The man who had dared to replace Sam Cooke in the gospel group The Soul Stirrers was no beginner when he arrived at Stax in the mid-60s. He’d been recording since 1954, with the likes of the Highway QCs, Five Echoes, and as a solo artist from 1961 onwards. He knew his trade, but nobody expected Johnnie Taylor to break quite as big as he did in 1968 with the million-selling album Who’s Making Love.
Stax had dubbed Taylor The Philosopher Of Soul, but his kind of philosophy was strictly down-home, barroom, over the back fence, and sometimes downright no good. All the same, he was a fine singer, capable of a creamy smoothness you might expect from someone championed by Sam Cooke, and also possessed a sneaky funkiness, adjusting his approach according to the topic he was singing about.
Taylor’s earlier releases for Stax, “I’ve Got To Love Somebody’s Baby” and “Somebody’s Sleepin’ In My Bed,” cast him as someone who realized love was a cheatin’ thing, but the “Who’s Making Love” single practically defined the “can’t trust a lover” strain of soul. Got a girl on the side? What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, Taylor was saying. It hit No. 5 in the US charts, was covered by everyone from the great soul-jazz saxman Lou Donaldson to funky bar bands, and helped usher in a new, slightly less moral tone into American pop and soul. The record also helped save Stax, which was in financial difficulties at the time, and made Taylor a star.
Released in October 1968, Who’s Making Love, the album, is mostly in the same tone: the bluesy “Can’t Trust Your Neighbor,” the admonishing “Take Care Of Your Homework,” the chunky warning of “Payback Hurts”; here is a man who believes nobody and doesn’t want you to make the same mistakes “a close friend” has. In a similar style, but with a more melancholy reality at heart, “My Nobody Is Somebody” shows Taylor’s facility with a ballad. “I’m Not The Same Person” has a more assertive bent, but is based in a regretful truth. Taylor sells each song perfectly, telling these tales like a man who’s learned hard lessons. The gossipy element of the songs – “Hey, have you heard about this…?” – made them irresistible.
Co-produced by former Motown employee Don Davis, who’d work on the vast majority of Taylor’s successes, and Al Jackson of Booker T & The MGs, Who’s Making Love subtly updated Stax’s sound, not losing its best elements but making it one notch funkier. Soulful, amusing, sassy, and at times deeply moving, the album drew up a blueprint for the next decade of Taylor’s work. Now stop reading this and give your lover some attention: if you don’t keep them happy, somebody else will.