Mentored by Holland, Dozier and Holland in songwriting and production techniques, Canadian-born singer R. Dean Taylor also became a hit composer in his own right and, as an artist, specialized in songs that told stories like his international smash “Indiana Wants Me,” which became a popular attraction on both sides of the Atlantic, giving Motown its first success in the growing genre of white pop-rock singer-songwriters.
- First Hit: In the US, “Indiana Wants Me.” In the UK, “Gotta See Jane.”
- Biggest Hit: As a singer, “Indiana Wants Me.” As a writer, “Love Child.”
- Biggest Album: I Think, Therefore I Am
- Career Highlight: Written after seeing the film Bonnie and Clyde, “Indiana Wants Me” not only became Taylor’s biggest hit, its edgy story informed his subsequent efforts, many of which involved characters who experienced some manner of desperation.
Born in 1939, Toronto singer Richard Dean Taylor records and releases several singles beginning in 1960 with “At The High School Dance,” which, in an era before singles charts exist in Canada, gets good regional airplay on Southern Ontario’s largest rock station CHUM and throughout Canada. He appears on local and nation TV shows out of Toronto and a few subsequent releases get picked up by U.S. labels.
A friend tells Taylor about the rise of Motown Records and arranges an audition, so he travels to Detroit in 1963, and meets with Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier. They like his material and he is signed by the company as a staff writer.
As an understudy to H-D-H when they are just beginning to hit their stride as smash songwriters and producers, Taylor not only has a front row seat to their creative process, he also begins to contribute – without receiving credit – to some of their compositions. In the studio, he frequently plays tambourine on their productions.
Taylor also begins to record at Hitsville and a good number of his early efforts remain in the can for decades. One, however, gets scheduled for release on the VIP label in early ‘63, “My Lady Bug Stay Away From That Beatle.” Written by HDH and Taylor as one American teen’s response to the perceived threat of Beatlemania right after the Fab Four’s first Ed Sullivan TV Show appearance, its highly danceable track sounds like a mashup of spare parts from early HDH hits. However, it is not issued and Taylor later claims it was only intended as a demo.
In his first single for VIP, released in October ’65, Taylor sings “Let’s Go Somewhere,” an early protest song in which the singer seeks to flee discrimination, ridicule and unequal treatment due to his long hair, dress and romantic partner. Although its message taps into the growing national “generation gap” discussion, this record does not resonate anywhere in the American marketplace. It is, however, covered by British singer David Garrick on the B-side of his 1966 version of the Rolling Stones’ “Lady Jane” that was a hit in the UK, the Netherlands and Australia.
With HDH and other top Motown writers/producers like Norman Whitfield and Frank Wilson, Taylor begins getting credit for co-writing mid-60s songs for top Motown artists, including hits like The Temptations’ “All I Need,” The Four Tops’ “I’ll Turn To Stone” and Brenda Holloway’s “Just Look What You Have Done;” the popular Supremes’ B-side “Mother You, Smother You;” plus the album track “I Know Better,” released by both The Marvelettes and Gladys Knight and the Pips.
Taylor also begins to produce sessions. He’s assigned some of Motown’s more pop and rock-oriented beginning in 1966 with the legendary unreleased Mynah Birds (which included, among others, Rick James, Neil Young and Bruce Palmer). He’ll later produce Paul Petersen, Messengers and Rustix, but none of them will yield hits.
Taylor gets his second release in March ’67 with “There’s A Ghost In My House,” a track written by HDH and Taylor that, Motown lore has it, starts out as a demo for The Four Tops. Although Taylor promotes the song by lip-syncing it on nationally syndicated TV music shows like “Clay Cole’s Diskotek,” it does not have any domestic impact. However, the song is included on Volume 2 of the hugely popular UK compilation LP series Motown Memories when that album is released the following year.
Taylor gets co-production credit along with Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier on the Four Tops ’68 HDH hit “I’m In A Different World.”
After HDH leave Motown, a measure of success comes Taylor’s way with the April ’68 release on VIP of the single “Gotta See Jane.” As the first A-side he produces on his own, Taylor first records Marvin Gaye on the original track, but apparently wipes Gaye’s vocal, adds automotive sound effects and filters his own vocal to create an effective, atmospheric record that does not chart in the U.S. but becomes a hit in the UK, reaching Number 17.
In 1968, Berry Gordy assembles a new songwriting/production team to replace HDH as hitmakers for Diana Ross and the Supremes. Naming themselves “The Clan,” the aggregation consists of Taylor, Frank Wilson, Pam Sawyer and Deke Richards, with Hank Cosby joining for production duties. Gordy checks The Clan into Detroit’s downtown Hotel Pontchartrain and tells them to stay until they write a hit. They come up with one, and later another: First is “Love Child,” which tops the charts and becomes an international smash; the follow-up (without Richards on the team), “I’m Living In Shame,” peaks at Number 10 in early ‘69.
In late ’69, Taylor begins work on another complex track – complete with more sound effects — that finally breaks him on the U.S. charts. When released in ’70 on the Rare Earth label, this desperate tale of a fugitive on the run from a murder charge ends with sirens, cops on bullhorns and gunfire and it leaps to Number 5 on Billboard and Number 1 on Cashbox. It also reaches Number 2 in Taylor’s native Canada.
In December 1970, Taylor’s album I Think, Therefore I Am is issued on Rare Earth.
Early in the New Year, Motown pulls “Ain’t It A Sad Thing” off Taylor’s LP as the follow-up single to “Indiana Wants Me.” A country-tinged production with a lyric concerned about the ecology, the record reaches Number 66 on the Pop charts. It is also released in the UK as a single, but does not chart there.
The UK release of “Indiana Wants Me” in late February ’71 peaks at Number 2 in May. It also becomes a hit in Ireland and New Zealand. Taylor’s LP release that year is named after the hit song.
In March, Motown re-releases a remixed version of “Gotta See Jane” in hopes of getting a second big hit for Taylor in the U.S. but it only reaches Number 67.
A new Taylor story-in-song released in June, “Candy Apple Red,” becomes his third single in six months. The dark narrative, which describes the singer’s romantic rejection and subsequent suicide, only bubbles under the Top 100 at 103 on the Pop chart.
Continuing to create characters who struggle with the law and love or both, the two sides of Taylor’s 1972 single release for Motown — the Rare Earth 45 “Taos, New Mexico”/”Shadow” – tell of men in trouble and adopt locales and riffs clearly influenced by a trip he took to the Southwest. The A-side rose to Number 83, but it became his swan song when he grew unhappy with Motown’s West Coast relocation from Detroit. He forms his own company, Jane Records, and makes a deal with Polydor to sing, write and produce, frequently touring England.
Tamla Motown licenses 12 tracks for a compilation album of Taylor’s work for the UK’s Sounds Superb label. Titled Indiana Wants Me, it collects all his A and B sides. and the previously unreleased “Gonna Give Her All The Love I Got.”
In May 1974, Tamla Motown re-releases “There’s A Ghost In My House” in England and elsewhere internationally after it becomes popular on the Northern Soul dance scene. The re-release soars to Number 3 on the UK charts.
Although now recording elsewhere, Taylor dusts off his Motown-era composition “Window Shopping” he had produced for The Messengers in 1967 and (unreleased) for Paul Petersen. His version on Jane Records, released in late August ’74, hits Number 36 in the UK.
Tamla Motown resurrects “Gotta See Jane” for the UK market again and it rises to Number 41, briefly giving Taylor two songs on the British charts simultaneously.
Also in ’74, Tamla Motown releases “Don’t Fool Around” — first issued in ’67 as the original B-side of the “There’s A Ghost In My House” – as an A-side. It does not chart.
In 2001, Spectrum Music in the UK releases The Essential Collection on CD, a 19-track compilation of Taylor’s Motown output.
When Universal Music begins releasing the Motown Unreleased digital compilations of previously unissued recordings in 2012, a few Taylor tracks see daylight for the first time, including oddities like an unlikely bossa-nova beat on “No Longer A Rebel,” a stab at the Beach Boys-Jan & Dean sound on “Surfer’s Call” and an early version of “Don’t Fool Around.”