Sales now almost double Donna Summer's panting Love to Love You Baby, and are rising toward 2.5 million—making Disco Lady the hottest-selling single so far this year. Taylor rejects the comparison to Donna. "She went all the way. I'm just a singer who sings the blues."
Taylor may sing, but he no longer lives, the blues. His hit has boosted him from the club to the arena circuit. "The stages are bigger, dressing rooms are nicer, I don't have to sing all night long anymore." Sweetest of all for Taylor, after years of self-management, is the recently signed pact with William Morris. "I figured my dues-paying was over a long time back—after the second collection." He adds that finally "I have security for my family. You know, the sun doesn't always shine." His long season in the minor leagues of R&B hasn't left him bitter. "I'm just glad [the fame] didn't happen to me as a young man. I feel more able to cope with it."
Born in West Memphis, Ark. ("the land of opportunity, and I split the first opportunity I had"), Johnnie was soloing church hymns by age 5. He left the cotton fields of Arkansas and got through 11th grade en route to Chicago. Eventually his friendship with the late Sam Cooke led him to take over as lead singer of a gospel group called the Soul Stirrers when Cooke left in the mid-'50s to pursue his pop career. Until 1960, Taylor toured the country with them, playing, as he says, "during tobacco season in Carolina and peach season in Florida. That was the only time people worked and had money."
When Cooke and Ray Charles bridged gospel and black pop music, says Taylor, gospel groups suffered on the road because radio programming changed accordingly. "A lot of guys got forced out of gospel. After 20 years, if singin' is your only trade, it's just a matter of singin' Jesus or baby. When the dough starts fallin' in, I think anyone would sing baby."
Though currently negotiating for a network one-shot ("It won't be a special if it don't star me") and competing for the lead in a Sam Cooke film biography, Taylor says what would really excite him is a part in a film about a black Mafia-type organization. "And you know," he says, flashing his smile, "who would get to play the don."
Taylor and his second wife, Gerri, a 1967 Miss Watts runner-up and former owner of a large L.A. record store, live in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas with their two children, Latasha, nearly 3, and Jonathan, 4. Johnnie has four older children from his first marriage and a baby granddaughter. The four-bedroom house is tastefully subdued with a Texas-style wall in the living room adorned by Taylor's collection of five heavy-gauge rifles. The real display is in the driveway: a lime Mercedes 450 SL, a Cadillac, a six-door gray limo, a Winnebago and a snobby Excalibur, plus the 1972 Silver Shadow he bought with the take from two earlier gold singles, I Believe in You and Who's Making Love to Your Old Lady?
Obviously, he has the rolling stock for any occasion. The other day Johnnie told his former booking agent, Phil Walden, now boss of Capricorn Records and a backer of fellow Georgian Jimmy Carter: "Look, man, we made you rich, so you look out for us. They made me a promise," reports Taylor. "If Carter gets to be President, I get the Lincoln Room whenever I visit the White House."
A bunch of dirty-minded people," says Johnnie Taylor, 39, have projected sex into the lyrics of his socko hit, Disco Lady. "It never occurred to me," says Taylor, "that sexual overtones existed." Not even when he sang "Move it in, move it around..." and worse. Unless the song is a work ballad for piano haulers and unless its accompanying LP, titled Eargasm, is music to eat sweet corn by, Johnnie, a minister's son himself ordained during 18 years of gospel shouting, has clearly missed the message. But all that aside, the only thing that is indisputably obscene about the Disco Lady is its success.