CITYBEAT.COM — One of America’s Most Acclaimed and Influential Singer/Songwriters, James Taylor, Can Still Fill Arenas 50 Years After His Debut Album
By BRIAN BAKER
Last year, James Taylor celebrated two milestones — his 70th birthday and the 50th anniversary of his self-titled debut album, which featured his original (and, in my opinion, superior) uptempo version of “Carolina in My Mind.” Taylor held the distinction of being the first non-British act signed to the Beatles’ fledgling Apple label, and he impacted the band tremendously. Taylor’s song “Something in the Way She Moves” inspired George Harrison to write his classic “Something.” Harrison and Paul McCartney were uncredited guests on “Carolina in My Mind”; the bridge lyric, “a holy host of others standing around me,” was a reference to them. Although that first album is now considered a classic, it tanked after its initial release, hindered by Taylor’s inability to promote it; the recovering heroin addict relapsed while recording in England and was subsequently hospitalized in Massachusetts.
Taylor was further sidelined after a motorcycle accident that broke his hands and feet, but around that time The Beatles broke up and Apple was dissolved. The incapacitated Taylor began writing furiously, inspired by his young, turbulent life, including his teenage battle with depression, his band experiences with friend and guitarist Danny Kortchmar, his solo launch in Greenwich Village, his two rehab stints and the suicide of his friend Suzanne Schnerr. At the same time, Taylor and his new manager, Peter Asher, negotiated a contract with Warner Bros. Records, which resulted in 1970’s Sweet Baby James, a convincing display of Taylor’s exquisite guitar work and compelling songwriting, particularly on the powerful and plaintive “Fire and Rain.” Heralded as a Folk Rock masterpiece, Sweet Baby James sold 1.5 million copies in its first year and earned Taylor several Grammy nominations.
Taylor’s path was inalterably set after the success of Sweet Baby James. He became a critical and commercial juggernaut, and ultimately one of the most successful recording artists in history, with global sales of over 100 million. His early work helped define the Folk Rock sound of the ’70s, while his middle period found him veering in more of a Pop direction.
Taylor’s last four albums have been among his most acclaimed. The 1997 album Hourglass earned a Grammy for Best Pop Album, 2002’s October Road went platinum within three months of its release and 2015’s Before This World was Taylor’s first No. 1 album. Since his amazing first record, Taylor has added 16 more to his estimable catalog and become a musical and cultural icon.
James Taylor is an unparalleled songwriter, a gifted translator of other artists’ material, a committed activist for peace and the environment and an enduring influence on his fellow artists.
The last verse of “Sweet Baby James” begins, “There’s a song they sing when they take to the highway, a song they sing when they take to the sea.” There’s a better than average chance it’s a James Tayor song.
There aren’t many thoughtful, Folk-based singer/songwriters who could make the leap from coffeehouse to arenas and then maintain the kind of popularity it takes to still fill such big venues five decades into their career. But Taylor will do just that this Tuesday, Feb. 5, when he plays Cincinnati’s U.S. Bank Arena with special guest Bonnie Raitt. Taylor is playing with his “all-star band,” which features Kate Markowitz (vocals), Arnold McCuller (vocals), Dorian Holley (vocals), Andrea Zonn (vocals/fiddle), Larry Goldings (piano), Lou Marini (horns), Walt Fowler (keyboards/horns), Michael Landau (guitar), Jimmy Johnson (bass), Michito Sanchez (percussion) and Chad Wackerman (drums).