J Blackfoot: Southern soul singer who took 'Taxi' into the charts in 1984

 

The southern soul singer J Blackfoot made some of the most enjoyable and enduring rhythm and blues records of the late 1960s and '70s as a member of The Soul Children, the vocal quartet whose tenure at the legendary Stax label was overshadowed by the crossover success of the family group the Staple Singers and the emergence of Isaac Hayes as a worldwide superstar.

A vocalist with a distinctive, earthy timbre and an engaging, easy style, Blackfoot went solo and made the charts on both sides of the Atlantic in 1984 with "Taxi", a ballad co-written by Homer Banks and Chuck Brooks, which he demoed for Johnnie Taylor.

"I knew the song was a hit when I first heard it," recalled Blackfoot of what became his signature song as well as a mainstay of quiet storm radio programmes in the US. "I put the whistle on it and told Homer, 'if you're gonna send that to Johnnie, don't send my whistle. I don't want to give him that good an idea.' We sent it and Johnnie was slow responding, so we recorded it. Later Johnnie told me, 'Hey, I'm glad you got that song, because I've had so many hits.' It was the first time by myself, and I needed that one."

Born John Colbert in 1946, he didn't like to wear shoes as a toddler and was nicknamed Blackfoot by a childhood friend in Memphis. In his teens, he attempted to emulate local favourites The Dixie Nightingales and formed a gospel group. However, he drifted away from Sunday school and the church, fell into petty crime and served three years at the Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville. "When you live in poverty in the ghetto, you tend to get into trouble when you're young, " he said in 1993. "I don't know too many people who didn't get into trouble at a young age. I rehabilitated myself, and people have to look at me now."

He shared a cell with Johnny Bragg, who had founded The Prisonaires with fellow inmates and cut "Just Walkin' In The Rain" for Sun Records while on day release in 1953, and had been sentenced to another term for a parole violation. They sang together and he too was allowed out to make his recording debut as John Colbert with two self-penned compositions, "Congratulations" and "Surfside Slide", in 1965.

Following his release two years later, he was spotted singing behind a liquor store near the Stax studio at 926 East McLemore Avenue, by David Porter, Hayes' songwriting and production partner. An audition was arranged and Blackfoot impressed everyone with his renditions of Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" and Wilson Pickett's "I'm In Love". When Otis Redding and four members of The Bar-Kays died in a plane crash he helped the remaining Bar-Kays relaunch the outfit but didn't record with them.

Hayes and Porter had other plans. When Sam & Dave became Atlantic artists in 1968, the writers and producers hit upon the idea of making Blackfoot the focal point of a group with a male-female dynamic, The Soul Children, and enlisted Anita Louis, Shelbra Bennett and Norman West to join him. Over the next decade the quartet scored 15 R&B hits, including the gospel-infused "The Sweeter He Is" in 1969, as well as the funky "Hearsay" and "Don't Take My Kindness For Weakness" in 1972, both co-written by Blackfoot. They featured intricate interplay and gorgeous harmonies from all four members, though Bennett was the lead on their biggest crossover, "I'll Be The Other Woman", in 1973.

"I was happy being with Stax," said Blackfoot. "You woke up in the morning and you wanted to go to Stax, just to be in the building." Along with Hayes, Taylor, the Staple Singers, Rufus Thomas and other Stax artists, The Soul Children appeared at the Wattstax concert in Los Angeles in 1972 but their set was cut short. They're represented on the Wattstax album but absent from the Mel Stuart-directed documentary film of the Afro-American Woodstock. Along with Stax's Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1975, this may explain their lower profile with soul fans outside the US.

Despite a few minor hits on Epic and the briefly-revived Stax, The Soul Children disbanded in 1979, though Blackfoot and West relaunched the group in 2007 with two new female vocalists. In the intervening years, Blackfoot issued a dozen solo albums but couldn't better the bullseye that was City Slicker, his 1983 debut which featured "Taxi" – a track so ubiquitous on US R&B stations that Anne LeSear recorded "Take Him Back (Taxi)" in response – and the excellent follow-up single "I Stood On The Sidewalk And Cried".

"What I remember more than anything about him was his naturalness," Porter said about Blackfoot. "When I first heard him, there was naturalness in his phrasing, in his charm, that was unique ... He was a person who was at home on stage, he was an entertainer and a true one. He was a tremendous talent, he had a signature all his own. When you would hear him, you would know it was him instantly."

John Colbert (J Blackfoot), singer and songwriter: born Greenville, Mississippi 20 November 1946; died Germantown, Tennessee 30 November 2011.

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