It’s difficult to talk about James Taylor without using the word ‘mellow’. And yet, being ‘mellow‘ came to epitomise that particular brand of bland, smug, half-stoned, semi-acoustic folk-rock (often American in origin) that Johnny Rotten and his punky pals wanted to dynamite in the late 70’s. So, let’s be clear about this; where James Taylor is concerned, any usage of the word ‘mellow’ refers purely to the timbre of his voice and not necessarily to his attitude, his politics or his songs – a cursory examination of some of Taylor’s lyrics show him to be anything but mellow!
Anyway, I’ve been listening to an excellent recording of James Taylor from New York City’s Fillmore East back in January 1971. For about half of a 75-minute set, it’s just Taylor and his guitar, after which he is joined by a rhythm section who actually came to be known as ‘The Section’ – Danny Kortchmar, Russ Kunkel and Lee Sklar, who were ubiquitous on singer/songwriter albums throughout the early 70’s.
Women adored James Taylor in those days, when he still had most of his hair. He was the epitome of the well-groomed hippie stud, fresh from the highways of America with his chambray workshirt, faded blue jeans and his trusty guitar, ready to break the hearts of all those co-eds with a voice like warm butterscotch. Or maybe that was just the marketing….
Screenshot of James Taylor from an early 70’s BBC ‘In Concert’ show.
I saw and heard James Taylor at 1971’s Lincoln Folk Festival just a few months after this recording was made and recall how perfectly his voice and persona matched a glorious English summer’s evening. It should also be recorded that ‘Sweet Baby James’ was one of the hot ‘couples’ albums of that summer, with much seducing and being seduced going on with ‘SBJ’ as an aural backdrop. Hubba-Hubba……it was just like one of those crappy dinosaur movies; ‘When Hormones Ruled the Earth’. Anyway, I digress….
Taylor’s star reached even greater heights later in the year when his version of Carole King’s ‘You’ve got a friend’ soared up the singles charts. Another big hit album followed (‘Mud Slide Slim & the Blue Horizon’) but I have to confess that I had moved on to other things by then; 1970/1971 was an extraordinarily fertile period for rock/folk music and no matter how seductive I found James Taylor’s voice, I was even then being seduced more profoundly by (deep breath) Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s going on’, Pink Floyd’s ‘Meddle’, Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’, the first Roxy Music album, David Crosby’s ‘If I could only remember my name‘, Stackridge’s ‘Friendliness‘, Roy Harper’s ‘Stormcock’, The Beach Boys’ ‘Surf’s Up’…the list just goes on and on and on…just too much good stuff coming out and not enough time/cash/mental space to listen to all of it. ‘Mud Slide Slim’ kinda slid by, I’m afraid.
However, just for one perfect summer, James Taylor’s mellow tones reflected sunshine even on the cloudiest of days and if you stopped to wonder about lyrics like ‘Just yesterday morning they let me know you were gone, Susanne the plans they made put an end to you…..’ (‘Fire and Rain’ – allegedly about the suicide of one of Taylor’s friends), the warmth of his singing voice was an instant balm. Surely, no-one who evoked such warmth could really be so screwed up? Well, Taylor’s history of mental instability and drug addiction is now pretty much an open book, but it hardly seemed credible in 1971’s endless summer that this relaxed and amiable troubadour could have such a complex and jagged back-story. Which pretty much sums up the 1970’s as we lost Jim Morrison and Duane Allman and Nick Drake and Tim Buckley…and so on.
Taylor, amazingly, has survived to become almost an ‘elder statesman’ of the whole era. He survived further bouts of drug addiction and depression, not to mention a celebrity marriage to Carly Simon, and seems to have found a way to deal with the slings and arrows. His hair may have gone but that voice still sounds fabulous…..