Based in North Carolina, the Music Maker Relief Foundation is a non-profit organization that was “founded to preserve the musical traditions of the South by directly supporting the musicians who make it, ensuring their voices will not be silenced by poverty and time.” The organization provides financial assistance and career development for blues, roots, folk and gospel musicians. In the genre of gospel world, they’ve released music by Elder Anderson Johnson, Bishop Dready Manning, Elder James Goins, Cora Fluker, Essie Mae Brooks, The Branchettes, The Como Mamas, and their latest addition, gospel singer and pianist Theotis Taylor.
According to his biography:
Taylor is from Fitzgerald, Georgia, where he has lived since 1943. Taylor’s parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were all turpentine farmers, part of the now vanished industry that was the livelihood of many farmers in the southeast until the 1970s. Taylor followed in their footsteps, harvesting turpentine for 35 years. Among the stand of 3,000 pines behind his home, he could chip up to 2,000 trees each day. Work, music, and the church have traveled side by side in Taylor’s family for generations. His father was not only a farmer but a church deacon, and his grandfather could play guitar and piano.
Taylor began singing professionally in 1946 with the Georgia Harmoniers, playing guitar with them for five years until one night when the rest of the band didn’t show up for their program at a holiness church. Brother Taylor decided to split with the band to play alone. Although there was never much money to made playing gospel programs, and turpentining remained his livelihood, Taylor went on to record singles with Savannah’s Pitch records in the ‘70s, and play on stages from the Georgia Grassroots Music Festival to the Apollo Theater. The highlight of his life came in 1990, when Taylor was invited to play the Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall as part of a “Black Gospel Styles” show. Now in his 90s, Taylor preaches, but he will still sing if he can find a good person to handle the music. The right spirit can only come from the right person. “You’ve got to be anointed to do it right,” Taylor believes. “Anointed. It’s got to come from above.”
Recently released by Big Legal Mess records, Taylor’s album, Something Within Me, is the first time the world has heard a full length album the singer and pianist. The album, that you can listen to below, features newly discovered music of Theotis’ voice and piano that was recorded in 1979 alongside new studio accompaniment from Jimbo Mathus of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, Will Sexton, Liz Brasher, and more. It was produced by Bruce Watson and recorded at Delta-Sonic Sound in Memphis.
Below, watch a profile of Taylor and listen to Something Within Me.
This essay was written for WXPN’S GOSPEL ROOTS OF ROCK AND SOUL.
GOSPEL ROOTS OF ROCK AND SOUL has been supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.