Soul singer J Blackfoot, who has died of pancreatic cancer aged 65, was a member of the Soul Children, a vocal quartet whose searing ballads of heartache and infidelity were among the last major hits recorded in Memphis, Tennessee by the Stax label in the late 1960s and early 70s. In 1983, after the group had disbanded, Blackfoot had a solo hit in the US and UK with an atmospheric ballad called Taxi, later covered by Bryan Ferry, who used it as the title song of an album of cover versions in 1993.
Born John Colbert in Greenville, Mississippi, Blackfoot was two years old when his family moved to Memphis. As a teenager he occasionally found himself in trouble, and it was during a spell in the Tennessee state penitentiary in Nashville in 1965 that he encountered Johnny Bragg, who had profited from his prison experience several years earlier when he formed a group called the Prisonaires with four other inmates (two of them serving 99-year sentences for murder) and recorded a hit called Just Walkin’ in the Rain.
Inspired by Bragg’s example, on his release the younger man took every opportunity to sing, often with informally recruited street-corner groups, and made his recording debut for a small local label. His influences included Jackie Wilson, Clyde McPhatter and James Brown, and his stage name came from a friend who had noticed the consequences of his habit of walking barefoot on Memphis’s tar-covered streets in the summer heat.
He was singing in a bar opposite the Stax studio on East McLemore Avenue one day in 1967 when he was heard by David Porter, a songwriter who, with his partner Isaac Hayes, had written and produced hits for Sam and Dave (You Don’t Know Like I Know, Hold On, I’m Comin’, Soul Man) and Carla Thomas (B-A-B-Y). After Otis Redding, Stax’s best-selling artist, died in a plane crash that year along with several members of the Bar-Kays, his accompanying group, Blackfoot was invited to join the survivors as their new singer. But when Hayes and Porter suddenly found themselves looking for a new act to mould after the unexpected decision of Sam and Dave to leave Stax, they recruited Blackfoot to become a member of a two-men, two-women quartet completed by Norman West, Anita Louis and Shelbra Bennett.
The opening track of their first album, released in 1969, made it clear that the Soul Children would be basing their repertoire in the powerful and hugely popular new southern soul genre of “slippin’ around” songs: “We know each other like the palm of our hands/ And we have to see each other whenever and however we can,” they sang in the first lines of I’ll Understand, immediately aligning their concerns with those of their contemporaries James Carr (The Dark End of the Street), Candi Staton (Mr and Mrs Untrue), Luther Ingram (If Loving You Is Wrong I Don’t Want to Be Right) and many others.
The pain of infidelity was not the only item on their agenda, but it gave them their strongest material, even when presented in less explicit terms. The Sweeter He Is, which gave them their first sizeable success by reaching the US R&B top 10 and just failing to squeeze into the pop top 50 in 1969, became one of the classics of the sub-genre known as deep soul. An intense six-minute recording, cut in half for release as two sides of a 45rpm single, it featured all four singers sharing the lead over a masterful, dead-slow rhythm track provided by the cream of Stax’s sessions musicians, including Hayes on piano, the guitarist Steve Cropper and the drummer Al Jackson Jr, who changed the entire mood of the track at its midpoint with a shift in bass-drum accents so subtle as to be almost subliminal.
Unfortunately for the Soul Children, Stax was starting to succumb to the perils of success. Hayes’s burgeoning solo career left Porter floundering, and the group’s second album, Best of Two Worlds (1971), was a disappointment. The following year a third effort, Genesis, was made up of songs from a variety of Memphis writers; its only hit single, Hearsay, came from the pens of Blackfoot and West.
In 1974 they made a strong return to form with Friction, on which the songwriters and producers Homer Banks – a schoolfriend of Blackfoot – and Carl Hampton came up with an impressive suite of cheating anthems, led by the disarmingly direct I’ll Be the Other Woman, a response to Doris Duke’s 1969 hit To the Other Woman. It was to be their last hit, reaching No 3 in the R&B chart and edging into the pop top 40.
The collapse of Stax in 1975 led the group – minus Bennett, who had left for a solo career – to sign with the New York-based Epic label, for whom Porter returned to produce the second of their two albums. In 1978, when Stax was revived under the ownership of Fantasy Records, Porter signed them again and recorded another album, their seventh. Having failed to make any further impression, they broke up in 1979.
Blackfoot performed and recorded in Memphis for several years, but emerged from obscurity in 1983 when he was reunited with Banks, who took him into the studio to record Taxi, a song he had composed with his new partner, Lester Snell, for Johnnie Taylor. “He [Taylor] was too slow on cutting the song,” Blackfoot recalled. Over the sound of city traffic in the rain, Blackfoot opens the record with a brief monologue and actually whistles down a cab before delivering the song itself in a hoarse, pleading voice not a million miles away in tone and texture from those of Bobby Womack and OV Wright. The record was released on Banks’s Sound Town label, reaching No 4 on the R&B chart, No 90 on the US pop chart and, perhaps more surprisingly, No 48 in the UK.
There would be other fine singles – notably I Stood On the Sidewalk and Cried, and Jill – and a string of solo albums, from City Slicker in 1983 to Soles of My Shoes two years ago. Always assured of an audience in the southern states, he also toured in Japan and Europe. In 2007, he and West reformed the Soul Children with two new female singers; the following year they recorded an album titled Still Standing, including a new version of The Sweeter He Is.
In 1980 Blackfoot married Allean Ward, with whom he had seven children. She died in 2010, followed in October this year by their oldest son. He is survived by four daughters, two sons and 16 grandchildren.