The sweet strains of this voice carried many a youngster over many a mile in their former lives. I guess it still does, for some who discover him today.
And as the moon rises he sits by his fire
Thinking about women and glasses of beer
James Vernon Taylor was born in Boston, Massachusetts on March 12, 1948. When he was still in diapers, his dad moved the family to Chapel Hill, NC. (This is a lovely place which you should visit sometime, if you've never been there. Go in the early winter.) His dad was the dean of the UNC medical school. Perhaps this is the reason little James would become so enchanted with narcotics at such an early age?
Baby's hungry and the money's all gone
The folks back home don't want to talk on the phone
Being part of the privileged class, and being a young hippie, you can imagine the way the paths in the woods were assessed by hippie James and how he came to take the ones he did. Music has a big part in those decisions, I'm sure. He was working in bands by the time he was in his late teens, spurred on by a buddy of his, Danny Kortchmar. (Better known in the biz as Kootch.) So he dropped out of his fancy prep school his junior year and started taking up this music thing full time.
Hey mister, that's me up on the jukebox
I'm the one that's singing this sad song
James moved to New York in 1965, just as this hippie thing was becoming more than just a buzz word. At age 17, he was in his first psychiatric hospital. He said he was depressed. (Hell, who wouldn't be? You're rich, and you're white, and your dad is the Dean of Medicine at one of the best schools in America? That's gotta get on your nerves, eh?) When he got out of the hospital, he got in this band called The Flying Machine which put out one album and then broke up in 1967. This is around the time he said, "This marijuana and acid and shit is too juvenile for me," and started using the real drugs.
A junkie's sick
A monkey's strong
That's what's wrong
He moved to London the next year and started working on demos. Peter Asher turned him on to Paul McCartney and he became one of the first acts that the new Apple label signed. His first album didn't do so well, so he did what all good rich kid depressed junkies do: He came home to Massachusetts and checked himself into the mental hospital again. But then the Big Time hit with the release of Sweet Baby James in 1970 on the Warner Brothers label. This was the one which caught the ears of not only yours truly, but millions of kids who were a bit tired of the worn out replays of Honky Tonk Women and Pinball Wizard. Here was a real voice which had the feel of an original American balladeer. It must have been like that when Stephen Foster was picking and singing, oh so many years before. It surprised me not a bit to hear James Taylor include the best version I've ever heard of Oh, Susannah on that first megahit album.
Now, the buckwheat cake was in her mouth
A tear was in her eye
There's a lot that's happened to James Taylor since those days. There's the marriage to Carly "Lips" Simon. There're all the hits he's had on the radio, covering old Motown songs like Up on the Roof and How Sweet It Is in his acoustic fashion. There's the famous anti-nuke film shown to high school kids with the soundtrack being Shower the People (With Love). Get it? It's irony. There have been some honest-to-God marvelous songs he's done later on, such as Mexico (1975) and Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight (1972) and Your Smiling Face (1977 - listen to that ZZ Top looking dude, Leland Sklar, play the bass on this one. That's the way you play the bass guitar, my friend.)
Isn't it amazing a man like me
Can feel this way
But my fondest memory of Mr. Taylor was seeing him play live back in the day. It was a large venue and the place was packed, but we had some great seats right down front. He came on stage and played a couple of songs with just his guitar before the band came on. And this guy can play the damn guitar. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. If you like finger picking, James Taylor can fingerpick your ass into heaven. His timing and rhythm are perfect. It's not easy to sing and play the guitar for thousands of people. Did you know that? But after the band came on and played a few songs with him, he did something I've never seen another singer/songwriter do on stage. He rolled out a tape player and played some songs with himself. Now, that's bringing the living room to your room; you know what I mean?
It's been a long way from anywhere
Like Heaven to your town