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Taylor, James (12 March 1948-Present)

James Vernon Taylor was instrumental; pun intended;in sparking the singer-songwriter movement that swept the American musical landscape in the late ’60s and early ’70s.  James’ first instrument was not the guitar, but the cello.

He picked up a guitar in 1960 and found it much more conducive to the kind of music he wanted to write and perform.  Some of this music was written during a stay in McLean Hospital, where James, still in high school, was being treated for depression.  He was still in hospital when he received his diploma in absentia.

While on vacation at Martha’s Vineyard, James befriended Danny Kortchmar, and the two of them founded Flying Machine with Joel O’Brien.  The New York-based band recorded “Brighten Your Night With My Day” backed with “Night Owl”.  Neither the band nor the song succeeded.  To make matters worse, James was fighting a losing battle with heroin.  It got so bad that his dad had to drive from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to New York, in a frantic attempt to save him.  James’ recollections of that time are reflected in the song “Jump Up Behind Me”.

A change of scenery seemed to be the ticket:  James emigrated to London in 1968.  He recorded a demo and sent it to Peter Asher, who had ties to Paul McCartney and Apple Records, and became the first non-Beatle signed to the label.  Not only did they sign him:  Paul and Peter both played on the album, and Paul and George Harrison supplied background vocals for “Carolina in My Mind”.  In spite of all of this all-star support, the album fared poorly, as did James’ ongoing problems with heroin.

He moved back to the States and checked himself into a treatment facility in Massachusetts.  In 1969, he did some touring, appearing at the Newport Folk Festival, and L.A.’s Troubadour Club, for six nights.  His career was interrupted again when he got into a motorcycle accident which resulted in two broken hands.

Warner Brothers signed James soon thereafter and he made the great egress to California, with Peter Asher in tow.  His sophomore effort, Sweet Baby James, fared much better than his self-titled debut album, yielding the hit “Fire and Rain”.  Both the song and the album went to #3 on the Billboard charts.  Listeners were now hungry for James’ debut LP, and record sales put James Taylor and “Carolina in My Mind” on the charts, as well.

In 1971, James appeared in the film Two-Lane Blacktop with Dennis Wilson, and released Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon.  His cover of “You’ve Got a Friend”, penned by friend Carole King, garnered a Grammy and became James’ first and only #1 record.

Wedding bells rang for James and Carly Simon in 1972.  It was a prolific time for both singer-songwriters:  James released a string of albums, including One Man DogWalking ManGorillaIn the Pocket, and Greatest Hits, all between 1972 and 1976.  In the Pocket contained his remake of the old Marvin Gaye hit, “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)”.  Greatest Hits has sold more than eleven million copies, over one third of James’ total sales.  In 1977, he switched labels from Warner Brothers to Columbia and scored another hit cover with “Handy Man”, winning the Best Male Pop Vocal Performance Grammy.  A couple of years later, he cracked the top forty with another Carole King composition, “Up on the Roof”.  Also in 1979 he appeared as a guest musician with Jimmy Buffett on his album Volcano which would see him recording with him again on two later recordings over the years – Hot Water and Banana Wind.

James’ recidivistic heroin habit was hampering his career and marriage, however, and he and Carly were divorced in 1983.  In 1985, James was at a crossroads, contemplating retirement and continuing to deal with substance abuse.  His life and career got a shot in the arm (so to speak) when he opened for George Benson at Rock in Rio.  So popular was James, encores extended his set well past the scheduled time, and George graciously offered to switch spots with him two days hence.  He also married Kathryn Walker, an actress, and kicked the drug habit once and for good.  To cap off a banner year, James released his first album in four years, That’s Why I’m Here.

In 1988, he released the appropriately titled Never Die Young.  New Moon Shine, James’ first release in the ’90s, went platinum.  Two years later, he toured the east coast, and some of this material is captured on the two-disk set, James Taylor (Live), released in 1993.  This kept fans tied over until 1997’s Hourglass, which won the Best Pop Album Grammy Award the following year.

In May of 1997, he had the honour to preside over the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction of Crosby, Stills and Nash.  Just three years later, he would be inducted by one of the people who helped him get his start:  Sir Paul McCartney.  He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame the same year.

James has been busy in the new millennium, as well.  He married his third wife, Caroline Smedvig, in 2001.  October Road was released in the same year.  James has duetted a couple of times with Grammy-winning bluegrass singer Alison Krauss, first in 2002, when they performed “The Boxer” as part of Paul Simon’s Kennedy Center Honors Tribute, and again in 2004, covering “How’s the World Treating You?”, originally recorded by The Louvin Brothers.  It appears on the album Lovin’, Losin’ and Alison Krauss’s 100 Miles or More:  A Collection.  (James would cover Paul Simon’s “Slip Sliding Away” years later.)  He also got in the Christmas spirit, recording James Taylor:  A Christmas Album, in collaboration with Hallmark.  The end of the year was marked by an appearance on The West Wing, performing a cover of “A Change is Gonna Come”, the old Sam Cooke song, for a character played by his wife, no less.

It was not his last foray into television.  He teamed up with The Dixie Chicks on the Country Music Television programme, Crossroads, and even made a cameo as himself on The Simpsons.  In 2006, his Christmas album was repackaged and redistributed by Columbia/Sony, and nominated for a Grammy the following year.  He was also named Grammy MusiCares Person of the Year and honoured by a number of his peers, including Jackson Browne, Sheryl Crow, Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Taj Mahal, and Keith Urban.  A DVD of the concert is now available.

James also has the honour of being one of a handful of artists to appear on Ray Charles’ last album, Genius Loves Company.  One Man Band was released on 13th November 2007, and contains live material from a tour that was carrying over into Europe in early 2008.  Also in 2008 he released the album Covers.

He earned the No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 chart in 2015, after 45 years since Sweet Baby James, for his Before This World.  He later released American Standard in 2020.