James Vernon Taylor was born in Boston, Mass. In March 1948. The second of five children, Taylor’s parents, his father a doctor and mother an operatic singer, brought them up in the rural Chapel Hill area of North Carolina where they enjoyed an idyllic childhood with holidays taken on Martha’s Vineyard. Young James was an eager musical student who learnt cello and then guitar, practicing his art on Woody Guthrie folk songs and joining sister Kate at the piano.
A formative friendship with guitarist Danny Kortchmar led to the two teenagers jamming on blues and folk together during which time it became clear that James owned a natural singing voice that stood the pair in good stead when as Jamie & Kootch they enthralled the coffee house circuit around the Vineyard.
Trouble was that Taylor suffered from acute depression and yet managed to cope with his struggles by realising his mood swings were an innate part of his personality. Following a successful period of hospitalisation he moved to New York City and formed The Flying Machine with Danny but also fell into a spell of addiction. Still he wrote to fair effect and perfected his acoustic technique in the Night Owl club in Greenwich Village before moving to London, living in Chelsea, Notting Hill and Belgravia during the latter part of 1967.
Kortchmar’s relationship with Peter Asher, who he knew from time spent touring his own band The King Bees with Peter and Gordon, provided an invaluable entrée into the world of Apple. Paul McCartney heard Taylor’s demos and invited him to the office to play his songs. Said Paul “I just heard his voice and his guitar and I thought he was great ... and he came and played live, so it was just like, 'Wow, he's great.'"
“I had to come to London in 1968 to be recorded,” Taylor told writer Paul Sexton recently. “For some reason, I couldn’t get arrested in the States. My band had collapsed, and all of my prospects had dried up. When I came over to England, it was always somehow the cutting edge, and the music came. For them to actually say ‘Sure, we’ll record you,’ and then to go onto Trident Studios [in St. Anne’s Court, Soho] where they were making the White Album and be a fly on the wall listening back to all of those…it was just an amazing thing.”
He recorded his self-titled debut July-October, 1968 with Peter Asher producing. McCartney suggested that the British arranger Richard Hewson be enlisted to provide orchestration and musical segues, unusual for the time. Although these were a stumbling block for certain US critics, who found the whole affair too English, though today it sounds ahead of the game. The sophistication of the Trident set-up made it the pre-eminent studio of the day, though perhaps without Abbey Road’s unique character. The album was packed with Taylor classics. “Something in the Way She Moves” inspired George Harrison to write his own “Something” about Patti Boyd, but Taylor didn’t mind that since he’d copped the ending of his song from The Beatles’ “I Feel Fine” with a repeated fade out riff.
Given that he could sing the phone directory and make it sound amazing, was blessed with drop dead gorgeous good looks and a wicked sense of humour, how could Taylor fail to impress? The Evan Dando of his day James was the kind of wistful troubadour who had women falling at his feet and once there they found a minstrel with genuine poetic qualities. His epic ode to homesickness, “Carolina in My Mind” (not “…on My Mind”, as an Apple US advert called it in 1969!) was written in Asher’s flat on Marylebone High Street and finished on the hippy trail between Formantera and Ibiza where he was shacked up with a Swedish girl called Karin, though she is not the sole subject of the song since his mind was elsewhere.
McCartney plays masterful bass on this classic and Harrison sings backing but for all the solace in the lyric and the brush with fame from "the holy host of others standing around me” there is also a darkness that accentuates the fact Taylor was about to return to rehab in New York. The rhythm guitar part is from Mick Wayne, leader of the Hull ensemble Junior’s Eyes. Hewson conducts the strings. Joel ‘Bishop’ O’Brien is on drums
The deeply wry “Knocking ‘Round the Zoo” may be the best song ever written about staying in a psychiatric facility and the naturalistic nature of the nervy arrangement makes this a highlight. McCartney, who’d heard it earlier in demo form, suggested it be released as a single, and it was in France, but it would have been a most unlikely hit.
“Night Owl” was obviously born from experiences at the club in the Village with a brass arrangement adding a suggestion of Broadway to the affair. The album is nothing if not esoteric. Bop musician Freddie Redd pops up on Hammond organ, psych rock luminary Don Shinn on harpsichord and there are cameos from the venerable Aeolian String Quartet and the Amici Quartet. As more information came to light it transpired that the Indian harpist Skaila Kanga plays on “Sunshine Sunshine”. Ace bassist Louis Cennamo holds the groove down before going off to join Renaissance. All sheer class: in fact if this album were to be released today it would be hailed as a masterpiece.
By early 1970 Taylor bade farewell to Apple and signed a lucrative deal with Warner Bros. while keeping Asher on side for his next three albums – Sweet Baby James, Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon and One Man Dog, all recorded in Los Angeles between late ’69 and mid-’72. This trio of discs from a man in his early twenties are certified classics; essential for Taylor fans and worthy of discovery for everyone else.
The great songs are all here: the autobiographical and somewhat disturbing “Fire and Rain” (featuring Carole King on piano) with its cello part in place of a bass and Russ Kunkel on brushes. “Sweet Baby James” with a lilting cowboy lullaby groove. The mild send-up of white rock star wannabes that is “Steamroller” off-set by the wanderlust of “Country Roads” and the sweet Western “Oh! Susanna”, from Stephen Foster’s magnificent songbook, indicates the breadth of Taylor’s work.
“You’ve Got a Friend”, where Carole King and James cement their artistic love affair (they both picked up a Grammy apiece for this enduring classic) is a highlight on Mud Slide Slim… and there is a change of direction to the music now with soulful, female vocal friends – Linda Ronstadt, Carly Simon, sister Kate and King. John McLaughlin’s “Someone” takes off into jazzier ground and lyrically there is a more spiritual depth with a dash of Mark Twain in the fringes and the rushes of the songs.
Lowell George, David Crosby, Graham Nash and a few Steely Dan sessioneers help make Gorilla a mid-seventies archetype with the hits “Mexico” and “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)”, featuring wife Carly, to indicate a new and settled man.
His Greatest Hits, a Diamond certified and eleven million plus behemoth from 1976 that continues to delight, confirmed Taylor’s status. Even as the scene shifted towards big album acts like The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, the simple attraction of a JT song held true.
And James continues to delight. He is a marvelous performer with a wealth of tales. His more recent discs for Concord Records, featuring his road band regulars Steve Gadd on drums and Jimmy Johnson on bass, are communications of merit with the accent on considered Americana and his own brand of country and folk.
In 2004 he released a Christmas album, the Covers collection of 2008 and live projects such as the One Man Band recording of 2007 and Live At The Troubadour with Carole King in 2010. Meanwhile, he and his wife Kim have also been raising their sons, who are 14 this year.
Taylor’s latest album, Before This World he co-produced with Dave O’Donnell, and it features ten songs, nine of which are brand new Taylor compositions. Longtime collaborators including guitarist Michael Landau, keyboardist Larry Goldings, percussionist Luis Conte, drummer Steve Gadd and bassist Jimmy Johnson are on the record. There are also contributions from James’ friends Yo-Yo Ma and Sting, with Ma’s cello on ‘You And I Again’ and ‘Before This World,’ and Sting’s harmony vocal also featuring on that title track. Taylor’s wife Kim and son Henry also sing harmony on ‘Angels Of Fenway’ and his version of the vintage folk tune that ends the album, ‘Wild Mountain Thyme.’
In June Before This World became his first-ever No. 1 on the Billboard 200 US album chart and his joint-highest UK peak for a studio release at No. 4.
Sometimes the quiet ones make the most noise. James Taylor is such a fellow. Whisper it quietly - the man is a legend.
Words: Max Bell
James Taylor was the first artist to be signed to record on the Beatles' short-lived vanity Apple label. In late 1968, Taylor's sophisticated self-titled disc foreshadowed the introspective singer/songwriter genre that dominated pop music in the early and mid-'70s. Although often touted as his debut, this release is chronologically Taylor's second studio outing. James Taylor and the Original Flying Machine -- an EP recorded a year earlier -- contains rudimentary versions of much of the same original material found here. The album is presented with two distinct sides. The first, in essence, presents a unified multi-song suite incorporating several distinctly Baroque-flavored links connecting the larger compositions. The second is a more traditional collection of individual tunes. This unique juxtaposition highlights Taylor's highly personal and worldly lyrics within a multidimensional layer of surreal and otherwise ethereal instrumentation. According to Taylor, much of the album's subject matter draws upon personal experience. This is a doubled-edged blessing because the emphasis placed on the pseudo-blues "Knocking 'Round the Zoo" and the numerous other references made to Taylor's brief sojourn in a mental institution actually do a disservice to the absolutely breathtaking beauty inherent in every composition. Several pieces debuted on this release would eventually be reworked by Taylor several years later. Among the notable inclusions are "Rainy Day Man," "Night Owl," "Something in the Way She Moves," and "Carolina in My Mind." Musically, Taylor's decidedly acoustic-based tunes are augmented by several familiar names. Among them are former King Bees member Joel "Bishop" O'Brien (drums) -- who had joined Taylor and Danny "Kootch" Kortchmar in the Original Flying Machine -- as well as Paul McCartney (bass), who lends support to the seminal version of "Carolina in My Mind." The album's complex production efforts fell to Peter Asher -- formerly of Peter and Gordon and concurrent head of Apple Records A&R department. The absolute conviction that runs throughout this music takes the listener into its confidence and with equal measures of wit, candor, and sophistication, James Taylor created a minor masterpiece that is sadly eclipsed by his later more popular works.
Words: Lindsay Planer
James Taylor never sets his guitar down -- he spends a good portion of every year satisfying faithful audiences -- but he did rest his pen, opting to sit out the 13 years following the release of 2002's October Road. He kept busy with covers albums and Christmas records, but Before This World finds Taylor returning to writing, a habit he abandoned about a decade prior. Often, Before This World contains echoes of the first decade of the new millennium -- there is a passing reference to 9/11 in a song about Afghanistan and a love letter to the Boston Red Sox's 2004 World Series win -- but Taylor wrote these all in a batch, then recorded them at home with his touring band. Such quick progress gives the record a cozy, unified feeling but, unlike some latter-day JT records, it's not too comfortable. Taylor is randy enough to sing about some "first-class poontang" on the nicely grooving "Stretch of the Highway," a song more notable for a mellow vamp worthy of Steely Dan, the first suggestion there's a bit more variety here than on a typical Taylor platter. He'll ease into his trademark laid-back pop, opening the proceedings with "Today Today Today" and brightening up the midsection with the happy "Watchin' Over Me," but as the record comes toward its conclusion, he takes detours into traditional English folk on "Before This World/Jolly Springtime" and "Wild Mountain Thyme," while etching out a cinematic protest song in "Far Afghanistan." When a record runs only ten tracks and 41 minutes, these departures amount to nearly half the record and turn Before This World into something unexpected: a record as relaxed as the average James Taylor album but one that's also riskier and richer, the right album for him to make at this date.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
The heart of James Taylor's appeal is that you can take him two ways. On the one hand, his music, including that warm voice, is soothing; its minor key melodies and restrained playing draw in the listener. On the other hand, his world view, especially on such songs as "Fire and Rain," reflects the pessimism and desperation of the 1960s hangover that was the early '70s. That may not be intentional: "Fire and Rain" was about the suicide of a fellow inmate of Taylor's at a mental institution, not the national malaise. But Taylor's sense of wounded hopelessness -- "I'm all in pieces, you can have your own choice," he sings in "Country Road" -- struck a chord with music fans, especially because of its attractive mixture of folk, country, gospel, and blues elements, all of them carefully understated and distanced. Taylor didn't break your heart; he understood that it was already broken, as was his own, and he offered comfort. As a result, Sweet Baby James sold millions of copies, spawned a Top Ten hit in "Fire and Rain" and a Top 40 hit in "Country Road," and launched not only Taylor's career as a pop superstar but also the entire singer/songwriter movement of the early '70s that included Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Jackson Browne, Cat Stevens, and others. A second legacy became clear two decades later, when country stars like Garth Brooks began to cite Taylor, with his use of steel guitar, references to Jesus, and rural and Western imagery on Sweet Baby James, as a major influence.
Words: William Ruhlmann
A cozy companion to One Man Band, James Taylor's 2007 intimate stroll through his back pages for Starbucks' Hear Music, Covers once again finds the singer/songwriter on familiar, friendly territory, as he returns to his easy rolling full band and digs into the songbook of the rock & roll era. It's his era, of course, the time he had hit singles, including many hit cover versions, as he points out himself in his brief liner notes to the album. All of this makes Covers feel perhaps even more comfortable than One Man Band, which had the distinction of its unique guitar-and-piano arrangements, something that made his hits sound relatively fresh. Here, standards -- and despite a couple of oddball choices like the Spinners' "Sadie," John Anderson's "Seminole Wind," and the only modern song here, the Dixie Chicks' "Some Days You Gotta Dance," this is all standards like "Wichita Lineman," "Suzanne," "Hound Dog," "On Broadway," "Summertime Blues," and "Not Fade Away" -- are given Taylor's warm, mellow signature, so Covers winds up feeling a bit like an outdoor concert on a sunny summer Sunday afternoon: something that is wholly relaxing and not in the least surprising.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
James Taylor's commercial breakthrough in 1970 was predicated on the relationship between the private concerns expressed in his songs and the larger philosophical mood of his audience. He was going through depression, heartbreak, and addiction; they were recovering from the political and cultural storms of the '60s. On his follow-up to the landmark Sweet Baby James, Taylor brought his listeners up to date, wisely trying to step beyond the cultural, if not the personal, markers he had established. Despite affirming romance in songs like "Love Has Brought Me Around" and the moving "You Can Close Your Eyes" as well as companionship in "You've Got a Friend," the record still came as a defense against the world, not an embrace of it; Taylor was unable to forget the past or trust the present. The songs were full of references to the road and the highway, and he was uncomfortable with his new role as spokesman. The confessional songwriter was now, necessarily, writing about what it was like to be a confessional songwriter: Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon served the valuable function of beginning to move James Taylor away from the genre he had defined, which ultimately would give him a more long-lasting appeal.
Words: William Ruhlmann
James Taylor stopped pushing himself into new musical and lyrical territories in the late '70s, so it doesn't come as a great surprise that Hourglass, his first studio album in six years, doesn't offer anything new -- it's a collection of pleasant, melodic, simple songs about love, family, and social activism. That's not necessarily a bad thing, since Taylor has a gift for such material, and on Hourglass, he sounds as good as ever. The music, in many ways, has greater depth than previous records, since it features cameos from such heavy hitters as Stevie Wonder, Yo-Yo Ma, Shawn Colvin, Michael Brecker, Mark O'Connor, and Branford Marsalis. There are a few songs that fall a little flat, failing to make much of an impression one way or the other, but on the whole, Hourglass is a nice addition to his catalog.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Carole King and James Taylor reuniting isn’t quite a monumental reunion -- they never were an official performing entity, so they never had a falling out, appearing on-stage and on record from time to time since their ‘70s heyday -- but it is a notable one, particularly when they choose to perform at the Troubadour, the L.A. venue so crucial at the start of their stardom, backed by such fellow veterans of the SoCal singer/songwriter scene as guitarist Danny Kortchmar, bassist Leland Sklar, and drummer Russell Kunkel, musicians who supported them the last time they co-headlined the club back in 1971. All this made their series of shared shows in November 2007 an event, albeit a low-key one. King and Taylor embrace their classics -- it seems that there’s not a hit missed between the two of them -- and there’s genuine warmth to the whole show that’s quite appealing. Perhaps there are no surprises here, but any shock would have run counter to the whole spirit of the evening: this is about basking in both nostalgia and friendship, and if you’re on the same wave as the musicians, Live at the Troubadour is enjoyable.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
In the 21st century, an in an era of changing attitudes toward music creation, promotion, and distribution, singer and songwriter James Taylor has worked hard to stay in the public eye with bookstore and coffeehouse signing appearances, long tours in unlikely venues, and records of new material and cover versions of well-known tunes from all over the American music spectrum. Other Covers is a mid-length set of seven more cover tunes that follows his last full set of them by ten months. Taylor is backed by an all-star band that includes drummer Steve Gadd, bassist Jimmy Johnson, pianist and organist Larry Goldings, brass ace Walt Fowler, reedman Luis Marini, Jr., electric guitarist Michael Landau, and fiddle player and backing vocalist Andrea Zonn (among others). These seven songs are highly polished in terms of production values: for instance, Chuck Berry's "Memphis Tennessee," with horns, feels more like something that came of Taylor's JT album than a seminal rock & roll tune. Likewise, Tom Waits' "Shiver Me Timbers" is almost recognizable as the author's and feels more like one of Taylor's own ballads. The pathos has been sanded off and in its place is a warm, glossy waltz that includes both country and Celtic inferences -- though it needs to be mentioned that Zonn's performance on the fiddle is exquisite and adds another depth level of emotion. Whatever possessed Taylor to attempt Wilson Pickett's mighty "In the Midnight Hour" is open to speculation, but he does a formidable job rising to meet the killer horn chart and the track also features some stinging, dynamic electric guitar work by Landau. It's hardly wild, but it works extremely well. Eddie Floyd's "Knock on Wood" doesn't fare as well and feels -- no pun intended -- very stiff and stilted with the chorus forced and corny. That said, the opening cut, a version of Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning," is actually sublime; Taylor injects a new and wildly different kind of life into the tune, lending his best crooner's coo and his deep love of gospel to the lyric. And speaking of gospel, Taylor and his backing chorus do a ferocious job on the traditional "Wasn't That a Mighty Storm." The interpretation is radical: it features a stormy electric guitar, squeezebox, big drums, and brass, but the tune's gospel intent is conveyed with a great, prophetic bluesy growl. Ultimately, Other Covers is for the faithful, the tried and true Taylor fan who appreciates his smooth quirkiness and near flawless tenor voice. For the rest of us this is a curiosity at most, but a (mostly) pleasant one nonetheless.
Words: Thom Jurek
James Taylor's 15th studio album of his first new recordings in 32 years is, if possible, even more familiar and self-referential than ever. By now, it is an article of faith that you could take practically any track from any Taylor album and put it on another one without disturbing the mood, and that is as true of the songs here as it is of those on the other 14. That warm (if slightly deepened) tenor, singing in its odd accent which combines New England and the North Carolina Piedmont, and that acoustic guitar, with its sparkling, unhurried fingerpicking, remain the most prominent elements in the sound. But even more, October Road finds Taylor seemingly intent on evoking his own past. The title track, of course, recalls his song "Country Road," and "Caroline I See You," (even if it refers specifically to his wife), inescapably echoes "Carolina in My Mind." Also, Taylor deliberately recycles themes from his earlier work. "October Road" begins, "Well I'm going back down maybe one more time," while "My Traveling Star" ends, "And shame on me for sure/For one more highway song." Throughout, on what seem like the most personal songs he has written in decades, Taylor appears to be commenting on a second chance he feels he has received, and though he couches the negative aspects in humor ("Mean Old Man," whose subject is the singer, ends with a dog joke, and "Raised Up Family," which contains recriminations, tosses in a musical reference to Gilligan's Island), there are strong hints of a man who feels he's been rescued. As such, it is perhaps fitting (if seasonally curious for an album released in the summer) to conclude with "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," a holiday song from wartime that reaffirms the importance of family in a world gone awry.
Words: William Ruhlmann