JOHNNIE TAYLOR-TAYLORED IN SILK.

JOHNNIE TAYLOR-TAYLORED IN SILK.

In a previous article, I reviewed Shirley Brown’s album Woman To Woman, which was one of the last albums released on the legendary Stax label. It’s one of a series of albums that have recently, been remastered by Joe Tarantino. His remastering totally transformed the sound of Shirley’s 1974 album, bringing the music brilliantly to life. Another of the albums that have been remastered, is one that’s long been a favorite of mine, Johnnie Taylor’s 1973 album Taylored In Silk. This is an album from what I’d call the Stax third period, between 1972 and 1975. I’ve owned this album for many years, but when I heard the difference that the remastering made to Woman To Woman, I decided to buy the remastered version. Having bought the album, I hoped that Joe Tarantino’s remastering will have made the same difference to Taylored In Silk, an album that was responsible for changing, redefining and honing the sound of Memphis Soul.

By the time Johnnie Taylor arrived at Stax in 1966, he was a hugely experienced singer. Like many successful singers, his first experience of music, was singing in the church. After that, he’d sung in gospel groups and then, aged twenty-three, was hired to replace Sam Cooke in The Soul Stirrers in 1957. Five years later, Johnnie was one of the first artists to sign to Cooke’s newly established label SAR Records. Sadly, after Cooke’s death in 1964, the label folded. In 1966, Johnnie joined Stax, where he quickly gained the nickname “The Philosopher of Soul.” 

During his first few years at Stax, Johnnie recorded a number of songs written by Isaac Hayes and David Porter, one of the most prolific and successful songwriting partnerships on Stax. His most successful hit came in 1968, Who’s Making Love, which reached number five in the US Billboard 100 and number one in the US R&B Charts. The single sold over a million copies, and saw Johnnie receive a gold disc. This wasn’t his only million selling single, with I Believe In You (You Believe In Me), released in 1973, which reached number eleven in the US Hot 100, selling over a million copies and being certified gold. Between 1966 and the label closing in 1975, Johnnie was one of Stax’s most successful, and most popular artists. So when he recorded Taylored In Silk, everything seemed set for a successful album. However was that the case?

Unlike earlier albums released on Stax, which were recorded in the Stax Studios on McLemore Avenue, Taylored In Silk was recorded in Muscle Shoals. Unfortunately, the personnel for the album is unknown, so we’ve no way of knowing which musicians played on the album. Once the tracks were recorded, there was much overdubbing required. All the effort was worth it, with three R&B hits singles being released from the album. Believe In Me (You Believe In Me), Cheaper To Keep Her and We’re Getting Careless With Our Love all provided Johnnie with chart hits. So, things looked good for the release of Taylored In Silk was released, with Johnnie hoping the album would match the success of the singles. When it was released in 1973, it reached number three in the US R&B Charts and number fifty-four in the US Billboard 200 Chart. Since then, Taylored In Silk is perceived as one of the finest soul albums released in the early seventies, which I’ll now tell you about.

Taylored In Silk opens with We’re Getting Careless With Our Love, a song that finds the characters in the song nearly being caught cheating. Both of them are intoxicated on the excitement of leading a double life, sneaking around, behind their partner’s back, stealing moments of forbidden passion. This track gave Johnnie his third consecutive US R&B number one and reached number eleven in the US Billboard 100 during the summer of 1973. The track opens with a guitar quickly soaring, sounding like a riff from a Chuck Berry track, before a slow, moody sounding organ, rhythm section and guitar are accompanied by a variety of oohs, representing the cheating duo. When Johnnie sings, his soulful, seductive voice is accompanied by subtle, rasping horns, backing vocalists and floating strings which sweep in. With the addition of the soaring, joyous backing vocalists, gently rasping horns and lush strings, the track is transformed to sensual, smooth slice of seductive soul, thanks to Johnnie’s vocal and Don Davis brilliant production. 

Mel and Tim had a number four US R&B hit with Starting All Over Again, which Johnnie covers on Taylored In Soul. Before I listened to Johnnie’s version, I listened to Mel and Tim’s version again, a track I’ve always loved. Personally, Mel and Tim’s track, which opens with dialogue between the duo, before a hugely sad, slow and quite beautiful track unfolds. They sing the track with boundless emotion and feeling, their voices soaring slowly and soulfully, sometimes accompanied by backing vocalists and braying horns. For me, that version will never be bettered, but  who knows, maybe Johnnie’s version will run it close? When Johnnie’s version opens, cymbals are subtly played, before horns and strings interject and Johnnie, accompanied by female backing vocalists enters. His voice has a gritty, yet thoughtful, considered sound, as guitars, rhythm section and swooning, backing vocalist soar heavenwards. Quickly, the arrangement unfolds, grand, strings sweeping, combining with guitars and drums in unison, to keep the tempo slow and the beat regular. Here, the arrangement is rich and fulsome, enveloping Johnnie’s vocal with its beauty. As the song ends, Johnnie’s version has run Mel and Tim’s vocal close. However, as beautiful and sumptuous the arrangement and vocal are, I still prefer Mel and Tim’s version, albeit it’s a close run thing.

Like many of the tracks on the album, Cheaper To Keep Her is a song about love and relationships gone wrong, with Johnnie coming to the conclusion that it’s cheaper to keep his wife than divorce her. This track was released as a single, reaching number two in the US R&B Charts and number eleven in the US Billboard 100. It’s a track that swings when it opens, with shades of a big band sound when the blazing horns briefly interject, accompanied by a piano and bass. When Johnnie sings, his vocal is quite different, half-sung, half spoken. While horns rasp, ironically, female vocalists sweetly, swoon, soulfully in unison “it’s cheaper to keep. her.” Still, the piano and bass, continue to provide a sound that has a quaint, old-fashioned sound and feel, that’s highlighted by the horns, backing vocalists and slower, yet swinging tempo. Atop this arrangement sits Johnnie’s vocal, which has returned to a much more traditional style, one full of confusion and bemusement. Although quite different from the previous tracks in sound and style, this track really works. Much of this is down to the somewhat retro sounding, big band influenced arrangement, and Johnnie’s ability to breath life and energy into the lyrics. 

Talk To Me has a lovely slow, lush yet dramatic sweeping sound, featuring one of the best and smoothest arrangements on the album. As if that’s not enough, Johnnie’s vocal is emotive, laden in drama and passion, as he pleadingly sings the lyrics. Drums, swirling, grand strings, chiming guitars and bass open the track, before Johnnie sings, a flute twinkling above him. His voice is warm, full of emotion and passion, as a piano plays, while strings sweep, horns subtly rasp and backing vocalists harmonize. By now the arrangement is slow, dramatic and beautifully lush. As the song progresses, both the arrangement and vocal just gets better. The drama increases, with Johnnie pleading, willing his girlfriend to talk to him. Behind him, the arrangement although slow, is lavish, as it meanders along beautifully, a quite irresistible and stunning arrangement the perfect backdrop for Johnnie’s desperate pleas. 

When I Believe In You (You Believe In Me) was released as a single, it provided Johnnie with a number one US R&B single and number eleven single in the US Billboard 100. Here, it’s another song about love and relationships, with Johnnie promising to believe in his lady forevermore, the same way she believes in him. Like the previous track, it benefits from another great arrangement, that’s a fitting accompaniment to Johnnie’s vocal, which is full of sincerity and emotion. The tempo is slow when an organ, rhythm section, guitar and flute combine to accompany Johnnie. Meanwhile, a sweet sounding bass dances around, seemingly partnering the flute and then latterly the strings.  Straight away, the arrangement unfolds revealing a combination of pounding drums, sweeping strings, shimmery, chiming guitars, floaty flute and of course that dancing bass. They provide a fuller arrangement for Johnnie’s vocal which is laden with power and passion. His voice soars, accompanied by female backing vocalists, whose voices unite soulfully. Both the driving, swirling and rich arrangement and Johnnie’s emotive, sincere vocal combine perfectly, resulting in a track that sounds quite beautiful and brilliant.

As One Thing Wrong With My Woman opens, you’re immediately struck by the beautiful, slow and lush arrangement that opens the track. It’s a combination of female backing vocalists, subtly harmonizing, while lush strings, rhythm section, gently chiming guitars, brief burst of horns and a flute, floating high above the rest of the arrangement. When Johnnie sings, his voice is strong, full of sadness and regret, as he sings how his girlfriend no longer loves him. Matching this tale of woe, is an arrangement that matches his sadness. This is thanks to grand sweeping strings, a slow rhythm section and the flute which combines perfectly with the strings. Together, they produce a sound drenched in sadness and despair, matching the heartache in Johnnie’s voice. A combination of the saddest sounding of arrangements and a desperate, heartbroken vocal from Johnnie combine masterfully, making a hugely moving and emotionally charged track.

I Can Read Between the Lines has a slight Caribbean influence on the track, due to the use of percussion. Here, Johnnie knows his relationship is over without any words being exchanged. He realizes the time has come for them to go their separate ways. Percussion, rhythm section, guitars and horns combine for Johnnie’s vocal enters. Straight away, his sadness and regret is palpable, as he sings the lyrics, while braying horns interject dramatically. Adding to the atmosphere, is a subtle Hammond organ that cuts in briefly. Swooning, soulful backing vocalists accompany Johnnie, as one of the best arrangements on the album develops. Here, the sound is smoother, rounded, lacking the grittiness of earlier Memphis soul cuts. This is part of the track’s attraction, and ultimately success, because this to me, is one of the highlights of Taylored In Silk.

Taylored In Silk closes with This Bitter Earth track that combines percussion, lush strings, rasping horns, piano and flute as the track opens. The rhythm section enter along with Johnnie’s strong, thoughtful and questioning vocal, as he ponders his future. Quickly, the arrangement becomes dramatic, grand strings swirl high, while horns rasp and bray, and Johnnie pours his heart out, a mixture of raw emotion, vulnerability and despondency. Meanwhile, slow chiming, shimmering guitars, a moody bass and occasional floaty flute manage to improve a hugely moving and emotional arrangement. By the end of the track, a despairing Johhnie has delivered one of the most moving vocals on the album, against a backdrop of emotion and drama, which is the perfect way to close the album.

Johnnie Taylor’s album Taylored In Silk may just contain eight songs, but they’re eight beautiful and quite brilliant songs. On each song, he delivered them with emotion and passion, transforming sometimes familiar lyrics and making them his own. This album had quite an important influence on Memphis soul, helping to redefine and change the Memphis Sound. It was known as being much smoother, polished and produced than the grittier, harder edged Southern Soul. On this album, Johhnie Taylor and producer Don Davis either deliberately, or by chance, added elements of Southern Soul to the smooth, polished Memphis Sound. What they ended up with, was an album that although still smooth and polished, sometimes had a grittier, harder edge to it. To me, this combination of styles is part of what makes this such an excellent album, that, and that every song has a story to tell. Whether it’s love gone wrong, love lost or the unfaithfulness of the opening track We’re Getting Careless With Our Love, Johnnie brings the songs to live. He sings each song like he’s lived each one several times over. That’s something not many singers can do, but Johnnie could. 

At the start of the article I mentioned that I’d bought the new remastered version of Taylored In Slik after hearing and reviewing a remastered version of Shirley Brown’s Woman To Woman. With that album I was blown away by the quality of the sound thanks to Joe Tarantino’s remastering. The same can be said of this album. Listening to the album, it sounds much better, far clearer with the music coming to life, and the album’s subtleties and nuances revealing themselves. What’s more it’s all the better to hear Johnnie’s combination of heartbreakers, tear-jerkers and smoochy slices of sumptuous seventies soul. Standout Tracks: We’re Getting Careless With Our Love, Starting All Over Again, Talk To Me and One Thing Wrong With My Woman.

JOHNNIE TAYLOR-TAYLORED IN SILK.

Taylored in Silk [Stax Remasters]

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