Motown veteran Bobby Taylor’s Hong Kong years - friends pay tribute to singer/producer who discovered Jackson 5
Taylor, who discovered the Jackson 5, spent the last eight years of his life in Hong Kong, where he performed and mentored young up-and-coming singers
Singer, record producer and music educator Bobby Taylor, who died on Saturday aged 83, was best known for the role he played in getting Michael Jackson and his brothers their first record deal. But his career in the music business lasted almost 60 years, the last eight of them in Hong Kong.
Canadian-born Taylor’s first big break was as the lead singer of Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers, a soul band based in British Columbia that signed with Berry Gordy’s Detroit-based Motown Records in the late 1960s.
The group, which also included future actor/comedian Tommy Chong of the Cheech & Chong comedy duo on guitar, had a hit in 1968 with Does Your Mama Know About Me.
However, Taylor’s biggest contribution to Motown – and one the record company tried to play down – was arranging an audition for the Jackson 5, and subsequently producing some of their early recordings.
He received no credit for much of his work with the group because Motown preferred to associate them with established star Diana Ross, but the Jacksons did not forget him. When the surviving brothers played a charity concert in Hong Kong at the Convention and Exhibition Centre in 2014, Taylor attended as their guest, and they paid tribute to him on stage.
Taylor came to Hong Kong in 2009 after spending several years in Beijing running a studio, and went into partnership in a Soho bar, the Skylark Lounge, with David Cosman. He sang there regularly and a number of his performances from that period can be seen on YouTube.
When that business folded in 2011, Taylor continued to perform at other Hong Kong venues, including Grappa’s Cellar where he played his final gig on February 18 this year, his 83rd birthday. He also played corporate functions, private parties and regional jazz festivals.
When not performing himself, he taught singing and stagecraft to younger artists, to whom he also gave exposure in his shows. Often, according to Mark Peter, his pianist and musical director for the last six years of his life, he acted as a kindly mentor to youthful talent.
Former bandmate Tommy Chong, speaking to Rolling Stone magazine, remembered him as an extraordinary singer, saying, “He used to do Danny Boy and make everybody cry in the audience. He would hit notes that were unbelievably high and he could sound like anybody he wanted to sound like – Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Smokey [Robinson]. I’ve been with a lot of singers, but nothing like Bobby.”
Despite a battle with throat cancer in the 1970s, Peter recalled Taylor’s powers as a vocalist still being formidable in his later years.
“I heard him on his 83rd birthday sing better than anyone you’d hear on the radio with more heart and more personality and more sincerity than I’ve heard almost in my whole life. His phrasing was just incredible. He was a real artist,” he says.
Taylor was accomplished in the kitchen as well as on stage and in the studio. Peter said that over the last few years, every Christmas and Thanksgiving he would pick up two turkeys for the singer to cook.
“He would give one turkey away to needy people and then we would share the other. He had a huge heart. If he thought that you were sincere, and really trying, he would bend over backwards to help you,” he says.
Taylor had been in poor health recently, having suffered a stroke and a recurrence of cancer, for which he was undergoing treatment at Queen Mary Hospital.
“He was absolutely one of a kind and Hong Kong was truly lucky to have him here,” says Peter.