Growing up in Kentucky in the 1950s and ’60s, Jessica Taylor cannot recall any troubles with racial discrimination—except for the water fountains. One was labeled “colored,” which is where she sipped water.
She says that casually: “Oh yeah, there were the colored water fountains and all that.”
What she does recall is having issues with the men in her life.
When Taylor’s father found out her mother was pregnant, he “peaced out,” and they never heard from him again. Shortly after giving birth, her mother was diagnosed with cancer, leaving little Jessica and her older brother to be raised by her grandmother, a very strict disciplinarian.
Jessica sang around the house, to which her grandmother responded, “If you can sing around here, you can sing for the Lord.”
“Next thing I know,” Taylor says, “4-year-old me is onstage (at Liberty Baptist Church) in front of all these people. I started singing. They started shouting and clapping.” She loved it.
Taylor says she was a tomboy as a child and started working odd jobs at the age of 12. Around the same age, she got interested in boys. “And when I got interested in boys, I was interested,” she says, laughing.
That led to an ill-advised plan: Get pregnant to get away from grandmother’s iron grip. That’s when Ricky showed up.
“He was smooth,” she recalls with a dreamy smile. “He had these pretty green eyes. He was nice, tall, slim, and he was a good dancer.”
He made her swoon, and they had three children together: At the age of 15, she gave birth to Serenia (called Mimi); then Ricky Jr. when she was 16; and Christine by 18. By then, Mr. Smooth was no longer dreamy. Ricky stole and cashed her grandma’s Social Security checks, got caught, and was sentenced to three years in a federal prison. He got out after one.
Meanwhile, Taylor worked as a hotel maid, sang in clubs and held other odd jobs, all while getting her GED. When the Hunter Foundation began an HMO in the early 1970s, Taylor got in on the ground floor.
John Hunter was born in 1859 and was the first African-American surgeon at Lexington’s St. Joseph Hospital. His son, Bush, was not only a physician, but a piano player and singer. Taylor doesn’t recall how she found out about the job, but it doesn’t take a great leap of the imagination to think she may have met Bush in a club. The Hunter Foundation trained her to be a physician’s assistant, giving shots, writing prescriptions, doing minor surgeries and setting casts. Although Taylor has no recollection of racism, gender inequality was rampant—women were paid much less than the men who had the same job description.
While at Hunter, Taylor met her second husband, Gayle. He had a great job with the government, but he was a philanderer. When Taylor got wise to his shenanigans, he came up with a sketchy solution: “If we move to New York or Los Angeles, I won’t be tempted. It won’t happen again.” By this time, Taylor had her fourth son, Gayle Jr., and wanted to make the marriage work, so, at the age of 21, she packed up the kids and moved to Los Angeles.
At this point in the story, I will tell you I am at Taylor’s home. She and daughter Mimi live together, and Mimi is filling in some of the gaps that Taylor can’t recall. Since she’s a mere 15 years younger than Taylor, I asked if she had some memories of what Kentucky was like as a child.
“It’s funny,” says Mimi. “I don’t recall really ever seeing lots of white people.” Mimi takes a moment. “The first time I started seeing more was when my aunt, who was a cook at a country club, took me to what we called ‘rich white folks’ homes.’ That’s the first time I saw a whole bunch of white folks together. They were very nice, very civil, and loved my aunt.”
Mimi was 6 when they moved to Los Angeles—and that, she remembers: “I was going to Hooper Elementary, and that was the first time I had ever seen Hispanic people. In Kentucky, we didn’t see any. It was strange to me, because they spoke differently than I did, in Spanish, and I couldn’t understand what they were saying. I had never experienced that before, and thought, ‘This is different.’ But we still played together.”
Jessica Taylor enrolled in college while both singing at jazz clubs and working other jobs—at a car wash, an insurance company … whatever put food on the table. She received government assistance for the kids, and she sent as much money as she could back to Kentucky to help her grandmother, who’d opened a restaurant. It was a thin tightrope, but Taylor toed it. She graduated summa cum laude with an associate’s degree in music.
Then, for the first time she can remember, Taylor was racially profiled: She was shopping at Macy’s with a white friend, and a store clerk followed Taylor as she shopped. “(My friend) noticed, confronted the clerk and told her she’d never shop there again and insisted (she and I) leave the store,” Taylor recalls. “(My friend) told me that was her first real wakeup call to racism and bigotry.”
As you may have guessed, Gayle continued cheating. After 16 years of marriage, they divorced around 1980.
“I met (my third husband) on the Pasadena freeway. I was going to a gig with a girlfriend who was also a singer. He pulled up beside us and said, ‘Hey, Happy Mother’s Day.’ We ended up with his phone number, and I invited him to one of my gigs.”
Taylor married Anthony (Tony) Taylor the following year, meaning she regained her maiden name by getting married. Tony, she says, was the love of her life, and for the first time, she was happy in marriage.
In the early ’80s, Taylor began a gig as “The Dish” in a Platters tribute band. She was with them for a few years before they began to tour internationally; Tony stayed home with the kids. It was the first time Taylor had been overseas, but it was not her last.
On the plane to their first trip to Finland, Taylor was told she was not receiving $1,000 per show as contracted, but $500 instead. Although she continued to perform for them for many years, she was constantly calling out management for cheating them. They eventually fired her. However, there were multiple Platters tribute bands, and Taylor joined the band that was legally allowed to use the name The Platters.
“The pay was much better,” she says. But she says she was still getting ripped off. She says she saw a contract that was to pay each member of the group $16,000 per show. They were only paying them $1,000. But she stayed.
As life often does, it delivered a terrible blow: In 2005, her son Gayle Jr. was murdered. They never discovered who did it.
By 2009, Taylor had left The Platters and was singing in nightclubs across Southern California. Tragedy struck once again on Nov. 23, 2011, when Tony passed away. He’d been sick for a few years, but Taylor was devastated.
Her faith, as always, saw her through. She emphasizes that she does not trust religious organizations, but she does trust Jesus with all her heart, so it wasn’t hard for Taylor to take a leap of faith and, along with Mimi, bring her gifted voice to Rancho Mirage. Starting over at any age is exciting, but daunting—and when in your mid-60s it can either break you, or it can make you bloom.
Taylor, as it turns out, is a perennial.
For more information, visit www.jessicataylor.com.