Out Here

Johnnie Taylor

Johnnie Taylor
Gotta Get The Groove Back
(Malaco)

It should come as no surprise that the tracks with horns work better than those fleshed out (yeah, like a skeleton) with keyboard arrangements. The man may be from the old school -- says so right there on track No. 2 ("I'm From the Old School") -- but nothing drives a purist crazier than when old soul pros start putting "keyboards and programming" in the credits. What is it about these vets that lets them get suckered into making records that sound too tinny and so tiny? Maybe it's because they're making records on the cheap (been a long time since Taylor was on Columbia or, for that matter, Stax); maybe they think no one will notice the difference, since the brand name forever remains the same. Ah, but we will -- it's like filtering the voice of the Lord through a transistor radio, rendering the once-powerful all but mute. And let's face it: When the songs ain't what they used to be, when the voice ain't what it wants to be, hearing the horn breaks plinked out on a Casio makes you wistful at best and mournful at worst.

Of course, Johnnie Taylor's career has existed in the margins for so long that his remaining core audience no doubt forgives him anything; they were there before "Disco Lady," and there they shall remain regardless of his transgressions. For them, it's enough that he still exists, that he's still putting out discs long after his estimable résumé has begun to yellow around the edges: former Sam Cooke protégé, would-be Otis Redding during his stint at Stax, made records in the 1960s with the likes of Isaac Hayes and Steve Cropper, was among the lucky few who crossed over without getting crossed out. Thirty-two years since the release of his debut record, and the man's lost barely a step; there's something to be said for celebrating longevity, especially when the returns diminish only in fractions.

Taylor's still a soul brother to be reckoned with, even if he's toned it down; that is, there's only one infidelity lament (Johnnie gets "Wounded in the Battle of Love" when he finds his woman makin' it with another man), and long gone are the cheaper-to-keep-her classics and the I-am-somebody black-pride anthems. In their places are the familiar subjects: J.T. just wants to get paid (in "Big Head Hundreds," a funny enough title even if the keybs sound like a laugh track), and all he wants is a little love ("Woman, Don't Be Afraid," among so many others) and a little respect (the title track, among so many others). He deserves all of it and more: That voice, once the subject of so many compare-and-contrasts, has rarely sounded better, badder, or, yes, sadder. And the disc's worth it for the closer: J.T. recounts the night he heard Jimi, Otis, and Sam play on a single stage in "Soul Heaven." Of course it's a dream, but one sung by one of the few men who ever lived it. image

Robert Wilonsky

 
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