The 'Ghost' of Taylor's Past
A DETERMINED DEAN, INDEBTED TO HOLLAND/DOZIER/HOLLAND
When the print edition of the NME was unceremoniously scrapped a few weeks ago, it was difficult to avoid the media coverage and commentary, mostly expressing regret or resignation. When Motown was at its popularity peak in 1960s Britain, the New Musical Express (to offer its full title) was a regular source of news and features about the greats of West Grand.
I had a personal reason to rue the paper’s demise: my first income as a writer was the two guineas (bless) it paid me for information about R. Dean Taylor. The article printed in July 1968 is no longer in my possession, but I still have the advice note which accompanied the cheque. The NME was interested in Taylor because of “Gotta See Jane,” a Tamla Motown release which had spent three weeks in the U.K. Top 20 that summer. The record challenged conventional wisdom about the Motown “sound,” and so endeared Dean to some of us – at least, for a moment – for varying the formula.
By that point, he had been at the company for five years, working mostly with Holland/Dozier/Holland as an uncredited songwriter and determined tambourine shaker. Previously, this wannabe from Toronto had made pop singles for a variety of labels. At Motown, he recorded a few unimpressive sides in 1963-64, including “My Lady Bug Stay Away From That Beatle.” He was acknowledged as co-writer of that one, with H/D/H. About its only point of interest was the rhythm track’s resemblance to “When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes” during the intro.
In 1965, “Let’s Go Somewhere” was rather earnest, with lines like “People on the go in this mighty nation/You wouldn’t think there’d be time for discrimination.” The PR angle was Dean’s appearance. “You don’t have to look scraggly and unkempt to sing a protest song,” he told a Canadian newspaper, which duly observed that he was clean-shaven and neatly attired, with hair “only a little long.” The fact that this white 26-year-old was protesting in the context of a black-owned music company – at a time of America’s civil-rights struggle, no less – seems to have escaped the reporter.
“When I joined Motown, I had to learn to write,” Taylor explained to sage Canadian journalist Larry LeBlanc in a Hit Parader profile. “I could always write songs, but I couldn’t always write good songs. The difference between a hit and a good song can be a very slight thing. It could be the way the thing is put together. It could be the structure. I didn’t know this. I learned from Brian [Holland]. I learned from the best.”
"IF IT WASN'T FOR BRIAN..."
The debt extended to the release of “Let’s Go Somewhere” as a single. “It was like [Motown] doing Brian a favour by putting the record out,” Taylor told LeBlanc. “Nobody in the company would have faith at all in me. I also had a record called ‘There’s A Ghost in My House.’ It wasn’t promoted. The company wasn’t really there. If it wasn’t for Brian, the records would never have gone out.”
“Ghost” made its first appearance in March 1967 to little commercial effect. The same was true when “Gotta See Jane” was released in April 1968 – except in Britain, where the record’s ear-catching sound effects encouraged Motown’s local licensee, EMI Records, to apply some promotional muscle. Thus, "Jane" skidded into the Top 20.
By now, Taylor had gained further kudos through his credited co-authorship of the Four Tops’ “I’ll Turn To Stone.” This is one of the group’s most-loved flipsides: it charted in its own right in the U.S., and became hugely popular on British dance floors. The song generated a decent royalty stream not only from the Tops’ version (which was also included on both their Reach Out and Live! albums) but also from the Supremes’ take, as featured on The Supremes Sing Holland*Dozier*Holland.
Taylor’s stock at Motown rose even after H/D/H quit. Again thanks to Brian, he had secured a producer’s contract, and worked in that capacity with Paul Petersen (“A Little Bit For Sandy”) and the Messengers (“Window Shopping”). The Canadian was also on the team which in ’68 created “Love Child,” the Supremes’ first post-H/D/H No. 1 single. “We locked ourselves in a room with Berry Gordy Jr.,” he recalled, “and came up with the tune. I sang the vocals on the demo, singing in a falsetto voice, which is really a laugh, so Diana could get the thing as a tune.”
REGAN ASKS CANNON FOR A SHOT
In 1969, Taylor played a role in the launch of Rare Earth Records, producing two of the Motown rock label’s first LP releases: Bedlam by the Rustix, and Messengers. For the latter album, he chose four of his own songs, and three Holland/Dozier/Holland copyrights. One Taylor tune, the jangly “Greyhound To Indiana,” hinted at his next step.
The following year, R. Dean Taylor was finally recognised as an artist in his own right with another imaginative, effects-filled piece of pure pop. “Indiana Wants Me” was written by the singer, arranged with David Van DePitte, and gained the distinction of being Motown Records’ only chart-topper by a white artist: No. 1 on the Cash Box Top 100 singles in November 1970.
The hitmaker explained to LeBlanc that two movies had influenced him, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Bonnie and Clyde. “I thought, ‘What’s a wanted man going to feel?’ Driving along one day, all of a sudden I thought, ‘Indiana Wants Me’ – that’s a super title. I’m going to write about a wanted man.”
Top radio DJ Scott Regan from Detroit’s WKNR, a familiar figure around the Motown offices, heard the song in its early form, and once more when studio engineer Don Gooch added the police sirens. “I believed in that record,” Scottie told me, “and went to the station’s music director – I think it was Paul Cannon – to do a ‘make it or break it.’ I had been at CKLW and was now back at WKNR, and ’CK was destroying us, so Paul only wanted to add the hits.” Regan urged him to take a shot with “Indiana,” and Cannon finally relented. “It was without question a number one record,” said the disc jockey, “and I did a show at Cobo Hall for St. Jude's Children’s Hospital. Dean was there – he sang the song for the show.”
AN URGENT CALL ON CHRISTMAS EVE
When Taylor followed “Indiana Wants Me” with an album, I Think, Therefore I Am, the DJ contributed the liner notes. “He smiled a lot except when the recording light came on,” Regan wrote. “It is that dedication to his music that has helped Dean achieve the super success he now enjoys.”
The power of WKNR (“Keener 13”) was formidable, although the former head of Rare Earth Records, the late Joe Summers, was certain that promotion man Al Valente broke “Indiana” out of a station in Flint, Michigan. When we spoke in 2014, Summers also recalled wanting to break Taylor himself. “The Motown building [on Woodward Avenue] was an old office building, with no screens,” he said. “The windows were large and we’d open them in the summertime. After Dean came to my office, yelling at me over something, I was really thinking, ‘I could just pick him up and throw him out.’ ” On another occasion, Summers remembered Taylor calling him at home on Christmas Eve because the record department of top Detroit department store Hudson’s didn’t have stock of I Think, Therefore I Am. “Dean was driven,” said Summers.
In the event, the album didn’t do well nationally, even though its cover art brought the singer remarkably close to Motown’s executive vice president and general manager in 1970, Barney Ales. The photo shoot took place by Ales’ home in upstate Michigan, with up-and-coming local snapper Tom Bert. To emphasise Taylor as a modern troubadour, he was pictured strumming a guitar and watched by young admirers – who happened to be Ales’ five children.
After the lacklustre sales of I Think, Therefore I Am, the singer complained to Ales. The Motown exec remembered the encounter well. “Dean said, ‘All the women who loved me, they thought those were my kids [on the cover] and that’s why the album didn't sell.’ ”
For all that, Taylor enjoyed more time on the charts, especially across the Atlantic. In mid-1974, a shrewd reissue of “There’s A Ghost In My House” spent six weeks in the U.K. Top 10, capitalising on the record’s rampant popularity on the Northern Soul circuit. The NME probably wrote about him then, too – perhaps even calling on facts printed in an edition six years earlier.
Music notes: many of R. Dean Taylor's Motown recordings can be heard on The Essential Collection, a 2001 release in the U.K., and on various editions of the U.S. series The Complete Motown Singles and Motown Unreleased. They're available on streaming services, too.