Legendary gospel performer Spencer Taylor Jr. and the Highway QC’s will be part of the biggest traditional gospel program of the year in Boston.
By Noah Schaffer
In 1957 Spencer Taylor Jr. wrote and recorded a song with the Highway QC’s called “There’s Something On My Mind (That’s Worrying Me),” in which he fretted that his “time ain’t long.”
Spencer need not have worried. Six decades later, at 86, he’s still leading the QC’s, making them one of the last gospel groups with a living link to the golden era of the quartet-style sound. On the group’s just-released LP The Godfather, Taylor simply sings “Lord I Wanna Thank You” for “bringing me through the years.”
Virtually every history of classic rhythm and blues mentions the group because soul music luminaries such as Sam Cooke, Johnnie Taylor, Lou Rawls, and O.V. Wright all were members at one time.
But too few of those histories mention that long after those artists departed for their secular careers, the QC’s remained one of the most vital groups on the quartet circuit, recording for such celebrated labels as VeeJay, Duke/Peacock and Dunhill. In the late ’70s and early ’80s the group enjoyed a renaissance with a string of hit albums on the Savoy label. On its new release the outfit continues its tradition of mixing traditional singing with a modern production sound.
The QC’s moniker came not from its hard-touring ways, but from Chicago’s Highway Baptist Church, which the group’s original members attended when they formed the ensemble in 1945. Cooke had already departed for the Soul Stirrers, which Johnnie Taylor would also join, when the Indianola, Miss-born Taylor Jr. joined in 1956.
The group’s heavy touring schedule brings it to Dorchester this Saturday (December 6) for what will be the biggest traditional gospel program of the year in Boston. The concert will be held at the Jeremiah E. Burke High School: the lineup will also include quartet superstars Lee Williams and the Spiritual QC’s and Doc McKenzie and the Gospel Highlights, among many others.
Taylor Jr. recently spoke to the Arts Fuse while backstage at a day-long gospel program in Chicago.
Arts Fuse: The Highway QC’s weren’t your first group. How’d you get your start in gospel?
Spencer Taylor Jr.: I was in the Holy Wonders. We started in the ’40s. I went into the service in 1950 and stayed two years. I came out of there and went to the post office, where I worked as a clerk. I was still singing.
AF: How’d the QC’s select you to come on as a replacement member?
Taylor Jr.: The Holy Wonders were a real good local group during that time – we were about the best. So they went looking for me at the post office. I knew Sam Cooke. After he went to the Soul Stirrers Johnnie Taylor joined the QC’s and recorded “Somewhere to Lay My Head.” We went to VeeJay Records on Michigan Avenue here in Chicago. We went downtown, sang half a song and they stopped us and said we’re going to record you. And, God bless, that’s when we really got moving. We were together on the road in 1956. It was the five of us and one guitar. Then Johnnie went to the Soul Stirrers. Since no one knew the Highway QC’s I would sing “Somewhere to Lay My Head” [live] and no one knew the difference. We slowed down a little bit after Johnnie had gone but we never actually stopped singing.
AF: What was it like making the transition from a regional group to a national one?
Taylor Jr.: It’s got to be exciting when you go from being local to being a professional. You’re going into a different market. It’s a higher level. You must thank God. It’s night and day. Even today local groups strive — and I admire that – they strive to become professional. They see us on stage. But they can’t understand – they got to get into it, get their feet wet.
AF: So you regrouped after Johnnie Taylor left…
Taylor Jr.: To me, I considered it a natural act of God, because the QC’s had broken the ice. Before we hadn’t cut a professional record. Later on we did a recording for Don Robey at Peacock in Houston – do you know him?
AF: Yes – he wasn’t really known for paying his artists…
Taylor Jr.: Ha! We had sent him a dub [in the ’50s] and he didn’t think I could sing… his main group was the Dixie Hummingbirds and he had other groups on his roster. So he did not accept us, and years later after we were professional artists we left VeeJay and joined Peacock. Some things you just have to grow and wait on it. Sometimes you want it but it’s just not time. And when Peacock folded up we were still on it, so we cut for ABC Dunhill. We were going up the ladder.
AF: Today you carry a full band but you mentioned that when you started it was just a guitarist…
Taylor Jr.: When I first started singing there were no guitars! None! It was a long time before churches allowed guitars to come in. No bass. No drums. No, they didn’t allow it – not like now. Oh no! If you had it like these groups today they’d put you out! It’s true. But someone was looking at the whole picture and they said now these guys cut a record with an upright bass, but here we are in person without a bass The [older] people were set in their ways but as time went on some younger folks came in. The first group to have a bass guitar was the Swanee Quintet out of Augusta GA. And after that it caught on. We added one in the early ’60s. We added the guitar and then the bass. During that time so many groups were adding the other music they thought they needed, and then came the keyboard. See this sounds terrible but in the old times they had a little hangup – guys didn’t want to play no guitar. They wanted to play keyboard. But then it became famous, now it’s an important part of the music today.
AF: When did the group move from Chicago to the Washington, D.C. area?
Taylor Jr.: We moved around 1964. After getting the replacements in the group I was the only member living in Chicago, the others were all living between New York and Washington, and my first wife and I had separated, and every time we were ready to get home they’d be close to home and I’d have to drive back here, and then go pick them back up again. So DC was centrally located. I had two guys from DC. I was tired of doing all that driving by myself.
AF: You’ve got a signature song called “Oh How Wonderful.” When did you first record it?
Taylor Jr.: That was in 1976 — we were on Savoy. It was a good company. They were very, very concerned. They did a lot for us. They got our records out. I thought it was one of the better companies we recorded for. That was written by a young man named Garfield Jackson. Well his sister actually wrote it. But he sort of stole it [laughs]…but that was a family thing so we couldn’t get in there.
AF: When did you start noticing the reaction to it?
Taylor Jr.: Listen, being honest, I was surprised. We had cut a complete album during that time. And people was calling me, announcers, promoters, saying we only got one song we can play. That last song ‘Oh Oh…something.” I said OK, whatever you play we thank you for it. And then the next day or two I’d get another call. Several of the songs we had cut were written by this young man I mentioned, and I think they thought for an old traditional group we were going out of our [realm] completely. They were traditional DJs and they thought we were reaching out, saying we can’t play that other stuff, so I said thank you for whatever you play. So after the song was out and began to move around, even the audience would say “ya’ll got a new song” – but they wouldn’t say a new album, they’d say a new song. So we started singing it and God bless we found out that was a big song for us. I think the other songs, they were a bit early for those times – we could have cut them today.
AF: So you always wanted to keep up with times with your sound.
Taylor Jr.: We always try to our identity that God has given us as professional aritsts. So we update it, naturally today, the music we update it, but the singing, that’s more traditional…it’s got to be.
AF: Today’s Highway QC’s contains two of your sons.
Taylor Jr.: My first son [Spencer B. Taylor III] I thought he would go to college but he wanted to go with his father. I think he and his mother were on the same page so I didn’t say nothing. So I took him in. He really didn’t know anything and continued to work. He had played drums with the marching band so he had some knowledge of the drums. But he’d laugh and tell you – we kept working with him and he learned a lot on his own. Now he’s been there about 30 years. My other son [Lynn “Fuzzy” Taylor], he had a group, they were the backup group for Salt-n-Pepa. They were a good little group but they never got off the ground. They cut a good-sounding CD but the management was bad. He used to sing a little around the house, then he advanced by going with that group, he learned some, so then he came back to us.
AF: Even though you have a full band when you’re on stage you will really bring the music down, go into the crowd, play with dynamics…
Taylor Jr.: Well I hate to say it but that came directly from me! You know why? Because I want you to hear if I’m saying something that makes some kind of sense, I believe you’ll enjoy it better if you can hear it. And if the music is overriding you can’t hear the singing. So I always been kind of critical about noise. We’ve been known as a group for our sound. We have a sweet sound.
AF: So many of the former QC’s members went secular. Did you ever get offers to go secular?
Taylor Jr.: We did earlier. But we’re not going, not as long as I live. I have nothing against no music. Especially if you have anything that speaks of God. But the other people, I don’t bother them because they do what they do. I don’t have any hangups about no music. We’ve worked with everybody that has a name. We were the first group that worked with the [Edwin] Hawkins Singers. We were on Broadway in the Gospel at Colonus. We were one of the groups that worked with Mahalia Jackson. If they sing then we’ve been with them. We’ve done the Apollo Theater, Madison Square Garden, Carnegie Hall. We’ve been highly blessed.
Over the past 15 years Noah Schaffer has written about otherwise unheralded musicians from the worlds of gospel, jazz, blues, Latin, African, reggae, Middle Eastern music, klezmer, polka and far beyond. He has won over ten awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association.