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James Taylor

Of the singer-songwriter mode with a steely country-rock twist, rather than a roots-driven pop artist, JT has been on the fringes of folk since his initial breakthrough in the early 70s. Nevertheless, his introspective songs have risen out of his deeply organic and sensitive approach to folk music that mirrored people of the genre’s crossover period such as JACKSON BROWNE, CAT STEVENS and CAROLE KING.
Born March 12, 1948, Boston, Massachusetts, USA, his was a privileged upbringing, but troubled TAYLOR admitted himself to a mental institute in 1965 aged only 17. It was during his near-year-long stay that the budding singer began writing his own material, although it would be early ‘67 before he’d get the chance to lay some of his ideas down on vinyl.
This opportunity presented itself after TAYLOR moved to New York and hooked up with old friend and guitarist Danny “Kootch” Kortchmar in psychedelic act The Flying Machine, the group (with drummer Joel O’Brien and reluctant bassist Zachary Weisner) subsequently recording two TAYLOR-penned tracks, `Night Owl’ and `Brighten Your Night With My Day’; a mini-LP, JAMES TAYLOR AND THE ORIGINAL FLYING MACHINE {*4}, hit the US Top 100 early 1971 after JT was all the rage. TAYLOR’s worsening heroin addiction caused the band to splinter only a few months after formation, the singer subsequently moving to Notting Hill in London the following year.
Persuaded to send a demo to Peter Asher, then A&R man at Apple Records (and future manager of LINDA RONSTADT), TAYLOR soon found himself recording for The BEATLES’ fledgling label, the first outside act to do so. His eponymous Asher-produced JAMES TAYLOR {*7} set was released at the tail end of 1968, a promising collection of understated strumming and wistful introspection. It featured re-takes of the aforementioned “Flying Machine” dirges (plus `Knocking ‘Round The Zoo’), side by side with `Rainy Day Man’ and his sole trad cue, `Circle Around The Sun’. Almost country-rock but not quite, such memorable originals as `Something In The Way She Moves’ (not the Fab Four song!) and the yearning `Carolina In My Mind’ (with PAUL McCARTNEY on bass) marked TAYLOR out as a kind of male JONI MITCHELL, if not quite as adventurous. As it turned out, the pair found they had more in common than just music, TAYLOR and MITCHELL becoming romantically involved in the early 70s. As well as performing together, the couple guested on each other’s releases, with MITCHELL partly documenting the affair on her landmark “Blue” album. Despite its potential, his debut sank without trace amid the chaotic situation at Apple, both TAYLOR and Asher (of PETER & GORDON fame, incidentally) moving back to the States.
After another period in a mental institution, TAYLOR emerged to find himself with a Warner Brothers contract, pre-arranged by Asher (now his manager). Surrounding himself with the likes of Russ Kunkel, Randy Meisner and CAROLE KING, James duly cut a belated follow-up album. Though it took a while to warm up, SWEET BABY JAMES (1970) {*8} became one of the best-selling US albums of the era as well as a blueprint of sorts for the Laurel Canyon elite (whose tortured musings would come to dominate the American rock scene). Following the Top 3 success of the enduring `Fire And Rain’, the album went on to reside in the upper reaches of the US chart for more than a year, its unassuming confessionals striking at the strife-torn heart of the post-hippie dream. Not blessed with the most striking of voices, TAYLOR nevertheless relied on it to power his songs (such as `Country Road’, Stephen Foster’s old-timey/gospel `Oh, Susannah’ and the blues-fuelled `Steamroller’), backed by the sparsest of accompaniment, an acoustic strum here, a hint of pedal steel there.
MUD SLIDE SLIM AND THE BLUE HORIZON (1971) {*7} consolidated TAYLOR’s standing in the L.A. firmament, a transatlantic Top 5 which featured his rather sombre reading of KING’s `You’ve Got A Friend’, a US No.1 later that summer. Ironically, many of TAYLOR’s subsequent hits would be cover versions although his original material was far more affecting; the lovely `You Can Close Your Eyes’, for example, or the romantic `Love Has Brought Me Around’.
This period saw TAYLOR at the height of his fame and off the drugs, and apart from the inevitable media attention over his marriage to CARLY SIMON on November 3rd, 1972, he subsequently avoided the spotlight. He also starred in that year’s cult road movie Two Lane Blacktop, alongside Beach Boy DENNIS WILSON, while his 4th solo set, ONE MAN DOG {*5}, also hit the shops and the Top 5.
Showcasing 18 tracks (a few of them curt instrumentals or abrupt dirges), this disappointed the faithful, let down by the total self-indulgence or the placidity of lone hit `Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight’. There was space on board for a couple of covers through BILL KEITH & JIM ROONEY’s `One Morning In May’, while buddy Kootch was afforded a couple of credits in `Back On The Street Again’ and `Woh, Don’t You Know’.
WALKING MAN (1974) {*4} failed to spawn any major hits, TAYLOR’s only Top 5 single during this time a duet with his wife on the Inez & Charlie Foxx nugget, `Mockingbird’. The album itself failed to reach the Top 10, funky had superseded folky (example `Rock’n’Roll Music Is Now’) and indeed, the times they were-a changin’ – for TAYLOR, at least – as ill-advised covers of CHUCK BERRY’s `The Promised Land’ and Levine-Spinozza cut `Ain’t No Song’ would testify.
GORILLA (1975) {*6}, marked a return to form of sorts, the buoyant `Mexico’ demonstrating what TAYLOR was capable of when he decided to step up a gear; the sessions wielded augmentation from his wife, CROSBY & NASH, LITTLE FEAT’s Lowell George, RANDY NEWMAN, David Sanborn and bluegrass mandolin player DAVID GRISMAN. The album’s major hit was a laboured Motown cover of `How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)’, the track going Top 5, while other best cues were `Music’, `Angry Blues’, `Love Songs’ and the quirky title track.
The soft-rock, mainstream Motown theme was continued yet again on IN THE POCKET (1976) {*5}, a confident set boosted by the BOBBY WOMACK cover `Woman’s Gotta Have It’ and the STEVIE WONDER collaboration `Don’t Be Sad ‘Cause Your Sun Is Down’. A peaceful, easy feeling was maintained by Top 30 hit `Shower The People’, plus the introspective `Family Man’, `Money Machine’ and `A Junkie’s Lament’; ART GARFUNKEL supplied harmonies on `Captain Jim’s Drunken Dream’.
TAYLOR repeated the formula with yet another cover, a strident run-through of the Jimmy Jones & Otis Blackwell’s R&B number `Handy Man’. The album, which housed the Top 5 smash, JT (1977) {*7}, was the troubadour’s last commercial blockbuster (his first for Columbia Records), a truly nice and horizontal set, blissfully aided by key session players, Leland Sklar, Russell Kunkel and his loyal anchorman Danny Kortchmar (the latter penned the third track, `Honey, Don’t Leave L.A.’). JT’s easy slide into country was expressed by `Bartender’s Blues’, a record he would later sing with the genre’s better-known purveyor, GEORGE JONES; Asher also returned to be producer.
For the ensuing two years, the TAYLOR turned his talents towards collaboration; autumn ‘77 saw him produce and play guitar on sister Kate Taylor’s debut US Top 50 single, `It’s In His Kiss’, while early the folowing year he was credited alongside SIMON & GARFUNKEL on a hit cover of SAM COOKE’s `Wonderful World’. In late ‘78, James and wife Carly rode into the Top 40 together with the duet `Devoted To You’.
FLAG (1979) {*5} – draped in yellow/pink – gave JT another Top 10 album although the formula was wearing a mite thin, much like his hair. The album itself was a cocktail of subtle pseudo-protest numbers, `Company Man’, `Brother Trucker’ and `Millworker’ (for America’s blue-eyed, blue-collared flag-bearers no doubt), and a couple of inconsequential covers, The BEATLES’ `Day Tripper’ and Goffin & KING’s `Up On The Roof’ (a Top 30 hit).
TAYLOR’s final US Top 10 album, DAD LOVES HIS WORK (1981) {*6}, was another soft-rock, session-friendly set, the singer now spending studio time with J.D. SOUTHER on collaborative smoocher `Her Town Too’. Yielding a few rockier, rootsier cues in `Hour That The Morning Comes’, `Stand And Fight’ (penned with JIMMY BUFFET and Timothy Mayer) and `Sugar Trade’, TAYLOR was finally getting back to basics.
Picking up the pieces from the broken marriage to Carly (they divorced in ’83), he found new love courtesy of Kathryn Walker, whom he wed a few months after the release of his 11th set, THAT’S WHY I’M HERE (1985) {*5}. After four years in the wilderness nothing had changed, only his receding hairline, as depicted by the clean-cut and tanned album sleeve. With the same old/same old formula – placid AOR side by side with MOR covers – it alienated anybody on the outskirts of fluffy pop; the covers incidentally (Rodgers & Hart’s `My Romance’, BUDDY HOLLY’s `Everyday’ and BACHARACH & David’s `The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’) proved the most embarrassing so far.
Though his albums didn’t command the mass audience of yore, TAYLOR retained a loyal following, fans lapping up NEVER DIE YOUNG (1988) {*5}, to the extent it also reached Top 40. For the first time, there were no smoochy covers, only the odd collaboration and synth-fixated tunes, with the exception of country-infused `T-Bone’, `Runaway Boy’ and `Sun On The Moon’.
NEW MOON SHINE (1991) {*6} was a stronger, rootsier set which tackled many civil rights issues (`Shed A Little Light’) in impressive fashion and proved that liberal TAYLOR, along with his old mucker JACKSON BROWNE, could still cut the mustard. Familiar but refreshing at the same time, JT combined more cultural and political fare (i.e. `Copperline’ and `Down In The Hole’) with clever renditions – this time! – of SAM COOKE’s `Everybody Loves To Cha Cha Cha’ and flowing traditional gem `The Water Is Wide’.
His Top 20 concert double-set (LIVE) (1993) {*7} marked his biggest success for years, and certainly it’s on a stage in lone acoustic fashion that TAYLOR (although with usual easy-rock backing) really comes into his own. Apart from the odd aforementioned covers, albeit they do sound better here (along with C&W piece, `She Thinks I Still Care’), TAYLOR finally gave value for money on this 30-track, 2-hour retrospective showpiece.
With another marriage up the Swanee (divorced in ’96), TAYLOR issued his first studio album in six years, HOURGLASS (1997) {*6}. Relying on cameos from a long list of top stars (STEVIE WONDER on harmonica, SHAWN COLVIN on vox, BRANFORD MARSALIS on sax, classical Yo-Yo Ma on cello among them), several tracks had a Celtic feel, mainly `Enough To Be On Your Way’ (he swears here!), `Yellow And Rose’ and `Hangnail’; to please his old fanbase – quite literally – there was the add-on nostalgia of Ahlert & Turk’s `Walking My Baby Back Home’. To promote the Grammy-winning set, TAYLOR played some rare, warmly received Scottish dates in early ‘98 at the annual Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow.
On the recording front, he finally broke his silence with OCTOBER ROAD (2002) {*6}, a rich, mellow, intimate album perfectly in tune with his advancing middle age. Unhurried and glowing with contentment without sounding smug, the likes of the title track (alongside John Sheldon’s `September Grass’) resurrected well-worn themes from his long career, laying his ghosts to rest once and for all.
Of late, TAYLOR’s put his fans through the proverbial mill once again (they still buy his stuff in droves), only releasing a festive album, … AT CHRISTMAS (2006) {*4}, the live ONE MAN BAND (2007) {*6} and the self-explanatory COVERS (2008) {*5}, the latter a freshly-squeezed set featuring a dozen tracks from JIMMY WEBB’s `Wichita Lineman’ and The DIXIE CHICKS `Some Days You Gotta Dance’ to LEONARD COHEN’s `Suzanne’ and a few R&R fare by way of BUDDY HOLLY, EDDIE COCHRAN and ELVIS.
Just a few months off beating the milestone record of being the oldest person to have a number one album in the States (that’s retained by NEIL DIAMOND for his `Home Before Dark’ in 2008), the 67 year-old JAMES TAYLOR hit the spot (and the UK Top 5) with his 17th studio set, BEFORE THIS WORLD (2015) {*6}. Echoing his cosy-by-the-fireside LPs of the 70s, he strayed little from the norm bar a song about `Far Afghanistan’ (including a reference to 9/11) and a nod to the Boston Red Sox baseball World Series win in 2004, `Angels Of Fenway’. Bookended by the time-spanning `Today Today Today’ and a cover of Francis McPeake’s `Wild Mountain Thyme’ (emphasizing his Scottish ancestry), fans of breezy, easy-listening soft-rock will probably love this.
© MC Strong 1994-2010/BG-GRD // rev-up MCS Feb2013-Jun2015

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