James Vernon Taylor (born March 12, 1948) is an American singer-songwriter and guitarist, born in Belmont, Massachusetts.
Taylor's career began in the mid-1960s, but he found his audience in the early 1970s, singing sensitive and gentle acoustic songs. He was part of a wave of soft singer-songwriters of the time that also included Carole King, Joni Mitchell, John Denver and Jackson Browne. Another member of this wave was Carly Simon, whom Taylor later married.
His 1976 album Greatest Hits was certified diamond and has sold more than 11 million copies. He has retained a large audience and artistic relevance well into the 1990s and 2000s, when some of his best-selling and most-awarded albums were released.
He grew up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where his father Isaac Taylor was the dean of the University of North Carolina Medical School. His family summered on Martha's Vineyard.
Taylor's four siblings, Alex, Livingston, Hugh, and Kate, have also been musicians with recorded albums. (Livingston is still an active musician; Kate was active in the 1970s but did not record another album until 2003; Hugh operates a bed-and-breakfast with his wife; Alex died in 1993.) Taylor's children with Carly Simon, Ben and Sally, have also embarked on musical careers.
Taylor first learned the cello as a child, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, then switched to the guitar in 1960. His style on that instrument evolved from listening to hymns, carols, and Woody Guthrie; Taylor would later become an easily recognized linchpin of Guthrie's sound. While attending Milton Academy, a prep school in Massachusetts, Taylor met Danny Kortchmar at Martha's Vineyard, and the two began playing folk music together. After dropping out of school, he formed a band with his brother, Alex. Later, he was committed to McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, for depression. He believes that being committed saved his life. He earned a high school diploma while in the hospital, then left and formed a band called the Flying Machine with Kortchmar and Joel O'Brien. The band was signed to Rainy Day Records and released one single, "Brighten Your Night with My Day" (B-side: "Night Owl"); the song was not a success.
While living in New York City, Taylor became addicted to heroin. One night, after receiving a desperate phone call, his father (Dr. Isaac Taylor) drove to New York and 'rescued' him. Later, Taylor wrote a song called "Jump Up Behind Me" that paid tribute to his father's help during a time of desperate need. The song also reflects on Taylor's memories of the long drive from New York back to his home in Chapel Hill.
In 1968, Taylor moved to London. He was signed to Apple Records after sending a demo tape to Peter Asher (of Peter & Gordon) and released his debut album, James Taylor. Despite the Beatles connection (and the presence of Paul McCartney and George Harrison on one track), the album did not sell very well and Taylor's addiction worsened. Moving back to the United States, Taylor checked into Austin Riggs Hospital in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, to try to break his drug problem. By 1969, he was well enough to perform live, and had a six-night stand at the Troubadour Club in Los Angeles. On July 20, 1969, he performed at the Newport Folk Festival. Shortly thereafter, he broke both hands in a motorcycle accident on Martha's Vineyard, and was forced to stop playing for several months.
Once recovered, Taylor signed to Warner Bros. Records and moved to California, keeping Asher as his manager and record producer. His second album, Sweet Baby James, was a massive success, buoyed by the single "Fire and Rain", a song about his experience in an asylum and the suicide of a friend. The success of this single and the album piqued interest in Taylor's first album, James Taylor, bringing the album and the single "Carolina In My Mind" back into the charts.
Taylor worked with Dennis Wilson (of the Beach Boys) on a film, Two-Lane Blacktop, but this was unsuccessful at the time. 1971 saw the release of Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon, another hit album. He won a Grammy Award for his version of Carole King's "You've Got a Friend".
In 1972, Taylor returned with One Man Dog and married fellow singer-songwriter Carly Simon on November 3. His next album, 1974's Walking Man, was a disappointment but the following one, Gorilla, was a success, partially because of a successful single, a cover version of Marvin Gaye's "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)". This was followed by In the Pocket in 1976 and then a greatest hits album that included some re-recordings of Apple Records-era material. It became a huge hit and remains Taylor's best selling album.
Taylor and Simon had two children, Ben and Sally. Simon was unhappy with Taylor's extended absences due to touring; he rejected an ultimatum from her that he spend more time with his children and they eventually divorced in 1983.
Taylor signed to Columbia Records and released JT in 1977, winning another Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, for "Handy Man". The song "Traffic Jam" from the album has since become a favorite theme of rush-hour radio traffic reports.
After collaborating with Art Garfunkel and briefly working on Broadway, Taylor took a two-year break, reappearing in 1979 with another successful album, Flag. Taylor also performed at the No Nukes concert in Madison Square Garden and appeared on the album and film from the concert.
1980s and 1990s
In the early 1980s Taylor's career was not going well, with his drug problems, his divorce from Simon and the decreasing popularity of his work. In fact, he has stated in various interviews that he was thinking of retiring after fulfilling his last contractual obligation, the Rock In Rio 1985. Scheduled to appear on the same night of Ozzy Osbourne, he expected a hostile public, but was surprised by the reception of the 250,000 people in the audience. He has stated that that was the moment when he decided to take back his life and his career.
The song "Only a Dream in Rio" was written in tribute to that night, with verses like "I was there that very day and my heart came back alive," and the subsequent album That's Why I'm Here started a series of studio recordings that, while spaced further apart than his previous records, showed a more consistent level of quality.
He began touring regularly, and was especially popular on the American summer outdoor amphitheatre circuit. His concerts, which continue to this day, feature songs from throughout his career and are marked by the musicianship of his band and backup singers. The 1993 two-disc (LIVE) album captures this well, with a highlight being Arnold McCuller's descants in the codas of "Shower the People" and "I Will Follow".
He provided a guest voice to The Simpsons episode "Deep Space Homer" where he played some of his songs to Homer, Buzz Aldrin and another astronaut when they were in space. Homer said "WOW, former president James Taylor."
Taylor's two albums of original material from the 1990s were notably successful: his thirteenth album, New Moon Shine, went platinum in 1991, and he won the coveted Grammy for Best Pop Album in 1998 for Hourglass.
In 2001 Taylor wed for the third time, marrying Caroline ("Kim") Smedvig, Director of Public Relations and Marketing for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Part of their relationship was worked into the album October Road on the song "On the 4th of July." The couple has twin boys, Rufus and Henry, born in 2001 to a surrogate mother who is a close family friend. The woman underwent in-vitro fertilization to conceive, and the Taylors are the biological parents.
Flanked by two greatest hit releases, the October Road appeared in 2002 to a receptive audience. It featured a number of quiet but sophisticated instrumental accompaniments and passages. The album appeared in two versions: a single-disc version and a "limited edition" two-disc version, which contained three extra songs, including a duet with Mark Knopfler, "Sailing to Philadelphia", which also appeared on Knopfer's Sailing to Philadelphia album.
In 2004, with his Columbia/Sony record contract having concluded, he released James Taylor: A Christmas Album with distribution through Hallmark Cards.
Always visibly active in environmental and progressive causes, in October 2004 Taylor joined the "Vote for Change" tour, playing a series of concerts in American swing states. These concerts were organized by MoveOn.org with the general goal of mobilizing people to vote for John Kerry and against George W. Bush in that year's Presidential campaign. Taylor's appearances were joint performances with the Dixie Chicks.
In December 2004, Taylor appeared as himself in an episode of The West Wing entitled "A Change Is Gonna Come". He sang Sam Cooke's classic "A Change Is Gonna Come" at an event honoring an artist, played by Taylor's wife Caroline. Taylor's rendition was then released over the Internet.
In 2006, Taylor contributed the song "Our Town" to the animated film Cars and its soundtrack.
Awards and recognition