One hot July afternoon in 1968, the soul singer Bobby Taylor was in his dressing room at the Regal Theater in Chicago when the conversation was interrupted by a deafening roar.
"What's that noise?" Mr. Taylor asked.
"That's a little kid," said Marshall Thompson of the Chi-Lites, the top act on a seven-band bill.
Mr. Taylor went backstage to catch five brothers from nearby Gary, Ind., fronted by the youngest, a spinning, pint-sized nine-year-old named Michael Jackson.
Mr. Taylor thought the kid shouted too much while singing, but was impressed by his steps.
"Damn, that little sucker dances just like James Brown," he noted.
He asked that young Michael be sent to his dressing room after the performance. The lad shadowed the older singer for the duration of a 10-day run. The boy's father was convinced to have the act join Mr. Taylor in Detroit, where he promised to get the family a contract with Motown Records.
Mr. Taylor, who has died in Hong Kong, did not discover the Jackson 5, but he was instrumental in bringing them to Motown, where he produced their first recordings for the storied Detroit label.
Motown's marketing strategy soon minimized Mr. Taylor's role in the group's success, and the singer eventually found himself embroiled in a dispute over credit and royalties. His own career had a journeyman's trajectory, an unfortunate fate for a singer whose wondrous, silky tenor earned comparisons to Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson, and who was considered for an open spot with The Temptations.
With pinky rings and snazzy tailored suits, as well as a confidence bordering on arrogance, Mr. Taylor's stage persona was a charismatic, yearning lothario.
His greatest chart success came shortly before he met the Jacksons. As the front man for Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers, he set the city's small but potent R&B scene afire in the mid-1960s, becoming the first local act to sign with Motown founder Berry Gordy, who recorded them on his subsidiary Gordy label. A poignant ballad about interracial love, Does Your Mama Know About Me, was a Top-30 pop hit in 1968.
Over the years, Mr. Taylor was described as an Olympic boxer and a Muhammad Ali sparring partner; an army cook during the Korean War; the son of a black Puerto Rican mother and a native American father; one of 21 children whose twin brother died in a tragic accident; and, the hapless man who fired Jimi Hendrix for playing his guitar too loudly. These were exaggerations and outright fables conjured from braggadocio, embellishment and old-fashioned ballyhoo.
"Bobby was an enigma," said Tommy Chong, who lured the singer to Vancouver. "He'd make up his own reality."
As it was, his remarkable story needed little adornment.
Robert Edward Taylor was born in Washington to the former Ethel Mae Kemp and Raymond Joseph Taylor. Census records indicate he was born in the first quarter of 1940, though he sometimes gave earlier dates. (He might have exaggerated his age to sing in clubs as an underaged performer.) By the time of his birth, his 18-year-old mother was living with her parents and six siblings and a nephew in a cramped row house in the Kingman Park neighbourhood. The household was supported by the income his grandfather earned as a truck driver, his grandmother as a domestic and his eldest uncle as a warehouse labourer.
Mr. Taylor lived with family while attending high school in Ohio, where he sang high tenor for the Columbus Pharaohs, a doo-wop quartet with whom he appeared on an original single, Give Me Your Love, on the regional Esta label.
While studying music at San Jose State College (now University), Mr. Taylor earned tuition playing in a band at Big Al's, one of the striptease clubs in San Francisco's North Beach neighbourhood. The band's contract stipulated they had to play non-stop for the duration of an evening's entertainment, so each band member in turn took a solo 15-minute break. It was during one of those short recesses that Mr. Taylor met Mr. Chong, a Chinese-Canadian guitarist with the touring Vancouver band Little Daddy and the Bachelors.
"We were down there illegally, looking for a gig," Mr. Chong said recently. "Bobby was really friendly. Big Al hired us for one night a week."
Mr. Taylor eventually moved north to join the band, which changed its name to Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers. The Chong family operated two clubs in the old Embassy Ballroom on Vancouver's Davie Street with Dante's Inferno on the main floor and the afterhours Elegant Parlor in the basement. The downstairs room attracted R&B enthusiasts, as well as the usual after-midnight flotsam, including entertainers from other venues who would drop in to catch an act, or to take the stage.
One late evening after performing at The Cave Supper Club, Mary Wilson and Flo Ballard of the Supremes caught Mr. Taylor's performance, which consisted of soul standards and Motown covers. Their rave reviews led to Mr. Gordy signing the group based on a demo tape.
The band went through member changes, as drummer Floyd Sneed left (he would soon appear on dozens of hit records backing Three Dog Night) and the Vancouvers absorbed some of the Elegant Parlor's house band. The lineup included Wes Henderson on bass, Robbie King on keyboards, Ted Lewis (later to be known as Duris Maxwell) on drums, Eddie Patterson and Mr. Chong on guitar, all backing the vocals of Mr. Taylor, who could mmm, whoop and growl with the best.
"Greatest singer I ever worked with," asserted Mr. Maxwell, whose extensive credits include recording sessions with Heart, Jefferson Airplane and The Temptations.
The group's eponymous debut included three singles that charted on Billboard's Hot 100 – I Am Your Man, Malinda and Does Your Mama Know About Me, which was written by Mr. Chong with music by Tom Baird, a former Vancouver disc jockey. The latter soared to No. 5 on the R&B chart and would be covered by several acts, including Jermaine Jackson and Diana Ross and the Supremes.
Motown sent the band on the road. Late in 1967, they spent 10 days as the first musical act in the Motortown Revue with Chris Clark, the Marvelettes, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.
They played a series of revues and music festivals in 1968, including the Philadelphia Music Festival and the Soul Festival in New York, with a gruelling schedule that would come to include opening on tour for the Temptations the following year.
The group soon broke up in an acrimonious dispute, as the three newcomers refused to be considered hired sidemen rather than equals. Mr. Chong soon fell out of favour in Motown after missing gigs to clarify his legal working status in the United States. (Later in Vancouver, he hooked up with American draft dodger Richard Marin, forming the comedy duo Cheech and Chong.)
After the shows at the Regency in Chicago, Mr. Taylor brought the Jackson 5 and their father to his apartment in Detroit. Mr. Taylor telephoned Suzanne de Passe, a recent Motown hire as a creative assistant, to come to his suite to hear the group. They performed a spontaneous a capella performance and she became their champion at the label.
Even then, Mr. Gordy was reluctant, as he felt the extra work required for children's acts made them not worth the bother. After relenting and signing them, Mr. Gordy assigned Mr. Taylor the task of producing their recordings. The singer told Mr. Berry how excited he was to have the opportunity.
"Taylor, let me tell you something," Mr. Gordy replied, according to Gerald Posner's 2002 book, Motown: Music, Money, Sex, and Power. "As soon as they get rich, they're gonna forget who you are."
The standard soul numbers Mr. Taylor selected for the group highlighted Michael's preternatural vocal prowess, but the work did not meet Mr. Gordy's exacting measure. He had a different sound in mind for the group – "bubblegum soul." Others were brought in to write and produce. The final production credit on their debut album would include Mr. Taylor and what was called The Corporation, four Motown veterans including the founder.
As well, Diana Ross, who was embarking on a solo career, was selected to introduce the group, tying the label's brightest star to its newest act. She played host on a TV special showcasing the brothers, and their debut album was titled Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5.
Some of the traditional soul songs Mr. Taylor produced for the band were not heard by the public for a quarter-century until the release in 1995 of Soulsation!, a four-CD box set.
He continued hunting for young talent for Motown, finding a girl group in Houston that later replaced a member with a male vocalist. The Undisputed Truth had a Top 40 hit with Smiling Faces Sometimes.
Meanwhile, Mr. Taylor released a solo album in 1969. Taylor Made Soul opens with two sizzling cuts in Out in the Country and Oh, I've Been Bless'd and includes a stunning, heartbreaking ballad in It Should Have Been Me Loving Her. The album never caught on, though it has come to be a favourite among aficionados for showcasing an underrated soul vocalist at the peak of his talents.
The singer released a handful of singles on various labels after parting with Motown.
He eventually returned to Vancouver after being diagnosed with throat cancer, forming a band called the New Vancouvers and rekindling a romance from the 1960s with the former Linda Smith. "He dated me back then and maybe two or three hundred other women," she said recently, with a laugh. "I saw him for the first time in 20 years and we got married a month later." The marriage lasted a decade. Mr. Taylor opened a club called the R&B Connection in North Vancouver, mentored aspiring singers, taught choir and convinced teenagers to go caroling through the neighbourhood each yuletide. He performed at Rossini's, a club in the Gastown district where he trained an 11-year-old vocalist named Carsen Gray, from isolated Skidegate on Haida Gwaii. The girl reminded him of Michael Jackson. "Like him, she's got the talent to go all the way," he told a reporter in 2002. Earlier this year, Ms. Gray was named best new artist at the Indigenous Music Awards in Winnipeg.
In 2006, Mr. Taylor moved to Beijing, where he opened a recording studio and started a music school. Three years later, he relocated to Hong Kong, where he also taught and performed regularly at clubs and jazz festivals. His final public performance came on what was billed as his 83rd birthday on Feb. 18 earlier this year.
Mr. Taylor died of cancer in a Hong Kong hospital on July 22. He leaves a daughter, Donielle Artise Taylor, a dancer and actor, of Los Angeles; a sister, Dorothy Murray, of Fayetteville, N.C., and, a half-brother, Jerome Burton, of Columbus, Ohio.
The Motown founder's warning that the Jacksons would ignore Mr. Taylor after they found success proved untrue. The family made a point over the years of crediting Mr. Taylor with their breakthrough success. In turn, he supported Michael Jackson against accusations of child molestation, even attending an event at the pop star's Neverland Ranch.
On Mr. Taylor's death, Jermaine Jackson offered a tribute in a two-part message written in Twitter staccato: "Our mentor Bobby Taylor … put J5 on the path. Worked with us on many songs on first album. Taught me so much about singing w/ feeling."
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