Johnnie Taylor, Soul Man

Johnnie Taylor's Live at the Summit Club gets released.

If you have ghosts, Roky Erickson once posited, then you have everything.

I’m borrowing that lyric as the title for this bloggerly endeavor because we’ll be talking a lot about the ghosts of music’s past here – particularly the obscurities and curiosities that never got their due the first time around – along with an ephemeral frosting of everything else.

So let’s heat it and eat it, shall we?

Concord Music Group’s reactivation of Stax Records hits jamming speed Thursday night when Isaac Hayes, William Bell, Eddie Floyd, and Booker T & the MGs roll into town for the “Stax 50” SXSW showcase at Antone’s. It’s a shame Johnnie Taylor won’t be there with them.

Taylor died of a heart attack at Dallas’ Methodist Charlton Hospital in 2000 at age 62. Although he was born in Crawfordsville, Ark., Taylor lived in the Dallas area for many years and was a DJ on Soul 73 KKDA-AM. In Texas, that’s more than enough to claim an artist as our own.

Taylor first came to national prominence when he replaced Sam Cooke in the Soul Stirrers. Cooke later signed Taylor as a solo artist to his independent SAR label in 1962. Taylor had a minor hit there with “Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day,” but Cooke’s 1964 shooting death was also the death knell for SAR. In 1966, Taylor signed with Stax.

From Otis Redding’s death in 1967 to Isaac Hayes’ ascendancy with 1969’s Hot Buttered Soul, Taylor was Stax Records’ top artist, ultimately racking up a stack of Top 10 R&B hits for the legendary Memphis label that included “Who’s Making Love,” “Take Care of Your Homework,” and “Jody’s Got Your Girl and Gone.” Although he didn’t perform at the 1972 Wattstax benefit concert, his performance of “Jody” at L.A.’s Summit Club was a standout scene in Mel Stuart’s Wattstax documentary.

Taylor must have been aware of Isaac Hayes being anointed in front of more than 100,000 people at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum by the Rev. Jesse Jackson while he was stuck grinding it out for the sharply dressed players at a South Los Angeles nightclub. Accounts are murky as to why Taylor didn’t appear at Wattstax. He may have been bumped from the lineup or he may have balked at his assigned time slot.

Whatever the reason, Taylor’s complete Summit Club performance was issued by Stax for the first time last month. Of the many new releases surrounding the label's 50th anniversary, Live at the Summit Club may be the most revelatory thus far.

Ironically, the album captures Taylor and his band having an unshakable off night. Throughout the set, Taylor can be heard imploring the rhythm section not to “lose the groove.” At one point, he even tells the audience, “We’ve been dragging all night!”

Even with sloppy stops and clams galore, Taylor gives a vital and electric performance that goes from funky soul workouts (not one but two versions of “Steal Away”) to slow big band blues (“Little Bluebird,” “Hello Sundown”) before ending with the scorching nine-minute workout of “Jody,” a clever confluence of African-American oral tradition and military cadence that still resonates today in the lexicon of troops in Iraq.

The raw nature of the recording gives it a unique energy that wouldn’t have been there otherwise. There’s nothing like the potential of everything falling apart to leave you breathless and waiting to hear what comes next. The astute, unfazed manner in which the (then) 38-year-old Taylor leads his band through the muddle suggests he’s been through much worse.

Holding it together like Taylor did is the mark of a great performer, which is why Live at the Summit Club is an essential document in the history of soul survival.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

SXSW, Johnnie Taylor, Stax, Isaac Hayes, Live at the Summit Club, Wattstax

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