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Taylor Made

[whitespace] Bobby Taylor
Christopher Gardner

From Louis Jordan to the Jackson 5, San Jose's Bobby Taylor has been a part of the history of R&B

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

OLD-SCHOOL R&B artist Bobby Taylor sits over morning coffee in a near-empty Alberto's Mexican Restaurant in San Jose and talks of the magical days of Motown music in the '60s, when black pop artists from the Detroit label were vaulting over the recording race barrier and galloping through the white market. Taylor had already signed his own group with Motown: Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers. Now, in the summer of '68, he brought in a group of young kids he wanted to introduce to Motown owner Berry Gordy.

"I had them come live with me that summer while they were auditioning," Taylor says with an ever-present grin. "You got to understand, I was living in a white apartment building at the time, and the other tenants, they didn't want these little black kids around the place. They didn't do any bad stuff; they were just normal kids running around. But the other tenants didn't like it, so it got us all kicked out."

The other tenants at Taylor's apartment building must still be kicking themselves. The five little black kids impressed Gordy and just about everybody else who heard them--and went on to some fame as a group called the Jackson 5.

It should not be surprising that Bobby Taylor was somewhere in the Jackson 5 mix. The 63-year-old singer/composer/producer had only one big hit himself--"Does Your Mama Know About Me?" in the mid-'60s--but he seems to have hung out with practically every important R&B and pop artist of the second half of the 20th century.

As a child prodigy, Taylor sang with such legends as Fats Waller, Billie Holiday, Big Maybelle and Lionel Hampton. He grew up in a Washington, D.C., housing project "du-wopping" on street corners with a long, skinny kid named Marvin Gaye; played with Louis Jordan; hung out with Big Mama Thornton; performed on TV on Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour alongside good friend Gladys Knight; formed Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers up in Canada with guitarist and backup vocalist Tommy Chong (who later turned to comedy with Cheech Marin); once fired a then-unknown guitarist named Jimi Hendrix because "his solos went on too long, like about a half an hour, and he played his guitar so loud you couldn't hear the rest of the band"; toured for a while with George Clinton; played command performances for the Queen of England and "that guy with the big nose in France" (Charles de Gaulle); and got discovered for Motown by Mary Wilson and Flo Ballard of the Supremes. Whew.

These days, Taylor has returned to the San Jose area to catch up with old friends for a while (he graduated from San Jose State University in 1960), fight off a second round of throat cancer, perform some benefit concerts and hold some youth seminars--"So I can show these kids where rap and all this other music came from."

One of the old friends is jazz/funk/R&B singer and keyboardist Clifford Coulter. It was Coulter's show at the DoubleTree Inn the other night; at least, Coulter was the one who was getting paid. But Taylor dropped by to help out on vocals, commentary and a running conversation with the crowd. Between the two of them, they put on one of the best R&B shows the valley has seen in quite some time. Hard to believe that it was all free.

Taylor has the stage presence and enthusiasm of a man singing to himself in the shower, and despite the return of polyps in his throat, his voice remains both sweet, clear and strong--versatile, too. He did two imitations that were so good, they were on the other side of eerie. One was of Louis Armstrong's "A Wonderful World" in all of Satchmo's throaty glory; the other was Marvin Gaye's anthem "What's Going On." Close your eyes on either one of these songs, and you got chills from the feeling that maybe Taylor was channeling the originals.

After that, his selections resembled the playlist of an oldies station, with works from Chuck Jackson ("Any Day Now"), the Drifters ("Under the Boardwalk"), and Lionel Richie ("All Night Long"). As a bonus, he helped out with Coulter and two singers from the audience in an impromptu rendition of Boyz II Men's "End of Our Road" on which no one seemed to know the words, but everybody still soared.

'EVERYBODY IN MY family sang," Taylor says. "My grandfather had a singing group. My mother loved the opera. I've got to check this, but I think she was on the program when Marian Anderson sang at the Lincoln Memorial."

Taylor's father was a full-blooded Indian, and it is from that side of the family that the singer gets his long, silky-straight black hair. Taylor's grandfather was a Puerto Rican who, remarkably, migrated to North Carolina at a time of anti-black terrorist violence when many African-Americans were leaving the Deep South.

"I don't think my grandfather wanted to identify with Puerto Ricans; he wanted to identify with being black," Taylor explains. "That's why he didn't go to New York."

The family later relocated to Washington, D.C. They were originally Catholic but later converted to charismatic Christian (popularly known as "Holy Rollers") and later to Baptist, and like most R&B singers of his time, Taylor has been heavily influenced by gospel.

"My family knew all the musicians around," Taylor says. "And every time somebody would come to town, they'd stop by the house. I always knew when somebody was coming. We'd have chicken stacked up to here." He levels his hand up around his chest. "Big pots of chitterlings. Cornbread piled up to the ceiling."

Taylor began serious singing in the '50s, that legendary time when groups were formed and careers were made by the light of street corner lamps. "I remember going up to Brooklyn with some friends to the Fort Green Projects," he says. "We used to have these 'du-wop' duels with a couple of groups from up there: Little Anthony and the Imperials, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers."

But his career did not really take off until 10 years later, when a couple of members of Motown's premier group, the Supremes, were doing a show in Vancouver and came by an after-hours club to catch a set by Taylor and Tommy Chong. Motown soon signed Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers to its infamous five-contract deal.

"Everybody was just kids," Taylor says. "We didn't know business. So Berry Gordy had us sign everything away, even gave them power of attorney. They said they needed it so they could put our checks in the bank for us if we got something when we were on the road." In actuality, Taylor--along with many other former Motown stars--charged that the Detroit recording company was bilking its young stars out of their earnings.

Taylor worked primarily as a composer and performer with Motown until a 1968 killer gig ("five shows a day for 10 days") at the Regal Theatre in Chicago. The opening act was the then-unknown Jackson 5.

"Michael was about 8," Taylor says. "In between sets, he used to go to sleep on my lap; Marlon used to sleep on Tommy's." A 1984 Time Magazine article recalls, "It was Bobby Taylor who brought the Jackson 5 to Motown ... although the Motown press department disseminated the legend that Diana Ross had discovered them." At Gordy's request, Taylor stopped his own recording career to begin work with the Jacksons. He wrote "ABC" and "Ben" and produced the group's first album.

But around 1970, Motown's hold on its great artists began to weaken. "Berry Gordy pulled the hooks on me in 1971," Taylor says. He left the company, suing for unpaid royalties. Taylor says that he won the suit, but has still not gotten his money.

A few years after leaving Motown, Taylor learned that he had throat cancer. "I went to Ohio to live with my mother," he says. "I was at the point where I didn't care." Taylor hated traditional treatments. Instead, his son introduced him to a Peruvian Indian doctor, a practitioner of holistic medicine, who put him on an herbal treatment cure.

"He filled me up with lemons," Taylor explains. "Some sort of herbal medicine that was so bad, you had to drink a glass of lemon juice first to kill the taste, just so you could stand it. Hell, he even gave me a lemon-juice enema."

Other treatments followed, including thermal baths and a fruit-and-vegetable diet. Soon, Taylor found elements of the tumors flushed out in his stool, and the cancer vanished. "I sang for a week," he says. The polyps have since returned "because of stress in my life," and Taylor says he is looking up the Indian doctor again. "I'm not going to do chemotherapy," he explains. "I came into this life with all of my hair. I'm going out with it."

NOW LIVING in the South Bay, Taylor is resisting entreaties by friends to cut some CDs. ("You don't want me to go off on these record companies, do you?" he asks. "They're thieves. I'm too old for all that stress.") Instead, he wants to donate some of his time and expertise to a new generation of singers.

With a grant from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation (chaired by Jerry Butler), he has set up a benefit Aug. 23 at the Grange Hall in Coyote. Performers will include Coulter, Dolly Rappaport on sax and vocals, Brent Wright on guitar and vocals, and Ronnie Beck on drums. Proceeds will go to a scholarship fund at San Jose State University. Following that, he is scheduling a symposium for young musicians.

"I want to educate them on rhythm & blues, which is where their music comes from," Taylor says. "Throw some Motown at them. I'm not against rap; some of it is good. What I'm against is the violence they have in their lyrics: violence against the police, violence against women.

"They need to get exposed to R&B. You know, [in the] blues, everybody was talking about something sad. Somebody losing something. But then people like Mama Thornton came out with 'Hound Dog.' And Little Richard with 'Tutti Frutti.' And Chuck Berry with 'Maybelline.' That was happy blues. That was rhythm & blues. And that's what these kids need to get a touch of."

Bobby Taylor and the New Vancouvers perform with Rudy and the Cruisers, B.B. the Blues Boy Band, Blues Smugglers, George Fisher and DJ Hit Man Dave on Sunday (Aug. 23) at the Grange Hall in Coyote. Doors open at noon; music at 1. Tickets are $15. (408/279-3309)

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From the August 20-26, 1998 issue of Metro.

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