James Taylor, caresses from Laurel Canyon
By Sergio Ariza
James Taylor was the incarnation of the singer-songwriter in the 70's, with soft compositions that caressed like the Laurel Canyon breeze and a particular fingerpickin' style on the guitar that not only colored his own records but also appeared on some of the most important albums of that decade, such as Joni Mitchell's Blue and Carole King's Tapestry. Taylor's style has not undergone major changes since his period of splendor in the late 60's and early 70's, but as an outstanding song craftsman he has continued to please an audience that has remained loyal for decades.
This singer was born on March 12, 1948 in Boston, and given the full name of James Vernon Taylor, but moved, with his entire family, to North Carolina at the age of three. As a child he took cello lessons, something he would use when he switched to guitar in 1960, at the age of 12. His family's liberal ideals clashed with those of the segregated South in which they lived, so from an early age he was sent to spend summers in Martha's Vineyard, in his native Massachusetts, so that he would not forget his Yankee origins. It was there that he met Danny Kortchmar, an aspiring New York guitarist with whom he shared an affinity for folk and blues. At the age of 14 Taylor wrote his first song and by the following year, in 1963, they were playing all the Vineyard joints as Jamie & Kootch.
In 1964 he played electric guitar in his brother Alex's band, The Corsayers, but around the same time he began to feel depressed, sleeping 20 hours a day, which led him to voluntarily commit himself to the McLean psychiatric hospital in 1965, from where he would escape the draft for Vietnam, but from where he would also emerge much improved. After 9 months of stay he left after receiving a call from Kortchmar to form a band in New York. After recruiting a bassist and a drummer, they changed their name to The Flying Machine and began playing songs composed by Taylor during his time at McLean, such as Knocking 'Round the Zoo, Don't Talk Now and The Blues Is Just a Bad Dream, which would later appear on his solo albums.
By the summer of 1966 the band was playing regularly at the Greenwich in Manhattan and Taylor had developed a heroin addiction that would accompany him for 17 years. It was around this time that he wrote Rainy Day Man, which was about his addiction. But, in spite of everything, they managed to record a single for Jubilee Records, with Night Owl on the A-side. It was a good song, with a powerful bass and soul music influence, but after it stuck at a modest 102nd place in the Billboard charts, the company decided not to release an LP, even though the band had recorded enough songs for it (these recordings would be released later in 1971, under the title of James Taylor and The Flying Machine, in the middle of his most successful period).
Before long the band disbanded and Taylor moved on to singing in parks alone with his guitar, after which he would pass his cap around. His addiction continued to grow and money was scarce, and one day his father showed up in New York, put him in his car and took him back to North Carolina.
After six months he left for London at the end of 1967, obsessed with the music coming out of Britain, particularly the Beatles. Once there, his friend Kortchmar put him him in touch with Peter Asher, the man in charge of finding new artists for Apple, the Beatles' newly created label. Asher liked the demo Taylor passed on to him so much that he set up a meeting between him, Paul McCartney and George Harrison.Taylor was nervous, but also had blind confidence in his talent. He pulled out his Gibson J-50 - the same guitar that colors his first three albums - and began to sing. The first words out of his mouth were "Something in the way she moves...". Harrison would be so taken with the song that he would use those same words for his best remembered song, Something. For his part, McCartney was equally impressed and Taylor became the first non-British artist to record for Apple.
Soon Taylor was recording his first album, at the same time that the Liverpool band was recording the White Album, something that is reflected in one of his best songs, Carolina In My Mind: "And it's with a holy host of others standing 'round me, still I'm on the dark side of the moon". And that "holy presence” to which he refers is even in the recording of the song, with McCartney's Fender Jazz Bass and Harrison's harmonies accompanying him (in 1976 Taylor would re-record it for his Greatest Hits, due to issues over Apple's rights, but I think the original version is superior). In addition McCartney and Asher brought in Richard Hewson to add some spectacular string arrangements to a number of songs. Among them, in addition to the two mentioned, there were also several rescued from their time in Flying Machine, such as Night Owl, Don't Talk Now and Knocking 'Round the Zoo, which also find their definitive versions on this album.
The album was released in December 1968 and received excellent reviews but did not sell, partly because Taylor was unable to perform it live, having fallen back into drug dependency while in London. Back in the US he was hospitalized again and, after leaving, he decided to move to the west coast, specifically to Los Angeles, where he found an audience willing to listen to him and, much more importantly, a group of musicians with whom to share ideas and experiences. Soon after arriving he began to move in the circles of the Laurel Canyon scene, with Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Jackson Browne and Carole King among them. In October he got a contract with Warner Brothers and at the end of the year he began recording his second album.
At that time he was practically homeless, living on the couch at Peter Asher's house, who was still his manager, and his friend Kortchmar, who was in a band called The City with Charles Larkey on bass and Carole King on piano and vocals. Taylor, who was a big fan of King's compositions, got King to play piano on his record and Kortchman to play guitar. However, this time the absolute focus was on Taylor's voice and his expressive fingerpickin'. Taylor had an absolutely incredible collection of songs, Country Road, Sweet Baby James, Steamroller Blues, Sunny Skies and the immortal Fire and Rain, which is arguably the best song of his career. But he was missing a song to close the album, so he took three little ideas he had for three different songs and put them together to create Suite For 20G, a song so named because he had been promised $20,000 once the album was finished. The song's shift towards soul is incredible, one of the first times he shows how good an R&B singer he also is (something he would perfect on future albums with covers like Handy Man and How Sweet It Is).
In February 1970 Sweet Baby James appeared and began to make him into a star, during which time Taylor began dating the Queen of Laurel Canyon, the great Joni Mitchell. The pair then convinced Carole King to record her songs, but in her own way, which led to Tapestry, one of the best-selling albums of all time, which featured a song that King had composed after listening to Fire And Rain: You've Got A Friend. This song can be seen as a response to a phrase from Taylor's song: "I've seen lonely times when I could not find a friend". Taylor put his J-50 at King's disposal and used it on the aforementioned You'Ve Got A Friend, as well as on songs like Way Over Yonder, So Far Away and the new version she recorded of Will You Love Me Tomorrow, in which Mitchell and Taylor do the harmonies, announced as: The Mitchell / Taylor Boy And Girl Choir...
While Tapestry was being recorded, Taylor was also working on the follow-up to Sweet Baby James - Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon - which was the pinnacle of his commercial success, with his own version of King's song rising to the top of the singles charts, as well as the album doing the same on the Billboard chart. Also on this remarkable album was the beautiful You Can Close Your Eyes, dedicated to Mitchell, on which Taylor's mastery of the acoustic is demonstrated. Even so, the romance between the kings of Laurel Canyon came to an end and was part of the inspiration for one of the best albums of all time, Joni Mitchell's Blue, where, in spite of everything, his guitar appears in three songs, All I Want, California and A Case Of You.
1972 saw the first clear ‘slip’ of his career, with the inconsequential One Man Dog; although Taylor recovered again from the mid 70's with albums like Gorilla and JT, which received a warm reception from his followers. That same year he found sentimental stability with singer Carly Simon by marrying her, in a marriage that would last until 1983, the year in which Taylor managed to leave the drugs behind for good.
Since then he has released ten more studio albums, including American Standard, which was released in 2020, in which he often uses his beloved guitars made expressly for him by luthier James Olson. Maybe none of those songs achieve the heights reached in his first three albums, but there are enough examples of his talent to remind us that this guy soundtracked a whole generation, like that of Taylor Swift's parents, who decided to name their daughter after their favorite artist.
Taylor's simple but moving compositions were huge in the early 70s, but they also serve to teach us that this singer-songwriter was also a remarkable guitarist with a special sound and a very personal way of playing. He fingerpicked, but without anything on his fingertips, and in doing so he achieved a unique sound that feels like a warm and familiar caress.