Off the Charts

James Taylor

James Taylor turned 70 this year. Before the Boston-born and North Carolina-bred songwriter struck out on his own, he sang and played guitar with a New York-based band called the Flying Machine. They only lasted a year. But, seventeen studio albums later, Taylor’s solo career is still going strong.

Taylor went to London in 1967 to change gears in hopes of overcoming heroin addiction. Among the many musicians he came in contact with were the Beatles, who had the foresight to sign him as the first non-British artist with their own label, Apple Records. He only made one album for Apple, James Taylor (1968), but it’s an excellent debut.

“The Blues Is Just a Bad Dream” is a microcosm of James Taylor as an artist. The first 50 seconds are given over to a lush instrumental, heavy on the cello (Taylor’s own instrument growing up) and a disturbingly breathy flute – there’s his mushy side on unapologetic display. But then the track takes a hard-left turn, becoming what we now think of as classic James Taylor – that is, a new folk song, mellow and bathed in melancholy.

He doesn’t mess with the traditional 12-bar blues format or harmonies, but takes them as is. He gives no hint of irony about using this style. It’s a straight-up love-gone-bad song, just like the blues should be. Nor does Taylor try to change his singing style to match a more expected sound for the blues. This, I think, is an important and consistent point about him: he is always himself, and when he borrows, he remains himself. Not for nothing, Taylor manages some admirable acoustic blues guitar playing on this track.

 

As impressive as that debut was, its sales were poor. But Taylor got another chance to make it big with his second album, Sweet Baby James (1970), his first for Warner Brothers. It garnered his first top-10 hit, “Fire and Rain,” and was also his first collaboration with Carole King, who plays piano and sings backup vocals on some tracks.

The charming “Blossom” is a little-appreciated song from Sweet Baby James, featuring typical Taylor wordsmithing. Its first line, “Blossom, smile some sunshine down my way,” carried on a quirkily jumping melody line that helps to stave off sentimentality. The arrangement is delivered with offhanded mastery by some top-notch session musicians, including Russ Kunkel on drums and John London on bass.

 

Never one to stop moving, and despite the continuing challenges of drug addiction, Taylor released six more solo albums between 1971 and 1977. Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon (1971) is familiar enough that I’ll head straight for the 1972 album, One Man Dog. An overlooked gem is “Little David,” a new song in the style of a spiritual that opens with percussive noises not usually associated with Taylor. The African-tinged percussion is mainly by Bobbye Hall, with an assist by Kunkel.

 

Next came Walking Man (1974), which was not as successful as the previous three albums. There’s a lot of darkness in this collection; Taylor’s easy-going, folky sound is replaced on some tracks by earnest contemplation that probably alarmed the more casual fan. The producer is guitarist David Spinozza, who also played on the album and brought along close friends Paul and Linda McCartney as session musicians. Spinozza gave some songs a diffuse sound, appropriate to Taylor’s mood, as you can hear in “Migration”:

 

In 1977, Taylor made his Columbia Records debut with the very popular JT. That album produced big hits like “Handy Man” and “Your Smiling Face,” plus some tracks featuring his then-wife Carly Simon. “Chanson Français” is a fun forgotten track you might want to check out, if only to chuckle at Taylor’s twangy French.

The next Columbia release was called Flag (1979), a highlight of which is “I Will Not Lie for You.” The opening is striking for its overdubbed a cappella duet. When the song gets rolling, its country-rock texture leans more heavily toward the rock side, thanks to those Kunkel drums again, plus the guitar of longtime Taylor collaborator Danny Kortchmar.

 

At this point Taylor finally slowed his pace, and he has averaged one studio album every three to six years since then. His popularity was waning until New Moon Shine (1991) and the even more successful Hourglass (1997). “Gaia,” from the latter album, shows how the middle-aged songwriter was turning toward some Eastern influences, both in his music and his philosophy.

 

Versions of other people’s songs have peppered Taylor’s albums since the start of his career. His 2008 album is devoted entirely to them. There are a lot of fun tracks on Covers, including Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” and George Jones’ hit “Why Baby Why?” But one of the most interesting experiments is “Get a Job,” originally recorded in 1957 by the Philadelphia doo-wop group The Silhouettes.

This track wasn’t on the regular release, but appeared in a four-song album extension, called Other Covers, which was sold only on the QVC shopping network. Just like in “The Blues Is Just a Bad Dream” on Taylor’s first album, this is an example of him taking on a genre that other artists might try to adapt their voices for. But James Taylor always sounds like James Taylor, and the discord between his sensitive, straightforward delivery and the typical doo-wop melodic tropes is kind of fascinating.

 

Before This World (2015) is Taylor’s most recent studio album. The jewel here is “Before This World / Jolly Springtime,” a two-section duet with Sting that borrows from two different styles of English folk music. The modal melody of “Before the World” renders the song heartbreakingly lonesome. A syncopated, searching instrumental segue featuring guitar and the always-cherished cello opens into a more hopeful tune, “Jolly Springtime.” But this is James Taylor, so the joy is always tempered, and the tempo is never too fast.