James Taylor Rise From the Ashes
By Kyle Eustice
It’s not common knowledge that folk musician/singer-songwriter James Taylor essentially owes his entire career to Sir Paul McCartney. As a five-time Grammy Award winner and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, the North Carolina native has been spitting out albums since 1968 when he released his self-titled debut. That deal didn’t happen by accident. It was the result of years of dedication and intense focus on songwriting, something he admired in artists such as The Beatles and Bob Dylan.
“I was a huge Beatles fan,” Taylor says. “I listened to them – as did millions – with absolute utter focus and attention to every note and every word. And just devoured everything that they came out with, and parsed it and learned it and reinterpreted it.”
Taylor’s life didn’t go exactly as planned once he was out on his own. After a bout with depression and a brief mental hospital stay, he ended up in New York City with a menacing heroin addiction, one he couldn’t escape on his own. He enlisted the help of his father, Isaac Taylor, who quickly whisked him away from the Big Apple and took him to North Carolina where he endured drug treatment for six months. Once clean, he had a renewed sense of commitment to his musical path and moved to London to pursue his passion. In late 1967, he recorded some demos in Soho and caught the attention of Peter Asher, the A&R head for The Beatles’ newly formed label, Apple Records. It proved to be the break Taylor needed. Asher showed the demos to McCartney who thought they were great so they signed Taylor, the first non-British act signed to Apple.
“It was great. It was unbelievable,” he recalls. “When it turned out that I got the opportunity – when the song “Carolina” says “the holy host of others standing around me,” that’s what it refers to. Just the fact that I was in this pantheon, really being present in Trident Studios in Soho, Leicester Square where they were recording The White Album. It was just amazing.
“I was at a session for “Revolution,” a re-cut of it that was done at Abbey Road,” he continues. “And some of The White Album was cut at Abbey Road, but most of it was cut at Trident. The reason for that is that it had the only 8-track board in England. They had been working with 8-track at Abbey Road, but the engineers there were distrustful of the 8-track machines that were on the market. They trusted 4-tracks, so they synched them up, and that was at close to multi-tracking as Abbey Road would come. So they went to Trident, and we just took the interstices; anytime they weren’t tracking, we would go in.”
With the biggest band in the world backing Taylor, he moved forward with his career, but unfortunately fell back into his drug habit during the recording of his first record. Once again, he was admitted into a hospital in New York where he tried to sort things out. Meanwhile, Apple was having difficulties of their own and Taylor soon left the label altogether. Tragedy struck again when Taylor broke both hands and feet in a motorcycle accident at Martha’s Vineyard, forcing him to stop playing for several months. During this time, he continued to write music and in 1969, he signed with Warner Bros. and released Sweet Baby James a year later. The album contained the massive hit “Fire and Rain,” which became an instant classic. Both the album and the single reached No. 3 in the Billboard charts, with Sweet Baby James selling more than 1.5 million copies in its first year and eventually more than 3 million in the United States alone. Sweet Baby James was received at its time as a folk-rock masterpiece, an album that effectively showcased Taylor’s talents to the mainstream public, marked the direction he would take in following years, and made Taylor one of the main forces of the nascent movement.
“You know I got a great compliment from my mentor and the guy who gave me my break, Paul McCartney” he says. “He bought a bunch of those albums to give to his friends and he said the reason he did was because when he heard “Mean Old Man” he thought it was a Porter tune. And he thought it had to be a standard and looked to see who wrote it and was surprised that it was mine.
“I think people have a clichéd idea of folk music when I say I am a folk musician,” he adds. “I just mean somebody who basically learned music without studying it in any formal way. I basically just absorbed what I learned.”
He learned a lot from McCartney, not only as a mentor but also simply as a fan of his music. He would study it like an inquisitive student.
“As soon as I found certain chords, I used them,” he explains. “I was talking to Paul McCartney. And we were amazed that there was like this F13th chord in “Michelle.” I love all of McCartney’s music. And Paul said that was the only jazz chord [he and John Lennon] knew. They used to go down to a record store in Liverpool and there was somebody there who played guitar and he showed Paul and John this 13th chord. So the second chord in “Michelle,” under “ma belle,” that second chord is a very unlikely chord, it’s a 13th. And you wouldn’t expect to see it. McCartney’s chords are surprisingly simple – when you take them apart. But, boy, the way he bounces one onto another. It’s really very much like cubism. To listen to McCartney’s stuff, because it represents so much in just a simple line. He’s really brilliant.”
The Taylor and McCartney mentorship went even further when McCartney played bass on Taylor’s song, “Carolina,” a song that helped that initial record deal.
“Paul sat in on that one, and he and George [Harrison] sang on that one, too. I think the song that was the strongest on that demo was “Something In The Way She Moves,” and I think that’s the thing that got me signed. The song had its own bass line when it was written. I wrote out a simple chart, a bible-belt chart with chord symbols. I think he probably just learned it.
“That song was started on this little Island in the Mediterranean,” he continues. “We took a break cause the Beatles stopped recording for a break and the studio closed down. So I went out of town with a friend of mine, a very affable, friendly, beautiful, flower-child hippie scene going on down there on this primitive Mediterranean island. It was just an amazing place and beautiful. I had a bit of a drug habit, I’m afraid, and I wasn’t terribly comfortable. And I kept moving. And I wrote “Carolina” there. I started writing “Carolina” thinking about my home, thinking about what was.”
As Taylor embarks on his nearly 50th anniversary as an artist, he continues spreading the touching and highly personal folk music he started writing so many years ago. With everything he’s been through in his life, it’s incredible he’s still singing. These days, he’s doing it clean and sober.
James Taylor and His All Star Band, June 21, at Pinnacle Bank Arena, Lincoln, 8 p.m. Tickets are $62.50 to $82.50. Visit www.pinnaclebankarena.com for more information.