When James Taylor was invited to put together a gala to celebrate the 120th anniversary of Carnegie Hall, he reflected on the significance of the venue in his career. His 1970 Carnegie Hall debut—as his album Sweet Baby James was climbing the charts—went a long way toward establishing Taylor as a major new star. The next year, he returned to the Hall as a surprise guest at his friend Carole King’s Carnegie Hall concert to celebrate her breakthrough album Tapestry. Over the years, Taylor has returned to that stage many times, often as a part of Sting and Trudie Styler’s Rainforest benefit.
But until he was asked to put together a concert that represented the entire non-classical music legacy of the Hall, he had not realized how much history that stage had seen. Working on plans for the show in Manhattan in late winter, Taylor rattled off some of the great names who have passed through the doors of the cathedral on 57th Street: Mark Twain, Theodore Roosevelt, Will Rogers.
“The first thing I thought of,” Taylor explained, “is let’s get every album that was recorded in Carnegie Hall and make our set list. A lot of the music that we’re doing is from that discography.”
That list of recordings began with Judy Garland’s Judy at Carnegie Hall, the 1961 classic that was in the Taylor family home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, when James was growing up. Among the other famous recordings made in the Hall were concert albums by Miles Davis, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, and a 1972 double-LP by Groucho Marx. Benny Goodman’s 1938 concert and John Hammond’s 1938 and 1939 Spirituals to Swing concerts were a breakthrough in the history of desegregation, putting great black musicians such as Count Basie, Big Joe Turner, Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, the Golden Gate Quartet, Big Bill Broonzy, and Sonny Terry on the stage with white stars, who together made an indisputable case for the greatness of African American music. The Beatles played Carnegie Hall immediately after doing The Ed Sullivan Show for the first time in 1964.
“The non-classical Carnegie Hall is an interesting thing to research,” Taylor said. “W. C. Handy played here. So did John Philip Sousa. There were also a lot of speeches and addresses given to the public. Woodrow Wilson came straight from the League of Nations to Carnegie Hall. Shackleton, Amundsen, and the polar explorers would come back and make an appearance here.”
A visitor noted that the last would explain Taylor performing his song “Frozen Man” at the Gala. “It explains it,” Taylor smiled. “Let’s say it excuses ‘Frozen Man.’”
Taylor will be the linchpin of the evening, but he has assembled an all-star lineup to represent as many facets of the Hall’s history as possible.
“Sting agreed to do it because he’s a good friend and scout,” Taylor said of the British musician who has hosted more than a dozen benefits at Carnegie Hall. “I think I will have three or four songs in the whole evening myself. Bette Midler and Steve Martin were my first choices for this and the fact that they agreed to do it has been wonderful. They are so easy and delightful to work
with. Steve has had a lot of great suggestions.”
Taylor was thinking of opening the Gala with his own version of “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”
“I have a version of it on the guitar which actually sounds more Brazilian than like what it is—which is the showbiz anthem. It’s really a great tune.”
Taylor admitted that he is in some ways an odd fit in the Ethel Merman show business tradition represented by that song. When we spoke, he had just watched the Grammy Awards and observed that Lady Gaga was a lot more showbiz in the old razzmatazz sense than he ever had been.
“I think in a way, the more authentic you are and more personally direct you are with an audience, the less comfortable you are with that kind of thing,” Taylor said. “In a way, a Gala performance is a very un–James Taylor thing to approach for me. But there’s a way to do it my way, and that’s what it’ll be. I presume they knew whom they were asking.”
At the time, Taylor was still making phone calls, inviting performers who he thought could represent different aspects of the 120 year story. He was delighted that Barbara Cook agreed to take part in the evening.
“Barbara is the real thing,” Taylor said with a smile. “She did those defining performances in so many Broadway productions. Three or four of the albums that were always playing in my family’s home had Barbara Cook in the original cast. And she’s at the height of her power. She’s extremely strong—such an amazing talent, such a deep and resonant history.”
Broadway musicals turn out to have been an unexpected—and important—part of Taylor’s musical upbringing.
“My dad moved us down to North Carolina from Boston,” Taylor said. “My mother, in many ways, felt as though she was living on the frontier. I think she hungered for New England. She used to haul us up the coast to Massachusetts in the family station wagon every June, a two-day trip. But every two or three months, we’d go to Durham, get on the train, and come up to New York and she’d expose us kids to a little of the big city. My sister Kate and I saw the original My Fair Lady with Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews. It was transformational. And we listened to all those albums. We listened to Oklahoma, we listened to Carousel and South Pacific. So many of those original cast albums were with Barbara Cook.”
He returned to the present day and the impending Gala.
“There’s something about Bette Midler—something so sly and wry. She has that twinkle in the eye. She’s so much fun to be around, to work with, and most of all to watch and listen to. She just has this glow, this passionate connection with the music. This is a great small company that’s assembled to do this thing with some real luminaries—and maybe some other surprises that I can’t allude to yet.”
He asked which song Groucho sang in the canoe in Horse Feathers.
“Everyone Says I Love You.”
Taylor repeated the title and hummed the melody. He weighed the relative merits of that song and “Lydia the Tattooed Lady.”
Taylor reeled off names of more notable artists who appeared at Carnegie Hall. He mentioned hearing Lenny Bruce records in a Carolina record store as a kid and discovering a secret language. Lenny Bruce performed at Carnegie Hall, too, he said.
As he spoke, he scribbled notes to himself, reminders. James Taylor was having a terrific time.
© 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation