Don’t let the lovely, understated tone fool you.
James Taylor delivered tales of a tortured soul in a rich, mellow tenor. His confessional singer-songwriter style paved the way for the likes of Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills and Nash.
James Taylor was the pre-eminent singer/songwriter of the Seventies and has remained a solid musical craftsman and performer.
Taylor was born in Boston in 1948. He was the second of five children. In 1951 his family moved to the university town of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. His father was an assistant professor of medicine at the medical school at the University of North Carolina. In 1964 he became the dean of the medical school.
Taylor’s family was very musical. His mother had studied singing at the New England Conservatory of Music and his older brother Alex played guitar. Taylor learned to play cello as a child before taking up the guitar in 1960. The following year, he began attending a private boarding school in Massachusetts. His family had been spending their summers in Massachusetts on Martha’s Vineyard, and in 1963 he met fellow guitarist/songwriter Danny “Kootch” Kortchmar there. They began performing as Jamie and Kootch. Taylor left the boarding school during his junior year and returned to North Carolina, where he performed with his brother. He returned to the boarding school for his senior year. However, he began to suffer from serious depression, and he voluntarily institutionalized himself. He began writing songs during his hospital stay. After his release from the hospital, Taylor moved to New York, where he formed the Flying Machine with Kortchmar in 1966. The group recorded two Taylor songs, “Night Owl” and “Brighten My Day,” in 1967. The group broke up, in part because of Taylor’s addiction to drugs, and he headed to London, where he lived for a year.
While in London, Taylor cut a demo tape and sent it to Peter Asher, who was an A&R man for the Beatles’ Apple Records. The label signed him, and Asher became his manager and producer. His debut album, James Taylor, was released in 1968 and contained the Taylor classic “Carolina in My Mind.” The album didn’t sell well, and Taylor, who was addicted to heroin, returned to the U.S. and once again entered a mental institution. He was there for five months, during which time Asher got him a contract with Warner Bros. Records.
After he got out of the hospital, Taylor moved to California, where he recorded the classic Sweet Baby James (1970) with a band that included guitarist Kortchmar, bassist Lee Sklar and drummer Russ Kunkel, plus Carole King on piano. Released in March 1970, the album offered its share of signature songs, including “Fire and Rain,” “Sunny Skies,” “Country Road” and “Sweet Baby James.” The album reached the Top 10 and remained on the charts into 1972. Its phenomenal success helped usher in an age of “new troubadours"—including such singer/songwriters as Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne and Crosby, Stills and Nash—who pointed popular music in a quieter, more introspective direction after the turbulent Sixties. In March 1971, Taylor appeared on the cover of Time magazine.
His third album, Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon, was released in 1971 and found Taylor-mania in full swing. It was certified platinum the month of its release, and it reached Number Two on Billboard’s album chart. Taylor’s version of Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” became his first Number One single. It won Grammys both for Taylor (Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male) and King (Song of the Year). A 1971 cover story in Rolling Stone proclaimed James Taylor and his musical siblings—sister Kate and brothers Livingston, Alex and Hugh—"the first family of the new rock.”
Taylor remained a prolific recording artist throughout the Seventies, releasing a string of solid albums: One Man Dog (1972), Walking Man (1974), Gorilla (1975) and In the Pocket (1976). Such breezy, soulful singles as “How Sweet It Is (to Be Loved by You)” and “Mockingbird,” a duet with Carly Simon, made the Top Five. Though he continued to record, he played few live shows, the few exceptions being a handful of benefit concerts he did for George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign. Taylor’s reign as a pop icon culminated in the December 1976 release of Greatest Hits, which has sold more than 11 million copies. Taylor’s combined catalog has sold an astonishing 30 million copies as of 2013.
In 1977 Taylor moved to Columbia Records, where he debuted with JT, an album that found him in peak form as a folk-pop stylist whose songcraft cut deeply. His next two albums, 1979’s Flag and 1981’s Dad Loves His Work, both made it into the Top 10. The latter album included the single “Her Town Too,” a duet with J.D. Souther that reached Number Eleven. In 1982 Taylor returned to the stage, embarking on a nearly three-year tour of the world.
In 1985 Taylor released another album, That’s Why I’m Here, which featured appearances by Joni Mitchell, Don Henley and Graham Nash. Two years later, he appeared at several benefit concerts, including the Prince’s Trust Concert at the London Palladium, an Amnesty International show in Washington D.C. and a benefit for homeless children at Madison Square Garden in New York.
The pace of his releases has slowed over the years, but his work has intensified in its depth and craft. His albums from the Nineties, notably New Moon Shine (1991) and Hourglass (1997), rank with his best. In fact, Hourglass won Taylor a coveted Grammy for Best Pop Album in 1998. Taylor’s hit-filled live shows are renowned for their exquisitely polished musicianship. James Taylor Live, a double CD released in 1993, was a career-spanning triumph that documented his exacting artistry onstage.
As he entered the new century, Taylor has continued recording and touring. In 2007 he released One Man Band, a live concert album, and in 2008 and 2009, he released Covers and Other Covers, two albums of cover songs. In 2010, Taylor and Carole King issued Live at the Troubadour, an album documenting their performances at the L.A. venue in 2007.
In 2000 James Taylor was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. In 2011 he received the National Medal of the Arts from President Barack Obama, and in 2012 he was honored with the Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters from the French government. He has also continued to be active in politics. In October 2004 he took part in the Vote for Change tour, and in 2013 he sang “America the Beautiful” at President Obama’s second inauguration.
Inductee: James Taylor (vocals, guitar; born March 12, 1948)