Q&A: October Surprise

James Taylor is back on the top of the charts

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"I heard that my album was Number One on the Internet," says James Taylor, in a tone that suggests he's unsure whether that's a good thing. There's little doubt, though, that the fifty-four-year-old musician is enjoying a sweet comeback: October Road, his first new record since 1997, debuted on Billboard's albums chart at Number Four, putting him in the company of Eminem, Nelly, Avril Lavigne and Bruce Springsteen. But Taylor can name only one artist on the charts he actually digs: Norah Jones, whose music he calls "intriguing" and "dynamic." Mostly he still listens to the Brazilian, blues, classical and folk he's always loved. "I was baked in a time when sensational production techniques weren't so available," he says. "Back when it was about how interesting details were, and it wasn't like getting hit over the head."

What's your earliest musical memory?

I remember when I was six or seven, I went away to a summer camp. They put us on a bus to take us somewhere, and the driver was listening to the Coasters' "Searchin'" on the radio. I'd never heard anything like that before. It sounded like people were playing pots and pans or throwing kitchen utensils downstairs. It lit my head on fire.

What album have you listened to so much you had to stop playing it?

When I was eighteen and on my own for the first time, living in New York, I had a small record collection, and I listened to those four or five records way too much. One was the Beatles' Revolver. Another was Fantasia on Greensleeve . . . Miles Davis' Sketches of Spain . . . the album with "Girl From Ipanema" on it, with Antonio Carlos Jobim and Astrud Gilberto; I listened to that to distraction. I remember the summer of '67 when I was listening to those. And I remember that apartment at Eighty-fourth and Columbus -- in those days I used to lie in bed and listen to glass break. It was a rough neighborhood.

What song do you associate with the first time you fell in love?

It's a little bit embarrassing, but definitely Johnny Mathis.

How old were you?

[Laughs] Forty-five.

What's the best live performance you've seen?

In 1965, my friend Kooch took me to Harlem to the Apollo Theater, and we listened to a matinee with this incredible bill of singers. Lee Dorsey sang "Working in a Coal Mine," and Charlie and Inez Foxx sang "Mockingbird." Joe Tex sang "Skinny Legs and All." Gladys Knight and the Pips and James Brown were on the bill. During the intermission, there was a twenty-five-minute cowboys-and-Indians movie, and when the cavalry got massacred, the whole audience cheered. It was one of those you're-not-in-Kansas-anymore moments.

Have you seen anything that thrilling more recently?

I was in Brazil in 1985, on the eve of the first elections in twenty years there. I was playing the Rock in Rio festival to the largest audience I'd ever played to: 300,000 people. It was also a point when I was really turning around in my life in a major way. I had bottomed out before then, and the show was a huge boost for me. Caetano Veloso took me to this celebration of the elections in the heart of Rio de Janeiro, in a club called Cirque Wador. There were performances by Caetano and Gilberto Gil and amazing players, some of whom had been in jail and exile. Some people in the audience wanted to hear "You've Got a Friend," and they put me in front of a microphone. And it occurred to some others that the Americans had helped the junta over the years. So somebody hit me in the forehead with a beer can. It was a night full of adrenaline and ecstasy.

What album do you wish you had made?

Unforgettable, by Natalie Cole, was pretty amazing. Paul Simon's Graceland was an album like that, too. I heard a song the other day by Alison Krauss called "The Lucky One." That will really move people. I wish I'd made that record. And Sting's "Fields of Gold." It's a competitive field, and sometimes you'd rather hear something fail -- like, "What a relief that sucks." But sometimes you get beyond that and you have to say, "Hats off" -- like when you hear Bonnie Raitt's Nick of Time and you think, "Damn, that's good."