeks after their London appearance. Coincidentally, the song’s lyric about interracial love mirrored the premise of a movie released that same December: Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, starring Sidney Poitier.
Interracial, too, was the Vancouvers’ line-up. Tommy Chong, the guitarist who co-wrote “Does Your Mama Know About Me,” was Chinese Canadian; singer Taylor and bassist Wes Henderson were black; drummer Ted Lewis, organist Robbie King and guitarist Eddie Patterson were white. Then again, Bobby revealed years later that the lyric of “Does Your Mama…” was not about a black/white relationship. “It was about a Chinese man and a black woman,” he said. Tommy Chong was the husband, the woman was his wife, Maxine. “So we played it off from that,” said Taylor.
After signing to Motown, the Vancouvers had another experience of race relations. They made their first trip to Detroit during the summer of ’67, as riots were ravaging the city. “My guys were scared,” recalled Bobby later. “They were scared to death, and they didn’t stay in Detroit one night. Motown had to take them across the border into Canada, and that’s where they stayed.”
Taylor himself may not have been so intimidated. It’s said that he was a boxer in his previous life, an alternate on the U.S. team for the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. He apparently maintained that interest: after moving to Hong Kong eight years ago, Bobby encouraged and supported a young Chinese featherweight boxer, Rex Tso.
In the recording studio, Taylor could be tough, judging by the recollections of Tommy Chong in the just-published Rolling Stone obituary of his former bandmate. His greatest talent, according to Chong, “was teaching people how to sing: ‘Come on, motherfucker, you can hit that note. Come on! Just hit it!’ ” In his book You Are Not Alone, Jermaine Jackson confirmed Taylor’s command of his craft. “Bobby knew how to inspire us,” he wrote, “and he taught Michael and me how to use the mic properly in the studio.”
Taylor got down to work with the Jacksons at Hitsville in July 1969, after the group’s deal with the record company was finally signed that March. “We must have cut more than a dozen covers from the likes of the Delfonics, Smokey Robinson, the Temptations and Marvin Gaye,” recalled Jermaine, “and that work allowed us to ease into the recording process as a team prepared our original material.”
The Vancouvers were not averse to covers themselves, evidenced by the “socko” performance of hits by the Temptations, Sam & Dave and the Parliaments in London fifty years ago. Moreover, the band’s first album for Motown in 1968 and Bobby’s solo Taylor Made Soul in 1969 were populated by songs associated with others. Among the highlights of a 2006 U.K. compilation of Taylor’s recordings, The Motown Anthology, is his magnetic live performance of “Chained,” previously a hit for Marvin Gaye.
The compilation’s producer, Paul Nixon, says that “Chained” was recorded during a show at Detroit’s Fox Theatre on New Year’s Eve, 1968, but omitted from the subsequent album, Motortown Revue Live, when it was released the following July. Three other powerful Taylor performances at the Fox did make the LP: “Does Your Mama Know About Me,” “Who’s Making Love” and “Malinda.”
Bobby Taylor stayed on stage almost to the end. His last show was in February, at a Hong Kong nightclub where he had been gigging for the previous four years, with jazz pianist Mark Peter. “The last words he said to me two days ago were, ‘I want to work, let’s work,’ ” Peter told a local newspaper after Taylor’s death. “Music was everything to him.”