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James Taylor
James Taylor
Photo courtesy of Sony Music Entertainment

James Taylor: Singing for Kerry

By Mike Zwerin

PARIS, 10 August 2004—In a cover story in 1971, Time magazine heralded James Taylor as the avatar of a "singer/songwriter era."

The melodies of his hit songs like "Fire and Rain," Carolina In My Mind," "Country Road" and "Sweet Baby James" are accessible without condescension, simple but not simple-minded. His lyrics are sincere and poetic, but neither syrupy, nor obscure. His voice is coarse and translucent at the same time, and he always sings with conviction.

Taylor is a Massachusetts aristocrat. He brings to mind a brainy Ivy League professor who is sexy despite having tenure. His father was chief resident at Massachusetts General Hospital. His wife Kim has worked with the Boston Symphony and the Boston Pops for more than 20 years—her official title is Senior Adviser. They have houses in Tanglewood and in the upscale Boston suburb of Brookline. His band rehearsed for his current European tour in Boston's Berklee College of Music, where his brother Livingston teaches the art of performance. Livingston is also artist in residence in Lowell House in Harvard. Their mother lives on Martha's Vineyard (she subscribes to The Guardian).

The young Taylor was known for attracting attractive, intelligent women such as Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Carly Simon. According to the biography on his website, he was "born into a wealthy family. As a child he wanted for nothing and divided his time between two substantial homes. As is often the case, a boarding school education often suits the parents more than the child."

There were plenty of personal problems and, still in his teens, he committed himself to the McLean Mental Institution near Boston, where he stayed for nine months. "At one point, Ray Charles was sort of dropped in the middle of us for three days," he recalled recently, shortly after Charles's death. Taylor was in Paris to perform in the Olympia Theater: "I assumed he was there under observation. One way or another, my idol was in this insane asylum with me. He was clearly very brought-down by it. It was like some kind of visitation."

Last January, Taylor recorded with Charles as part of a duet album he was making. "He chose a song of mine called 'Sweet Potato Pie'," he said. "I was deeply honored. I wanted to ask him about that episode in the institution, but he was already too ill. It was bitter sweet. Ray Charles was my main man." He cites Aretha Franklin, John Lee Hooker, Tom Rush, Sam Cook and Bob Dylan as other influences.

The current tour includes co-leading a bill with Bonnie Raitt in Lucca and Milan, Italy, followed by Britain when it concludes in Edinburgh Castle. "There's something about the road that is very compelling," he said. "There's always something incoming to claim your attention. It has no real focus to it other than doing the shows and having the whole day dedicated to that show. It's very functional. You have the impression that you are always moving away from trouble." The tradition of ducking so-called real life on the road is hallowed and includes such compulsive modern day troubadors as Miles Davis, Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson; who famously sang - with a texture and a style not unlike Taylor's—about how good it was to be on the road again, "making music with my friends." "It's nice to hang out with the cats," Taylor said: "And to make music with them. I miss my family. Kim and I have three-year old twin boys and it's hard being away from them. But to be in Paris in June with the energy of the anticipation of a tour is really positive."

He tours one year and stays home to write songs and record an album the next two. He scored his first Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal recording in 1971 with Carole King's, "You've Got A Friend" - his second in 1976 for "Handy Man." His 1998 platinum album "Hourglass" won Grammies for Best Pop Vocal Album and Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical.

While aware of the corny connotation of what has come to be called a "Hallmark moment," recording a Christmas album commissioned and to be distributed by the Hallmark card people was a positive experience. Available only in their stores, it includes "Baby It's Cold Outside," a duo with Natalie Cole, and a bluesy organ trio version of "Jingle Bells." He suspects that such deals may be one possible solution to the current upheavals in the record business.

Taylor has played five concerts to raise money for the presidential campaign of his friend and fellow Massachusetts aristocrat John Kerry. Performances in swing states with such acts as the Dixie Chicks, Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi are planned. Although cancelled for security reasons, he was scheduled to be guest artist with John Williams and the Boston Pops for a free concert on the Charles River Esplanade during the Democratic Party convention. "There's something a little bit uneasy about musicians supporting politicians," he said:

"My personal, self-referred songs draws a certain amount of attention and people will listen to me because of that, but I'm not a political scientist. It's not my place to be preaching to people about politics. I'm just a citizen and I am concerned about the direction my country is going in. For the first time since Nixon I am waking up at five o'clock in the morning worrying about the state of the nation. I want to chip in as much as possible."

Singing for Kerry, he sticks to what he calls "my sort of fuzzy brotherhood of man songs like 'Slap Leather,' about the first Gulf War, and 'Line 'Em Up'." From the "Hourglass" album, the latter song starts off like this:

"I remember Richard Nixon back in '74
And the final scene at the White House door
And the staff lined up to say good-bye
Tiny tear in his shifty little eye…"

Mike Zwerin has been jazz and rock critic for the International Herald Tribune for the last twenty years. He is currently writing a book called "Parisian Jazz Affair" for Yale University Press and he is the jazz editor of Zwerin who has lived in France for 33 years, was promoted recently from 'Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres' to 'Officier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres" by the French Minister of Culture.

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