Soul music legend Bobby Taylor has died at age 83. The singer / producer was living in Hong Kong at the time of his death. He was born in North Carolina, but his musical journey took him through Washington DC, Delaware, New York, Detroit, Los Angeles, San Jose and Columbus, Ohio before landing in Hong Kong. His band, at various times, included Tommy Chong, Marvin Gaye and Jimi Hendrix, before they went on to fame in their own right. While Diana Ross adopted the Jackson Five as her own, it was Taylor that discovered the group. It happened when the Jackson Five opened for Taylor and his band at the Regal Theatre in Chicago. Taylor prepped the brothers for their Motown audition and produced their early recordings once they were signed to the label. Ask 100 soul music enthusiasts to name their favorite Bobby Taylor performance and prepare for 100 different answers. The man who to the casual fan was a Motown one-hit wonder was in reality was one of the most creative and soulful spirits of his time.
Many biographies of Taylor have been riddled with misinformation, given his penchant for hyperbole. (He, at various times, claimed to have been the first black man to appear on national TV, to have competed in the 1960 Olympics and to have been a founding member of the Pastels. None of these claims appear to be accurate.) What it is certain is that his first foray onto the national stage was under the moniker Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers. The original Vancouvers included Chong and turned out the hit for which he would forever be best known, “Does Your Mama Know About Me.” Internal pressures and conflicts led to a break-up after a few follow-ups failed to match the success of “Mama.” (Tommy Chong would later reunite with Taylor for the 1990 movie “Far Out Man.” The movie featured several songs the two co-wrote as well as Taylor’s acting debut.)
Motown released his solo album, Taylor Made Soul, on the Gordy imprint. While the album was considered a lackluster showing at the time, it has since gained more attention and respect with collectors and aficionados. “Out in the Country,” and “Eleanor Rigby” are among the LPs most-mentioned in these circles. A second LP was recorded but never released.
Also never released was a killer duet with David Ruffin, rumored to be a scratch track on which Jimmy Ruffin was later replace Taylor’s voice for release. (See video below.) Otis Williams of the Temptations later said that Taylor was tapped to replace Ruffin in the Tempts but Gordy disapproved of the selection. Taylor recorded for Epic, Playboy, and Philadelphia International but none were as successful as his Motown releases.
In the eighties, he was diagnosed with throat cancer and relocated to Columbus, OH. There, he lived with his mother before returning to the west coast and making his home in San Jose. He would later be diagnosed with leukemia and the metastatic cancer that would ultimately take his life. He was performing a Motown-themed show in Hong Kong under the name “The Bobby Taylor Band.” A rare video of one such performance accompanies this article. His shows frequently featured young aspiring musicians whom he mentored. Over the days to come, expect an outpouring of recognition and praise from luminaries of all genres and eras which will likely reveal the scope of admiration for Taylor and his influence to be beyond what was documented during his lifetime.