Thursday, November 26

EW.COM — James Taylor reflects on his musical memories and his 19th Grammy nomination

By Devan Coggan

This week, James Taylor notched a Grammy nod for his 2020 album American Standard — about 50 years after he was first nominated for 1970’s influential folk classic Sweet Baby James. The recently released Standard, which is up for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album, marks his 19th career nomination, and Taylor says it’s a particularly meaningful honor. Although the 72-year-old musician may be best known as an insightful songwriter himself, this new collection is something different: a deeply personal set of what he considers some of the best songs ever written, covers of classic standards he first heard as a young child listening to his parent’s records.

“It’s funny, but we released the album sort of exactly when COVID struck,” he says, adding that the pandemic delayed plans plans for a 2020 tour with Jackson Browne. “At that time, it felt like everything that I’d been working on for the past three years had been sort of eclipsed by [COVID]. Of course, I’m not the only one. Many people have felt, and continue to feel, a huge economic shock from what’s happening to us. But it is nice that six months later we should get this recognition for a record that was sort of dropped into a well when we released it.”

It’s easy to pick out a few of Taylor’s many influences over the course of his decades-long career, including folk, rock, blues, and jazz. But for American Standard, he wanted to return to some of the first music he ever loved: early pop standards and Broadway musical cast albums. Last week, he released a new EP to accompany the album, featuring “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” from My Fair Lady, and “Never Never Land” from Peter Pan, all arranged with his familiar acoustic guitar and soothing voice.

Here, the singer-songwriter opens up to EW about 50 years of Grammy memories, songwriting, and how he’s been spending time during the pandemic.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You were first nominated about 50 years ago for “Fire and Rain” and Sweet Baby James. What do you remember most from those first nominations, all those years ago?

JAMES TAYLOR: I remember that I was driving up from Los Angeles to Big Sur to spend a weekend. I got the word from my management that we’d [been nominated for] that Grammy. At the time, I can’t say the Grammys meant anything in particular to me. In those days I thought of it as something that belonged to a prior generation, that was sort of an artifact of a time that we had left behind. Of course, I’ve changed my thinking since then. I’m very excited to be nominated. But at the time, I didn’t really give it much of a thought.

You know, my first time I received that award, in those days we had a real sense that the world was going to change. That certainly our music, the music that belonged to that generation, was a new thing and of its own. There was a real sense of a divide, at least in my mind, between this sort of given showbiz take on what music and music business was. This sort of new territory, maybe starting with Dylan and the Beatles, probably actually starting with the folk music era, but that it wasn’t that it was a new thing.

That makes sense. That time was sort of a musical transition period.

It’s funny, at that time I sort of thought of the Grammys as being a traditional sort of showbiz — a plastic artifact. Really didn’t think much of it. Over time, it is one of those things that you appreciate. I guess I was just self-centered and full of myself and judgmental about things. [Laughs] But it is great to have this album be recognized in that way.

I was listening to American Standard and I was struck by how it ended up being sort of serendipitously fitting for 2020. There’s a lot of hope and optimism. It kinda feels like the world could use a little bit of those classic American standards right now.

It’s true. They’ve been with us all for such a long time. Most of them are from my parents’ generation. I was introduced to most of these songs from their record collection, actually, when I was a kid. They were songs that I learned on the guitar. So in a sense, they taught me music, too. They taught me those classic changes, and they meant a lot to me.

I had a lot of these songs as guitar arrangements for many years. So when John Pizzarelli, a really a fantastic guitar player, when he and I got together to cut basic tracks for the album, we decided that we’d make it a guitar album, basically — let the guitar arrange everything.

I love that because I think some people tend to think of standards as big orchestras and big arrangements. I love how you sort of strip it down and make it really guitar-driven.

Oh, it was a great project and definitely stretched my guitar technique. It advanced my playing, I think. The other thing is that it’s always been my opinion that the high-water mark for popular music in our culture, basically, was this era of songs from the late ’20s through to the mid-’50s. Mostly now when we think of songs, we think of a particular recording. But these songs were from a time when you would experience a song by buying the sheet music and playing it on the piano or the guitar. So these are songs that were meant to be performed by the world, by musicians all over the world.

For that reason, the songs have to stand on their own legs. They can’t depend upon a great vocalist or production values, which is so much a part of recorded music. The songs themselves had to stand on three legs really: the chord arrangement, the lyric, and the melody.

Your new EP features your take on “Over the Rainbow.” Is that another song you have memories of from growing up?

Yeah. Again, it’s one of those songs I’ve had a guitar arrangement for decades. Wizard of Oz, they used to broadcast it every year. One of the original three broadcasts used to. It was a yearly thing that you could watch The Wizard of Oz on the tube, and [I remember] that song in particular. “Moon River” is really a similar song: You get that sense of hope for the future, the excitement of escaping and going on and adventure to find what you’re looking for. That’s just a great message.

I feel like we could all use a little bit of that right now.

I know it, especially going into this unbelievable second round of COVID. It’s a hopeful time, because it looks like we’re going to get a new administration and some leadership, and that, I think, a lot of people are hopeful about.

How have you been spending the last couple months? How has your quarantine been?

We had a big tour planned with Jackson Browne [and] a tour of Canada with Bonnie Raitt. To have that canceled, to have it coming up in a couple of months, and to feel the gravitational pull of that commitment and to re-engage all of the people, my crew and my band and my audience — it felt like falling off a cliff a little bit.

But the great thing was that my kids came home and we got to spend some great time together. It’s been mostly family stuff. I have two twin boys that were graduating high school, which was a sort of non-event as well. We were in the final phases of finding their next school, finding where they were going to go to college. That occupied us a lot. Then we got sort of pulled into the [Biden-Harris] campaign and did a lot of work, mostly fundraisers and rallies and virtual events that were focused on the campaign. That’s been a big part of the fall.

With American Standard and with your Audible memoir Break Shot earlier this year, you’ve been looking back a lot at your early career and that point in your life. What was it that made you want to revisit some of those moments in your past?

You know, it was an offer that came in from Audible, the people who released Break Shot. It was a project done for them. Really, it was the offer coming in and accepting it that sort of led the way. I always have the feeling that basically since 1970 or so, my life has been an open book. I’ve been a sort of public commodity and have been a public person. It’s funny, when you’re successful at something there’s a tendency to keep doing it. But up until that point was sort of a discrete, particular, defined period of time. It was interesting to tell that story. It also really helped me organize that period of time in my head, too. Which was in so many ways about my family and my childhood and how I got into music, how I got into that career, and that focus for my life.

You talked about how some of the songs on American Standard came from your family’s record collection. What are some of your earliest memories of music?

That’s a lot of it. We weren’t a church-going family. There weren’t a lot of hymns. Although when I went away to school as a teenager in high school, I went to a boarding school. There was a lot of church connected with that. There was a period of time when hymns were a big part of my musical education. Initially, we got Christmas carols, of course. I remember those early on. Then, the family record collection. It was an interesting collection of music. There was some light classics in there. There was some kind of accessible jazz, a lot of folk music. Then a cast album to Broadway plays: Oklahoma, Annie Get Your Gun, South Pacific, Carousel, all those wonderful musicals.

Then, there came a point when my older brother started bringing home the music he liked. That was really exciting to me, to have an older brother who was deep into rhythm-and-blues and brought home albums of Ray Charles and the Coasters and Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson and Fontella Bass, all of the early 1960s, late ’50s, those great soul records. That was like the next stage.

Then I met a guy in the summertime. My mom was a Yankee and we lived in North Carolina because my dad was from down there. He was a doctor. He had a job at the University of North Carolina. But every summer, nothing would keep my mom from migrating upstream to the Atlantic Seacoast. That was the next big part of my musical education. I met this guy, Danny Kortchmar, who I still work with a lot, who has been really central in my musical life. Kootch, as we called him, he was the next person to light that fuse in my brain. He and I basically learned guitar together. He really is responsible for a huge piece of that. His preferences, the songs he liked to listen to, which was very much akin to my older brother’s taste in music too. Then when I moved to New York City in 1966 to work with my band the Flying Machine, the drummer in that band was sort of a musicologist. He had such wide-ranging taste, and he really opened a whole new set of doors for me.

Your question was, what is my earliest memory? Now, I’ve given you all of it. [Laughs]

At this point in your career, is there something you haven’t tried yet that you really want to do next?

Well, I hesitate to say it, but I think it would be interesting to try to do some musical theater. I have friends, Randy Newman, Sting, Paul Simon, people who have tried their hand in it and have really done beautiful work. I don’t know if I have enough discipline to do that. Because I’ve always just written by just following my nose, following my guitar, following my fingers on the guitar neck. But that has seemed like something that would be interesting to engage in, if it’s not too late.


Friday, November 20

APNEWS.COM — James Taylor on how he takes a song and makes it his own

By Mark Kennedy

NEW YORK (AP) — Something happens when James Taylor covers a song. It gets all James Taylor-y.

“People often tell me, ‘It sounds like you wrote that song’ or ‘That sounds like a James Taylor song.’ And that’s because basically it’s been translated into my language,” the singer-songwriter told The Associated Press in an interview this week.

“Not all songs work in my language, but the ones that do — if they’re interesting or worthy of being recut — it’s because it’s nice to hear them in James Taylor.”

Fans are getting more classics translated into James Taylor on Friday with the digital release of three songs — “Over The Rainbow” from “The Wizard of Oz,” “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” from “My Fair Lady” and “Never Never Land” from “Peter Pan.”

The trio of tunes never made it to Taylor’s “American Standard” album earlier this year, which contained such covers as “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” and “God Bless the Child.” Instead of leaning on a piano, they are guitar-led reinterpretations, often wistful and airy.

Taylor, 72, says he was intimately familiar with the songs picked for the album and new EP, having first heard many of them from his parents’ record collection growing up in North Carolina.

“I’d just try them on for size,” he says. “It was so easy and natural to pick up an instrument and start learning songs and reinterpreting songs and developing a sort of a simple guitar technique.”

The new batch of songs lean heavily on Broadway musicals, like the songwriting teams Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, as well as Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner. “I think they had a profound effect on my songwriting. They basically are my teachers,” says Taylor.

During the interview, Taylor was effortlessly thoughtful, moving easily from topics like the gentrification of Boston’s suburbs to what a revelation Chartres Cathedral must have been to a peasant hundreds of years ago. He’s well versed in Thomas Mann and Tolstoy.

Several times he noted that his guitar skills were somewhat limited and that his natural tendency to James Taylor a song is to lean on his own influences: Latin music, bossa nova and Afro Cuban. “It’s interesting to put songs into that vocabulary,” he says.

He is modest about his own songwriting, saying he usually sits down with a guitar and plays until he finds a melody — or “catching an idea,” as he puts it — and maybe a scrap of lyric. That is how masterpieces like “Carolina in My Mind” and “Fire and Rain” came about.

“There have been a few tunes that I just thought of while I was driving the car and I would reach for my phone and put down the line of lyric or melody — that has happened, too. But my feeling is that when that’s happening, I’m still inhabiting that place that I discovered and built by sitting down playing the guitar.”

The “American Standards” batch of recordings reunited Taylor with master guitarist and producer John Pizzarelli. The two had worked on Taylor’s 2002′s album “October Road” and his 2006 Christmas album.

Pizzarelli, who also has worked with Paul McCartney, Michael McDonald and Rosemary Clooney, calls Taylor an amazing guitar player and a talented harmonizer. “When you listen to the collection, he really James Taylor-ized them and not at the expense of the songs. He makes the songs better.”

Taylor says he recorded the covers, many at his barn studio in Washington, Massachusetts, not only to honor them but also to educate — reminding some younger listeners who might be looking for the next good thing of sonic past triumphs.

“I’ve got four kids and they’re all musical to a greater or lesser extent. So I’m constantly saying, ’Go listen to Lee Dorsey, listen to Ry Cooder, listen to Neil Sedaka,’” he says. “I am always recommending them.”

Whether he’s sitting down to rework someone else’s song or creating one of his own, Taylor somehow evokes feeling with his voice, a process that baffles even him. “You sing it and it summons the emotion. That’s the magical thing,” he says.

He marvels that songs like “Over There” or “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” can instantly create patriotic zeal. “You can have a couple of pints and sing it and feel it again,” he says, genuinely impressed. “How about that?”


Tuesday, September 22

LIVEFORLIVEMUSIC.COM – James Taylor Launches Archival Video Series With 1970 Cover Of The Beatles’ “With A Little Help From My Friends

James Taylor took to his website this week, announcing a new archival video series that will see him release one song at a time over the coming weeks and months.

“There’s a lot of stuff in the vault from over the years and we’ll rummage around in there – see what we can find… We’ll do our best to maintain the sharpest photographic clarity and highest fidelity sound quality that modern technology can afford,” he said in a post to the landing page of his website.

He continued, “Best perhaps to start at the beginning, so up first are some the songs from a BBC broadcast in the early 1970s. This may not be the earliest film of me performing… but it’s got to be close. We will roll these out one song at a time over the next many weeks. I wish you the joy of it.”

Taylor launched the series with a remastered video of his cover of The Beatles‘ “With A Little Help From My Friends”, filmed during his November 16th, 1970 performance on BBC in Concert. Clocking-in at 3:22, Taylor’s acoustic rendition takes a minimal, yet powerful, approach to the 1967 Sgt. Pepper’s classic. The performance came shortly after the release of his sophomore album, Sweet Baby James.


Tuesday, September 22

UDISCOVERMUSIC.COM – James Taylor Shares 1970 Performance Of ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’

By Sophie Smith

James Taylor announced today that he’ll be rolling out a new archival initiative, sharing newly-restored audio-visual gems from his five-decade-long career. He launched the series with an early performance on the BBC, in which he performs an engaging cover of The Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends.”

The clip comes from Taylor’s 1970 appearance on the BBC show, In Concert, which ran throughout the early part of the decade and featured some of the biggest acts of the day. When Taylor’s set was captured that November, the young artist was just 22 years old, and had recently released his second studio album, Sweet Baby James.

As the first non-British act to be signed to The Beatles’ Apple Records, it’s fitting that Taylor performed a cover by Fab Four. Although Taylor’s self-titled 1968 debut would be his only release with Apple, it featured appearances by both Paul McCartney and George Harrison.

In the clip, Taylor shares that the song (off Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) is one of his favorites.

On his website, Taylor offered more information about the video clip, as well as the overall archival series. “There’s a lot of stuff in the vault from over the years and we’ll rummage around in there – see what we can find,” said the artist. “We’ll do our best to maintain the sharpest photographic clarity and highest fidelity sound quality that modern technology can afford.”

“Best perhaps to start at the beginning, so up first are some the songs from a BBC broadcast in the early 1970s,” he continued. “This may not be the earliest film of me performing…but it’s got to be close. We will roll these out one song at a time over the next many weeks. I wish you the joy of it.”

While Taylor was forced to postpone an extensive North American tour, amid COVID-19, he recently announced an extended list of rescheduled dates with Jackson Browne (US) and Bonnie Raitt (Canada). The legendary singer-songwriter released his latest studio album, American Standard, in February.


Monday, September 21

JAMBASE.COM — James Taylor Announces Archival Video Series & Shares 1970 The Beatles Cover

By Nate Todd

James Taylor announced a new archival video series. The legendary singer-songwriter also shared the first offering from the archive, a performance video of The Beatles classic “With A Little Help From My Friends.”

JT shared a note about the new video archive via his website. Read it below:

There’s a lot of stuff in the vault from over the years and we’ll rummage around in there – see what we can find… We’ll do our best to maintain the sharpest photographic clarity and highest fidelity sound quality that modern technology can afford. Best perhaps to start at the beginning, so up first are some the songs from a BBC broadcast in the early 1970s. This may not be the earliest film of me performing… but it’s got to be close. We will roll these out one song at a time over the next many weeks. I wish you the joy of it.


Taylor got his break in the late 1960s by signing to The Beatles’ newly minted label, Apple. On November 16, 1970 — just months after releasing his iconic album Sweet Baby James — Taylor appeared on the BBC program In Concert where he delivered a solo acoustic rendition of the Sgt. Peppers cut.


Thursday, August 6

STEREOPHILE.COM – James Taylor: an American Standard

By Ken Micallef

On iconic singer-songwriter James Taylor’s 20th album, American Standard, the lanky crooner adapts the classic American songbook to his easy-rolling musical ways. The result is an American mixture of timeless songcraft.
Where some popular singers use the songbook canon to increase record and ticket sales, Taylor has no need to change himself or increase his audience. He’s as comfortable as any man can be, having sold many millions of records the world over for almost 50 years.

He wasn’t always so comfortable. Taylor’s breakthrough success of the early ’70s, including the albums Sweet Baby James and Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon, came while Taylor was deep in the throes of a heroin addiction that would destroy his marriage to singer-songwriter Carly Simon. But his hits kept coming: “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)”; “Mexico”; “Handy Man”; “Your Smiling Face”; “Her Town Too.” His first compilation album, James Taylor’s Greatest Hits, quickly became his best-selling record and one of the best-selling compilations of all time (footnote 1).

Taylor continued making music and scoring occasional hits until 1997’s Hourglass and 2002’s platinum-selling October Road established him as a music hero with a new generation of listeners. He has barely left the road since, winning awards and accolades along the way, including American Standard debuting at #4 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, making “Taylor the first act to earn a top 10 album in each of the last six decades,” according to Wikipedia.

Taylor has nabbed six Grammy Awards and an Emmy Award for The Mormon Tabernacle Choir Presents an Evening with James Taylor. He was honored by the Kennedy Center in 2016, alongside Martha Argerich, the Eagles, and Mavis Staples. He was named a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government, and he was presented the National Medal of Arts. Then, in 2015, President Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The high-falutin’ stuff goes out the window when Taylor plays his guitar and sings the songs for which he is loved. Taylor recorded American Standard at his custom-built studio, “The Barn,” at his home in western Massachusetts, with a core unit of instrumental all-stars: John Pizzarelli on guitar, Jimmy Johnson on bass, Steve Gadd on drums, with singers Arnold McCuller and Kate Markowitz. Additional parts were performed by Walt Fowler (trumpet), Lou Marini (clarinet, soprano saxophone), Jerry Douglas (guitar), Stuart Duncan (violin, mandolin, guitar), Victor Krauss (acoustic bass), and Larry Goldings (Melodica, Hammond B3 organ). With Taylor on guitar and vocals, he and his band recorded such standards as “Pennies from Heaven,” “Moon River,” “As Easy As Rolling Off a Log,” “The Nearness of You,” and “God Bless the Child.” There’s little profundity here, and few revelations, but Taylor’s intimate country-folk soul makes the material go down oh-so easy. Good sound, too.

Throughout American Standard, Taylor’s musical mastery is subtle yet powerful, his deep well of emotional strength and good-natured attitude as comfortable as a night out with an old friend who both knows your secrets and informs them.

Ken Micallef: The songs that work particularly well on American Standard express your gentleness, unique vocal style, and unmistakable rich tone. Where do those traits come from?

James Taylor: It’s a funny thing. I started writing (and still do write) with a guitar in my hand. It’s a very quiet context, I think, probably some of it might be a Southern thing, I guess, a bit, and I think you know what I’m talking about yourself, having grown up in North Carolina.

But I do think that a lot of my music is very personal and close-in, and in a way, I was certainly in the beginning writing to myself and for myself, and there was something sort of, therapeutic is the wrong word, but it’s not far off. Something about it that comforted me, and so I think that came through in the music. That’s what I was hoping it would do.

I do think it’s all of those things, it’s also having come, initially, from a combination of Carolinas’ beach music, and also my brother Livingston, the way he introduced me to soul music early on. That was one major influence, and another one was the sort of folk music revival that in the early ’60s was on all of the college campuses. It was an easy way into music, because it allowed for a young man and a guitar to have a voice.

Micallef: Your versions of these standards are straightforward and unadorned. You depend on your unique style to bring them to life. But there are also some differences from what one normally hears. You’ve kept some of the songs’ traditional intros that are rarely heard.

Taylor: About the intros, there are a number of them. The first song on the album, “Blue Heaven,” has “Day is ending, songbirds are wending, back to the shelter of each little nest they love, . . .” that sort of thing.

The other songs have verses that introduce them—introductory pieces that are separate from the rest of the tune. “Pennies from Heaven,” up until now I had never really heard that intro. “Ol’ Man River,” I whistle the intro to that song and also use it as away to sort of tail out of the song as well. “My Heart Stood Still,” I think Lorenz Hart wrote that, Rodgers and Hart. That’s got a real verse in front of it, too. “Blue Heaven,” “Ol’ Man River,” “Pennies from Heaven,” “My Heart Stood Still,” all of these have those introductory verses. “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” also has one, but it repeats itself halfway through the tune, so I’m not sure if that really qualifies as an introductory verse, but it feels like one. “When I take you out tonight with me, . . . you will sit behind a team of snow-white horses in the slickest gig you’ll ever see”—and then the song starts.

The other thing to mention, again, to acknowledge, is that this album is these songs on my guitar, my arrangement and my musical process informing these renditions. That’s the only thing in my mind that makes it valid that we do these songs.

I like to think that my version of Carole King’s “Up On the Roof,” or of “Handyman,” or “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)”—so many of the songs I’ve covered, I put them through my musical process.

Micallef: At your studio in Washington, Massachusetts, The Barn, do you prefer digital or analog recording?

Taylor: The thing about [recording] is that the analog side of the process sort of grew up with tape, so the two co-evolved together, starting maybe in the ’30s or so, but tape recording with the microphones that we use (Neumann 67 for vocals), that was a process that co-evolved up until the point at which we replaced the tape with the digital process. And I think it took a couple of decades for us to reconcile that interruption.

But nowadays, the D-to-A converters, the sound of digital, the sampling rate, and the bit rate, all of these things have really had a chance to mesh with the analog world that you have to have to make music in, obviously. Unless you’re playing a digital synthesizer or something like that, which can go direct.

I love digital because it’s so easy to experiment with. The editing and the signal effects and stuff that you can get in the digital realm are spectacular. The ease of editing things, the infinite number of tracks for doing as many experiments as you want to do—you can never go back to not having that capacity. You have to be relatively disciplined not to lose yourself in the forest, but essentially, digital, for me, is just a wonderful improvement on how we record.

Footnote 1: Eight compilation albums have sold more copies than JT’s Greatest Hits: the ones by, in ascending order, Billy Joel, Kenny Rogers, The Beatles (1), the Steve Miller Band, Simon and Garfunkel, Journey, Elton John, and—the best-selling album of all time—The Eagles’ (Their Greatest Hits). You know about gold records: James Taylor’s Greatest Hits is a Diamond record 11 times over, having sold more than 11 million copies.—Editor


Wednesday, July 15

iNEWS — James Taylor: ‘I thought that by now I’d have learned to get it right’

By Sarah Carson

The legendary singer-songwriter tells Sarah Carson why, at 72, he still feels as baffled by life as he did at 17, and talks candidly about addiction, mental health – and how he still holds out hope for America.

James Taylor has been “asking for people’s attention”, as he puts it, for 50 years. There was Apple Records, “Fire and Rain”, there was Sweet Baby James and the 100 million records sold since, five Grammys, the dreamy years in Laurel Canyon, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the White House concerts for the Obamas, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And this year, he released American Standard, his recordings of songs such as “Moon River”, “God Bless the Child, and “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” – “all the songs from a time when sheet music would be played at the piano and people would sing, the high point of western popular music”.

It’s his 19th album, and he’s now 72, but still, he says, “you’re always thought of as that first iteration, that person bursting on the scene. You become those songs.”

It is true – to so many, he is still the frowning twentysomething in the denim shirt on Sweet Baby James, the seminal second album from 1970, all tender, wounded, soulful and raw – from the title track, to which they rock their babies, to “Fire and Rain”, which they request at funerals. Popular culture, he thinks, helps us to “assemble our own mythology”, with its own soundtrack. “You go for a job interview and channel Eddie Murphy or Robert De Niro in a particular role; you think of the theme from Rocky when you’re trying to do your best. It’s like assembling your heroes. Some things we’ll hold on to for just a few years, others will be with us our entire life.”

His songs tend to stick around. Beloved by fans, an inspiration for musicians such as Bruce Springsteen and Alison Krauss, a muse for Joni Mitchell and Carole King. Taylor Swift was named after him, the [formerly Dixie] Chicks’ lead singer Natalie Maines grew up hoping to be his backing singer, his music is a mainstay of Desert Island Discs, chosen by figures as broad as Sheryl Sandberg and Andrew Neil. “When a song is useful in that way to someone, that’s the best news you can get.”

Taylor was born in 1948 in Boston, in the same hospital where his father, Isaac, worked as a resident; his mother, Gertrude, had been an aspiring opera singer before she married. Taylor was the second of five children – all of his siblings also became musicians – and their home was liberal: his mother longed for Massachusetts when his father was appointed assistant professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina when Taylor was a toddler, and the family moved south.

“It was the perfect storm, my family’s coming off the rails”

When his father was assigned to the navy, he came back an alcoholic – he “self-medicated”, which Taylor would come to understand as he grew older and developed his own problems with addiction. “My father’s experience was so painful,” he says now. “I know my folks loved us, and they had problems. Our culture isn’t very supportive of bringing kids to adulthood, particularly in the States. I think other cultures do it a lot better, and the late 60s were particularly fraught.” While at boarding school as a teenager in Massachusetts, Taylor fell into a depression and spent nine months in a psychiatric hospital. Two siblings would later do the same. “It was the perfect storm, my family’s coming off the rails.”

Taylor recently explored all this, the first 20 years, in an audio-memoir, Break Shot. People know about his marriage to Carly Simon, the Laurel Canyon scene, the songs he inspired Joni Mitchell to write on Blue, the heroin addiction – and Taylor has always considered himself “available” – but family, grief, trauma, makes you even more vulnerable.

“Nothing was painful to relive or re-examine, but at the end I felt a sense of having seen things in perspective.” More uncomfortable was wondering how it would be perceived. “You do get tired of people always wanting to mine the nasty bits, the naughty bits.”

Self-examination, “maybe to excess”, has been a constant in Taylor’s life. “I’ve been in psychotherapy for most of my life, as a useful tool and a luxury,” he says. He has twin sons, now 19 years old, with his third wife, Caroline ‘Kim’ Smedvig. Looking back at himself at the age his children are now has made him think hard about the kind of parent he is. His experiences have “made me perhaps a little bit too over-cautious and relentlessly focused on their emotional state. I think I’ve over-reacted to a certain extent. My older children [with Simon, whom he married in 1972] were children of divorce, and though it’s commonplace, it is still a terribly traumatic and terrible disservice and interruption of the responsibility you’ve taken on of having kids.” He pauses for a moment. “I wouldn’t tolerate them taking the kind of risks I took.”

Taylor had cello lessons as a child, before learning to play the guitar; he wrote his first song at the age of 14. After leaving the psychiatric hospital, he went to New York and started a band, The Flying Machine. It was there that he developed a heroin addiction – something his father would warn him ran in the family. At 19, he moved to London. He was introduced to producer and manager Peter Asher, “who walked me by the Apple Records offices on Baker Street and said: ‘Let’s find a Beatle and play some tunes for him.’” He played “Something in the Way She Moves” for Paul and George, and they signed him – the label’s first artist. When the company collapsed, and Taylor was back in detox for malnutrition and opiate addiction in the US, it was Asher who called him to ask: “How about we look for another record deal?”

“As soon as I was cleaned up enough, Peter started booking me into folk clubs, coffee houses, universities – my star was rising and the tide was coming in. Eventually we got a record with the studio and made Sweet Baby James.” Most of the songs – “Fire & Rain”, “Steamroller”, “Country Road” – were written in the middle of the detox. “It was very difficult to get to a point where I could stand living in my skin and sleep through the night. But that’s the way opiate dependence is – it is uncomfortable and anxiety-provoking and agitated.”

Our understanding of addiction and mental health issues has developed since then in some ways, Taylor thinks, but not enough. “Acceptability or availability of people’s inner personal selves and difficulties is increasingly true. But it doesn’t mean the culture at large has an accurate opinion on schizophrenia or on psychopathic behaviour. There are levels of mental illness that we still shy away from. We still isolate some people from our society, from our presence.

“I’ve been institutionalised four times, mostly because my parents were concerned for me, and I was extremely grateful.” He describes himself as suffering from “inappropriate programming”. Earlier this year, he said: “If I could just get out of my own way, life would be a dream.” I wonder if a person can ever get out of their own way? “I would have thought that by this time I would have learned to get it right. But one of the things you find out as you get older is that you’re still that 17-year-old living in this meat suit.”

That 17-year-old in the 60s “really did think with the hubris of youth that the world was gonna be a different place, we were gonna change it”, he says. “At that time, we really wanted to break with the past and there was a large enough mass of people that we had our own art form, our own way of communication with FM radio, our own movies and television – that’s why the world was turned upside-down.”

And now, amid his government’s handling of the virus, of climate change, is there room for hope? “When Barack Obama came in, I had a huge swelling of pride and faith in the electorate, but this has just been devastating, an abdication of responsibility on a global scale, an inept, corrupt and opaque government that may be largely serving a foreign agenda. We have no bloody idea. There has to be a reckoning at some point in the future. If we were wise, this could be it.”


Wednesday, July 15

BESTCLASSICBANDS.COM — The Making of the ‘Sweet Baby James’ Album Cover

By Greg Brodsky

Although James Taylor released his debut album for the Beatles’ Apple Records in 1968, it wasn’t until his second LP, 1970’s Sweet Baby James for Warner Bros. Records, that most audiences were introduced to the singer-songwriter. The album, featuring such Taylor songs as “Fire and Rain,” “Country Road,” “Blossom,” and the title cut, was a significant success, commercially–it reached #3 on the U.S. sales chart–and critically–it received a Grammy Award nomination for Album of the Year from his peers.

By late 1969, folk musician Henry Diltz had been photographing many of the biggest recording artists in Southern California, in Los Angeles’ burgeoning Laurel Canyon music scene for several years, and had become a top choice for publicity pictures and album cover photos.

Best Classic Bands has previously written about some of Diltz’s famed work in the ’60s and ’70s. We talked to him about shooting the cover for Sweet Baby James, which remains one of his very favorites.

“Peter Asher called me one day and asked if I could come to his house and photograph this guy that he was producing,” he says. After experiencing success as one-half of the British pop vocal duo Peter and Gordon, Asher had become an executive for Apple Records and signed Taylor. He ultimately resigned his position with the label to become Taylor’s manager.

“I went over and as I walked into the living room,” says Diltz, “James was sitting on the far side, sort of behind the piano with his back to the window, finger-picking ‘Oh, Susannah’ on his guitar. And being a musician, it just absolutely blew me away to hear this music box version of the song.”

Taylor was still just 21 years old on this December 1969 day.

“I couldn’t even believe it. It was angelic,” recalls Diltz. “I kind of sunk down in front of him and asked if he would play it again. The first pictures I took of him, he was sitting there.”

The photographer then suggested that they “go outside somewhere” and they went over to a friend of Diltz’s who had a place called “The Farm.”

“It was kind of a musical commune,” he says. “There were little sheds, little outhouses and things. So we took pictures there. It was very quiet. We weren’t talking much. And at one point James leaned on this big post. He’s a tall guy and he leaned on it and it filled my frame… my horizontal frame… in a perfect way. I thought, ‘Holy cow… I’m taking black-and-white, because they wanted publicity pictures.’ “So I said, ‘Wait a minute, James, don’t move.’

James Taylor at “The Farm,” Dec. 1969 (Photo: © Henry Diltz; used with permission)

“And I picked up my color camera because in my mind I was thinking I want to show this in my slide shows for my hippie friends and I wanted to show this picture that was blowing my mind.”

“And when Peter saw those, he showed them to Warner Bros. and it became the cover. The art director blew it up, it was kind of grainy, and he cropped it into a square. Inside that was a pullout, black-and-white, that had the lyrics on one side and it was like 12×24 when you opened it up and on the other side was that black-and-white picture of him from elbow to elbow, leaning on that post as a horizontal shot the way it ought to be. And that’s one of my absolute favorite portraits.”

[Taylor’s tour with Jackson Browne has been moved to 2021. Tickets are available here.]

Sweet Baby James was released just two months after the photo shoot, in February 1970.

“Years later, when I see that photo on the wall, I love seeing that picture of James. The song, ‘Sweet Baby James,’ was such a haunting melody to me… I love it so much. My two children were born nine years apart, but for both of them when I would sing them to sleep, I would sing ‘Sweet Baby James.’ It was the perfect lullaby.

“That song is so beautiful and I’m so proud to have done the cover.”

Diltz’s iconic works are available for purchase at the Morrison Hotel Gallery, which he co-founded.


Thursday, June 11

GUITARWORLD.COM — James Taylor: “American Standard is a guitar album – I’ve had some of these arrangements since I started playing”

By Neville Marten

We get the lowdown on the arrangement, composition and recording of the original singer-songwriter’s new covers album American Standard, including a full track breakdown

If we exclude the insightful protest songs of Bob Dylan, mostly played over simplistic backings, the pithy words and harmonically sophisticated arrangements of Paul Simon, or the often wistful, sometimes jazzy but always poetically sublime meanderings of Joni Mitchell, then James Taylor is the archetypal singer- songwriter-guitarist.

An often troubled intellectual, Taylor’s masterstroke was in putting deeply personal lyrics, sometimes clear but often cryptic, onto a country-folk musical backdrop with deft and hooky acoustic guitar picking at its core.

In a way, he’s the stealth bomber of the music world. A bona-fide superstar with 100 million album sales to his credit (every release from JT in 1977 to 2006’s James Taylor At Christmas has gone Platinum), Taylor has a self-effacing demeanor that still sends women swooning and men trotting off to the guitar shop – and vice versa, we’re sure.

His latest release, American Standard, takes a formula first laid down by Willie Nelson with Somewhere Over The Rainbow in 1981, then Linda Ronstadt’s What’s New in 1983, and taken up by everyone from Robbie Williams (Swing When You’re Winning, 2001) to Rod Stewart, who’s built a second career out of it, and created an album of American Songbook classics.

Of course, as with everything he does, Taylor has gently but powerfully laid his stamp all over it. As his producer Dave O’Donnell says, “When James covers a song it sounds like he wrote it.”

O’Donnell couldn’t be more right. James uses his tried-and trusted chord voicings and fretboard moves, and weaves them around tunes that could have been written for his milestone JT album of 1977, the Grammy-winning Hourglass that came two decades later, or his No 1 release Before This World in 2015.

“It is a guitar album,” states James in typically clipped fashion. “I purposefully didn’t iterate it with a keyboard. We were very careful to keep the guitar as the centre of each arrangement, because these are arrangements of my own.

“I’ve had some of these since I started playing the guitar. I learnt to play playing these songs that I knew from childhood.

My generation drew a distinct line between ourselves and what sounded to us like Vegas or in any way ‘lounge-y’. It’s like folk music was okay and Celtic music was okay, but Sinatra was not

“But it’s interesting. When my generation stepped out and were making themselves known, we drew a distinct line between ourselves and what sounded to us like Vegas or in any way ‘lounge-y’. It’s like folk music was okay and Celtic music was okay, but Sinatra was not. We were unkind and unaccepting of that music. We distanced ourselves from it.

“And, in fact, it’s so fabulous. We did them a disservice. People like Bobby Darin tried to change his stripes and become Bob Darin, and found himself on the wrong side of the generational divide.

“But that changed when Willie Nelson made his standards album. And Linda Ronstadt, who actually worked with Nelson Riddle. That changed things. It made it possible for Rod Stewart. And now Natalie Cole, of course – she’s the real deal; she actually is a jazz singer [Natalie passed away in 2015].

“But on each album I tend to have a cover of some sort. And I recorded an album of covers [Covers, 2008] which had Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’ on. So I’ve done a number of these tunes, what are thought of as American Songbook. They are songs of the 1920s, 30s and 40s, with a couple from the 50s in there. They are the previous generation’s music.

“But this is the music that informed Lennon-McCartney, Paul Simon, Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell. The people of our generation listened to this stuff when they were kids, and I think that it really informed their harmonic sense. It’s much more sophisticated than music has become.

“I think the difference is that these were written as songs to be done by anyone. These days what we listen to are performances. In other words, we are listening to a specific person, a specific voice, and you wouldn’t think of them being covered by other people, generally speaking.

“[Back then], they didn’t have production values that would dazzle us, and they didn’t know who would be performing the song, so it had to exist as a set of changes, a lyric and a melody. So, in my opinion, they are the high watermark of popular music.”

These were written as songs to be done by anyone… they are the high watermark of popular music

Taylor and the brilliant jazz guitarist John Pizzarelli worked out the core of the guitar arrangements for the album, which must have been an interesting challenge.

“Yes, we did work them out together,” Taylor concurs. “I’m playing my Olson guitars and Pizzarelli is mostly playing a seven-string. So there’s some bass notes that are coming out of the guitars that are outside of the usual range. But they’re my arrangements.

“With my limited guitar technique I’ve managed to interpret these tunes. It works for John to augment those. It doesn’t work for John to give me changes and to have me play them. He’s much more suited to accommodating me than I am suited to accommodating him. And, fortunately for me, I’m calling the shots.

“But, yes, it was a very interesting process. I thought we were doing demos to start with. Then the idea occurred to me, ‘Let’s make this into a guitar project.’ Because you can tend to have a kind of cookie-cutter experience when making this kind of album.

“You can get a great rhythm section and a really strong arranger, but it can sound like these songs often tend to sound. When I do a cover I basically try to adapt my technique and my voice to the material, and when it works it does. I really wanted to keep that at the centre of it.

“If we’d asked a piano player to interpret these changes then had an arranger orchestrate them, it would have somehow obscured what is actually happening here. Which is that I’m running these songs through my process. There are some that it works with and some that it doesn’t – these are the ones that work.”

To keep an essentially acoustic album from sounding same-y, Taylor and his team added instruments from outside the main band. Things like saxophone, melodica, Dobro, violin, and harmony vocals lend color and interest.

When I do a cover I basically try to adapt my technique and my voice to the material… I really wanted to keep that at the centre of it

“After John and I cut these basic tracks we took them to my musical community, and that’s basically the guys that I tour with and record with [James’s band comprises Jimmy Johnson, bass; Steve Gadd, drums; Larry Goldings, keys; Lou Marini, clarinet, sax]. I also have a relationship with Jerry Douglas [Dobro] and Stuart Duncan [violin], and for the first time I worked with Viktor Krauss [upright bass].

“We worked for an awfully long time, getting the arrangements down. And I took it to my vocalists [Arnold McCuller, Kate Markovitz, Dorian Holley, Andrea Zonn] and we found parts for them on three of the songs to sing. So, yes, I sort of took it through the garden.”

When two guitarists arrange songs on acoustics one imagines capos at various positions on each instrument, with each player adopting different inversions of the chords. Not so in this case, apparently.

“John is a proper guitar player,” Taylor states, modestly. “He very seldom uses a capo. He is free on the neck with all of the inversions. I’m pretty much stuck in the first position, so I use a capo a lot. My guitar tech, Jon Prince, wrote down all of the capo positions, so that tells you what the fingering is.

“Often it’s either G [shape], many of them are A, there’s a couple in E and a number in D. And there are actually some where I change capo position for the bridge. I’ll get JP to send them to you.” James kindly did this and the key and capo position are listed beside each song in the track-by-track interview that follows…

1. My Blue Heaven

Key: C, Capo 3rd fret

This opening track on American Standard begins with a separate verse, a typical songwriting device of that time that we seem to have lost…

“It was the way the song was introduced into the action of a musical, or a little way of setting it up. A bit of conversation that’s not yet the body of the song. They’re great; some of them are really smart. It basically sets the stage a little bit. A number of the songs that I play, I go from the swung thing to a straight eight thing, and it’s the straight eight that sounds like Latin. We actually brought in Luis Conte on percussion to make that clear.”

2. Moon River

Key: Bb, Capo 1st fret

James hasn’t exactly re-harmonized this, but there are some interesting things going on – he seems to have twisted it a little bit. There’s a Stevie Wonder-esque solo that sounds like a harmonica, but isn’t…

“This particular track is just the two guitars, there’s no rhythm. So the only other thing aside from my voice is a six-string guitar, a seven-string guitar, and a solo that Larry Goldings is playing. It sounds like a harmonica, but actually it’s a melodica.

“Actually, in many cases I wrote these solos. I gave the players lines to play, and Larry starts with my melody and then goes off on his own and that’s when it rises up and breaks free of it. If it sounds like Stevie Wonder, I think it’s probably more likely that Stevie and I have the same source, which is Ray Charles. That informs Stevie’s music – at least I think it does.”

3. Teach Me Tonight

Key: B, Capo 2nd fret

This song has lyrics by the incomparable Sammy Cahn, with music by Gene De Paul and was published in 1953. Five different versions charted in 1954 and 1955 alone.

“Yes, Sammy Cahn and Gene De Paul. We’ve cast this with something of a Latin feel and, again, got Luis Conte to play maracas and congas on it. Walt Fowler plays some beautiful trumpet on it, too. It’s a simple piece and it’s essentially a simple album.”

4. As Easy As Rolling Off A Log

Key: A, Capo 2nd fret

There’s an almost Django-esque swing to this song, which James first heard on the kids’ cartoon Katnip Kollege. The tasty guitar fills are also by James, but he has a confession…

“I play that introduction into the clarinet on the guitar. But it’s a studio artefact. I couldn’t play it in real-time. I jumped in and constructed it, edited it together really. This song came from a cartoon that I remember from when I was a kid. When I told Kootch [old friend and collaborator Danny Kortchmar] that I’d cut that song, he said, ‘Yes, you were always going on about that song.’”

5. Almost Like Being In Love

Key: G, Capo 3rd fret

Here the harmony vocals come in, lifting both the song and the album. Typical JT chords such as major 9ths and #5ths show that songs like this clearly informed his own writing.

“Yes, they definitely did. Nat King Cole’s version of this song was my favorite, but I knew it from the musical Brigadoon. It was one of those ones that I learnt early on and basically taught me the chords that are in it.”

6. Sit Down, You’re Rocking The Boat

Chorus: Key: B, Capo 1st fret; Intro: Key: Abm, Capo 2nd fret

Readers may remember Stubby Kaye’s brilliant original from Guys And Dolls. The fabulous Jerry Douglas guests on Dobro here, which works a treat.

“This doesn’t have the energy that Stubby Kaye’s version had, and that’s because that’s a cast album version. It’s live and the tempo is way up and he’s singing it like he’s got a trumpet in his throat. So our approach was to get intricate with it and the harmonies, and we spent a lot of time writing these harmony parts that are in there. It was a lot of fun, that tune.”

7. The Nearness Of You

Key: E, Capo 2nd fret

There’s a kind of Herb Alpert feel to this, with James’s favorite chord moves the perfect bed for some succinct trumpet solo and fills.

“That’s Walt Fowler, who tours with me. He popped it into double time and he did lift it, did a great job on it. The same thing with Lou Marini on Almost Like Being In Love; that’s a line that I asked him to play, a line I’ve heard for years as something I’ve wanted to hear in that place.

“That really opens it up, too. It’s a song that I’d already recorded with Pat Metheny and Michael Brecker. It’s a Hoagy Carmichael, so it was probably written on the guitar. My favorite chord changes do fall right into it. It was part of my DNA and part of my vocabulary.”

8. You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught

Key: D, No capo

This song from the 1958 musical South Pacific is powerfully anti-racist. Coming from that time it must have been an incredibly brave song to write.

“I think so. The lyric is angry. It’s cynical and talking about making children hate, teaching them when they’re young and innocent. So it is a pretty brutal thing when you get right down to it. That’s a song that John Pizzarelli brought to the project. He said, ‘You know this one.’ I said, ‘You bet I do,’ and played it immediately on the guitar for him.”

9. God Bless The Child

Key: C, Capo 3rd fret; No capo on second half of bridge

This Billie Holiday classic is really a sophisticated blues. And she made a fantastic version of it.

“Absolutely right, it is. I played the song with Kootch and Joel O’Brien and Zach Wiesner in our band The Flying Machine in 1966. This was part of our repertoire. I’ve lived with the tune for a long time, so it’s been a long time coming.”

10. Pennies From Heaven

Key: A, Capo 2nd fret

The organ sound on this is reminiscent of Nat King Cole’s solo on Let’s Face The Music And Dance.

“It’s the only keyboard on the album that is actually comping, playing along with the chords. Larry Goldings plays a sort of a solo in that tune, and then comes back in the coda, in the fade, and plays the changes with us.”

11. My Heart Stood Still

Key: E, Capo 2nd fret

The chord structure on this song, sung by Frank Sinatra and many others, lends itself perfectly to Taylor’s lyrical style, and is one of those that definitely sounds like he might have written it.

“Yes, this one fell right into place. Lyrics by Lorenz Hart. I think that Hart was a closeted gay guy. A lot of his lyrics have this kind of heartbreak behind them, a kind of a furtiveness, and a ‘dare not speak its name’ kind of thing that you can feel.

“This song explicitly is not definitely homosexual love, but you can feel that doomed energy to it, that sort of ‘this will never happen’. Because the musical theatre was so tolerant of gay people it has such a strong energy to it because of its denial.”

12. Ol’ Man River

Key: Bb, Capo 1st fret

This Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein song from Show Boat was made famous by legendary singer Paul Robeson.

“That’s the definitive version of it, and has connected to it all of that political energy. It’s a very dicey thing for a white guy to sing this song and some of the lyrics. This is an abbreviated version of what’s actually a very long song, but I’ve played it for so many years and loved it so much.

“It’s also amazingly range-y, so I’ll never be able to do it live. It starts with an F, because it’s in Bb. And of course at the end of it, it goes up two and a half octaves. It’s a very difficult song to sing. Also, it walks a line for someone such as me to sing it, but I love the song so much I just couldn’t leave it alone. We put very little on top of this tune; it lives with my guitar and voice.”

13. It’s Only A Paper Moon

Key: A, Capo 2nd fret

Those who knows Taylor’s 1997 album, Hourglass, will recognize some of the chord moves here, particularly in the track Line ’Em Up.

“I did cut Paper Moon before with Don Grolnick for a movie called A League Of Their Own, so I had become familiar with the tune. Kootch and I used to talk about doing the song in kind of a straight eight blues kind of way. But it’s one of those things that fell into the Latin-leaning side of my stuff. And it’s very much the same place as Line ’Em Up.”

14. The Surrey With The Fringe On Top

Key: G tuned down a half-step, Capo 1st fret

This Rodgers and Hammerstein song from the hit musical Oklahoma! (1943) can seem rather throwaway, but harmonically it’s surprisingly sophisticated.

“Yes, it can be. The person who really opened these American Songbook songs up, chordally and harmonically, was Bill Evans. Bill just had that touch of gold. He looked at things and saw harmonies and chord changes in them that have become the standard versions of a lot of songs. The Surrey With The Fringe On Top is an old-fashioned song.

“It’s not a beat that has been in pop music since. It’s got that foxtrot kind of rhythm that’s not a current song. And I actually found it very difficult to sing, because it’s not in any way modern or contemporary.”


Friday, April 24

SPORTBUSINESSDAILY.COM — Panthers Enlist Folk Legend James Taylor For Draft Announcement

By Josh Carpenter

NFL Panthers brass have used the quarantine period to set the bar high for their social media team, and their efforts were evident last night when folk legend James Taylor unveiled draft pick Derrick Brown to the tune of “Carolina In My Mind.” Panthers Social Media Manager Amie Kiehn said her staff was motivated by VP/Communications & External Affairs Steven Drummond and President Tom Glick to push the envelope during the pandemic rather than take a step back. “We’re really trying to push ourselves and think differently,” Kiehn told THE DAILY this morning. About three weeks ago, Kiehn was catching up via Facetime with a former colleague, Jared Kleinstein, the Founder & CEO of Colorado-based Fresh Tape Media. Kleinstein spontaneously started singing Taylor’s iconic song and jokingly suggested the Panthers reach out to Taylor’s agent to see if he would help announce the pick. After a quick Google search, Kiehn had an email request out. Just a few days later, Taylor’s rep agreed.