Literally speaking, there are thousands of “James Taylors” in the world, of course. But figuratively speaking, for millions of people across the globe, there’s only one. And anyone even vaguely familiar with the past 50 years of popular music knows exactly who I mean – without a nanosecond of thought.
“The” James Taylor’s common-as-can-be name belies the uncommon-as-can-be acoustical treasures he’s offered the world for over five decades. And no matter how many others share his moniker, that James Taylor stands alone in his acclaim, his achievements and – above all else – his artistry. A living legend, he’s been called “the platinum-selling poet” and the “personification of acoustic pop” and if you ask virtually anyone who listened to American radio in the 1970s who “Sweet Baby James” or “J.T.” is, they’ll shoot you an “are-you-friggin’-kidding-me?” glance since the answer is almost obscenely obvious.
A towering figure in a generation of 1940s-born singer-songwriters who came to fame in the early 1970s, Taylor’s penned some of American popular music’s most cherished classics in an ever-introspective, confessionally poetic, contemplatively delivered mixture of Appalachian ballad stylings, Hank Williams’ lyricism and early soul acts’ vocal dexterity. With his masterfully crafted originals including “Carolina in My Mind,” “Fire and Rain,” “Sweet Baby James,” “Country Road,” and “Shower the People” and refreshing reinterpretations such as “Handy Man” and “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You),” he stands shoulder-to shoulder with other giants of his genre like Harry Chapin, Carole King, Jim Croce, Kris Kristofferson, Joni Mitchell and Cat Stevens – though for many he’s a notch above.
Distinguished by his extraordinary songwriting and guitar skills – and a sweet-as-potato-pie voice Sting once called “always contemporary, yet timeless” – Taylor has recorded 20 studio albums, four live albums, seven video albums and had 17 Top-10 singles – six that hit #1.
James Vernon Taylor was born on March 12, 1948, at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, where his father Isaac was working as a resident physician. His mother Gertrude studied at New England Conservatory and Taylor grew up with four siblings: older brother Alex, younger sister Kate and younger brothers Livingston and Hugh, all of whom also became professional musicians. In 1951, three-year-old Taylor moved with his family from Belmont, Massachusetts, to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where he took cello lessons from around age 10 to age 12, when he discovered guitar and developed a technique based on his bass-clef-oriented cello training while playing and singing hymns, carols, radio jingles and folk songs, mostly those of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Lead Belly and The Weavers.
While many associate Taylor most closely with the Tar Heel State, his musical background is deeply rooted in the Commonwealth State. Starting in 1953, the Taylors spent summers on Martha’s Vineyard where in 1962 – the year Taylor wrote his first song – 14-year old James met 16-year old Danny Kortchmar, who introduced him to the music of Lightnin’ Hopkins, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. In summer 1963, the guitar-slingin’ teens formed Jamie & Kootch and gigged around the Vineyard.
In 1961, Taylor’s parents enrolled 13-year old James at Milton Academy in Milton, Massachusetts, where he studied until the middle of his junior year when, feeling overwhelmed by college-prep pressures, he returned to North Carolina to finish the second semester at Chapel Hill High School. During that time, he and his brother Alex formed The Fabulous Corsayers and recorded a single with James’ “Cha Cha Blues” as the B-side.
Taylor returned to Milton for his senior year but soon became so depressed that he checked himself into McLean Hospital in Belmont, where he spent nine months and was treated with the antipsychotic medication chlorpromazine. The Vietnam draft was in full force, but the Selective Service rejected Taylor on psychological grounds and he earned his high-school diploma at the Arlington School, McLean’s college-prep facility for residents.
In early 1966, Taylor checked himself out of McLean and moved with Kortchmar to New York City to form The Flying Machine along with bassist Zachary Wiesner and drummer Joel O’Brian. They recorded a single featuring two Taylor-penned songs but, while it saw some airplay around the northeast, the label refused to make an LP and by the end of 1966 The Flying Machine was finished. In 1971, Euphoria Records released their session tapes as James Taylor and the Original Flying Machine.
In spring 1968, after spending much of 1967 in North Carolina being treated for a heroin addiction he’d developed during his time in New York, 20-year old Taylor decided to be a solo act and moved to London. With Kortchmar’s help, his demo tape found its way to Peter Asher, A&R chief at The Beatles’ Apple Records, who signed Taylor – the label’s first non-British act – and produced his eponymous debut album, featuring “Carolina in My Mind” (with Paul McCartney on bass and an uncredited George Harrison on backing vocals) and “Something in the Way She Moves,” which Harrison said inspired his song “Something” on The Beatles’ 1969 album Abbey Road.
Released in December 1968, the LP was a commercial nonevent despite positive reviews, largely because Taylor spent the first six months of 1969 in a treatment center for his continued heroin addiction, this time in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and was unable to play supporting shows until July, when he did a six-night stand at The Troubadour in Los Angeles and appeared at the Newport Folk Festival. His return to the stage was soon interrupted, however, when in August he was hospitalized for several more months after breaking both hands and both feet in a motorcycle accident.
In October 1969, Taylor signed with Warner Bros. and his career rocketed skyward with the February 1970 release of Sweet Baby James. Reviews were effusive as it went to #3 in the Billboard 200, was nominated for the Album of the Year Grammy and the single “Fire and Rain” also reached #3. In March 1971, Time magazine put Taylor on its cover with the headline “The New Rock: Bittersweet and Low,” and from then on he was as deeply woven into America’s musical tapestry as Woodie Guthrie – one of his boyhood heroes.
In April 1971, Warner Bros. issued Taylor’s third LP, Mud Slide Slim & the Blue Horizon, which hit #2 while the Carole King-penned single “You’ve Got a Friend” – featuring Joni Mitchell on backing vocals – soared to #1, winning Taylor his first Grammy. One critic said his voice had “a sense of Lincolnesque honesty” and “sincerity no one else could summon.”
Taylor recorded four more albums for Warner Bros. before moving to Columbia, all strong sellers: One Man Dog (1972, #4), Walking Man (1974, #13), Gorilla (1975, #6) and In the Pocket (1976, #13, with a guest appearance by Bonnie Raitt). His seven Columbia releases saw varying degrees of success: JT (1977, #4), Flag (1979, #10), Dad Loves His Work (1981, #10), That’s Why I’m Here (1985, #34), Never Die Young (1988, #25), New Moon Shine (1991, #37) and Hourglass (1997, #9).
In 2015, Before This World, Taylor’s 18th studio album, hit #1 in the Billboard 200, his first to do so. His cross-generational popularity had exploded after his three previous LPs – October Road (2002, #4), James Taylor at Christmas (2006, #16) and Covers (2008, #8) – and his most recent, American Standard (2020, #4), won a Grammy for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album.
Taylor has appeared at an eclectic range of New England venues including the Unicorn Coffee House, Music Inn, Tanglewood, Boston Common, Cambridge Common, Symphony Hall, the Orpheum Theatre, Toad’s Place and TD Garden (formerly Boston Garden) – where in 2013 he performed with Carole King at The Boston Strong Concert – and has received a tidal wave of awards including honorary doctorates from the New England Conservatory and Berklee College of Music. In 2000, he was induced into both the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Asked in 2015 about his songwriting, Taylor said he consistently returns to certain themes, including “spirituals for agnostics,” “recovery songs,” “songs about home and the road” and his father. “You could say that all songwriters are constantly rewriting the same 50 songs,” he said. “And that can be an interesting exercise.”
(by D.S. Monahan)
Published on December 9, 2022