Aside from his straight to the heart songwriting, laid back vocal delivery, and instantly recognizable guitar style, the key to James Taylor's ongoing success is his ability stick to his trademark musical guns no matter the stylistic changes swirling around him. In 1997, more than two decades after his heyday, when his style was all the rage, he won a Best Pop Album Grammy for Hourglass, introducing his organic panache to a generation raised on hip-hop machinery. Like the best folk-rockers, Taylor's facility for personal storytelling powerfully transcends trends and generational differences.
Fans love to analyze the influences and life experiences which have made James Taylor an icon of Americana. Boston-born James, one of five musically-inclined children, moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina in 1951, when his father was appointed dean of the medical school there. The influence of his mother's music (she listened to Broadway tunes, Guthrie, and light opera) and the music of Sam Cooke, Hank Williams, Ray Charles and Jackie Wilson all played a part in creating his musical framework. The family returned to Boston and, in 1963, on Martha's Vineyard, where the family regularly vacationed, James met guitarist Daniel "Kootch" Kortchmar,and also won a local talent contest.
Taylor dropped out of Milton Academy at 16 to join his brother Alex in the Fabulous Corsairs. At 17, he committed himself to the McLean Mental Institution in Massachusetts. Following his nine-month stay he reunited with 'Kootch' and together they formed the commercially disastrous Flying Machine.
He moved to London in 1966, where Kootch urged him to take a demo tape to producer Peter Asher of Apple Records. Both Asher and Paul McCartney liked the work and signed him to release a self-titled debut which featured such future classics as "Carolina On My Mind." Suffering from clinical depression and hooked on heroin, Taylor returned to America in 1968, this time to the Austin Riggs Mental Institution. Many of the songs written in the institution appeared on the hit Sweet Baby James. The album spent two years on the U.S. charts and featured the autobiographical hit "Fire and Rain," written in memory of a friend at Austin Riggs.
Taylor received rave notices from critics and he was quickly elevated to superstardom. The follow-up, Mud Slide Slim And The Blue Horizon added to his superstardom and contained the definitive reading of Carole King's "You've Got a Friend." A hugely-successful national tour featuring Kootch's band Jo Mama, Carole King and James followed. Now free of drugs, Taylor worked with the Beach Boys' Dennis Wilson on the cult drag-race film Two Lane Blacktop and released One Man Dog which contained another hit, "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight."
Taylor soon married Carly Simon, and they duetted on a version of the Charlie And Inez Foxx hit, "Mockingbird," which made the U.S. Top 5 in 1974. Ironically, most of his subsequent hits were non-originals, such as "How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You," "Handy Man" and "Up On The Roof." In 1976, he released his double platinum collection of Greatest Hits.
Simon filed for divorce a decade after their marriage, but Taylor accepted the breakdown and carried on with his profession. The self confident Taylor persona is captured by Pat Metheny 's joyous composition "James", recorded on Metheny's Offramp album in 1982.
Continuing to record and reach new audiences, in 1985 Taylor released the triumphant, autobiographical That's Why I'm Here. Yet no matter what he has been through, his concerts are always positive experiences (and beautifully chronicled on 1993's double live album.) 1997's Hourglass was critically and publically well-received and became one of his highest-charting records for many years.
James continues his touring and recording schedule as always.