Johnnie Taylor has been a consistent conversation point between Henrique Hopkins and myself. And it was always in reference to him being a 60′ era soul singer who recorded and did consistently well with audiences up through the mid 90’s. The West Memphis, Arkansas native got his start as Sam Cooke’s replacement in the gospel group The Soul Stirrers. In 1965, Taylor signed to Stax records. He became one of the labels major stars,leading to his nickname as “The Philosopher Of Soul”. After Stax folded in the mid 70’s,Taylor signed with Columbia-where he remained for nearly a decade after that.
Johnnie Taylor is also one of those artists who I knew about long before even knowing his name. That was from dancing around as a pre-teen to his major pop Top 10 crossover funky soul hit “Who’s Makin’ Love” from 1970-hearing it on oldies radio all the time. In fact,that was a song I almost reviewed today. But there’s another song of his that came out half a decade later of his. One that Nelson George described the success of so wonderfully in his book The Death Of Rhythm & Blues. And musically,it has a surprising twist for me that I’ll get into after describing it. The name of this song was “Disco Lady”.
The drums kick right off into a slightly delayed 4/4 dance beat,accented by shaking bells. A high pitched melody on electric piano opens up the melody,which is accentuated by an equally melodic eight note bass line and a pulsing wah wah guitar. On each part of Taylor’s chorus,the horns accent his vocals in different ways. Sometimes with hard pulses,other times with a building sustain. On the bridge,the rhythm becomes a bouncing march before it melodically builds back into itself-complete with fanfaring horn charts and rubbery keyboards. The refrain repeats itself consistently until the song fades out.
“Disco Lady” is actually one of those fairly stripped down disco era funk songs where the instrumentation and the vocals are both designed for a slinky,sneaky attitude as opposed to a raucous one. As for that surprising twist I mentioned,it became known to me years ago that Taylor was backed up by P-Funk musicians on this song. Bassist Bootsy Collins, the late guitarist Glenn Goins and keyboard maestro Bernie Worrell and drummer Jerome Brailey play on the song. Along with backup vocals by Dawn’s (as in Tony Orlando) Telma Hopkins singing the backup vocals singing the chorus.
This song doesn’t exactly have the sound I would ever associate with P-Funk. And certainly not Tony Orlando & Dawn. But its songs such as this that have the power to help people understand how musicians function. If someone reads the liner notes to albums and look for names online,they’ll often find out that the best musicians in the funk,soul and jazz world especially have an expert sense of musical diversity. They know how to give a song what it needs-whether its based more on singers or instruments. And at least to me,that ethic is one of the major contributions of “Disco Lady”.