Kate Taylor Interview: James Taylor's Sister on Long-Awaited Return - Rolling Stone
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Bonnie Lippel/Courtesy of Liz Witham

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The Return of Sister Kate

Fifty years ago, James Taylor's sister released her debut album, then promptly vanished from the scene. Now, decades after she traded rock stardom for life in a teepee, Kate Taylor is back

Five decades later, she can still remember the high points, like meeting a few Beatles, encountering Mick Jagger or a very young Michael Jackson in the studio, or sharing a bill with Tina Turner. And she can also recall the precise moment when she decided to shut it all down, at least for a long while.

It was the summer of 1971, and Kate Taylor — along with her siblings, especially her older brother James — was having a moment. Earlier that year, Atlantic Records had released her first album, Sister Kate. The record boasted contributions from Carole King, Linda Ronstadt, John Hartford, and, naturally, James. The album hadn’t been the breakout hit that James’ Sweet Baby James had been the year before, but Billboard called it “sure to please thoughtful listeners.” At the same time, her other brothers, Livingston and Alex, were also releasing records, leading to Rolling Stone dubbing them all “The First Family of Rock” in a cover story on James. For Kate, all of 21, it was all heady and initially intoxicating. After an interview with a reporter, she signed the writer’s notebook and said, cheekily, “Keep it — it just might be worth something someday.”

Taylor shared certain physical traits with her brothers — the lanky frame, sloping nose, and long brown hair, much like James’ at the time. But unlike her brothers, who were given to pensive folk and performing while sitting on chairs or stools, Kate was much more of a live wire onstage — a “flailing dynamo,” in the words of one critic. “Like Elton John, in some ways, she expresses the joy in rock, one of the first female rock singers to do so,” proclaimed music critic Robert Hilburn in the Los Angeles Times that spring. “Janis Joplin chiefly expressed the pain of rock, while someone like Grace Slick often communicates the urgency of it. There’s nothing torturous about [Taylor] on stage.” Reflecting on seeing his sister in concert then, her brother James agrees. “Back in those early days, it was just a raw energy, a sort of nervous reaction, that was amazing to see,” Taylor says.

The first segment of her tour to promote Sister Kate had culminated in a performance in New York’s Central Park, where she was on a bill with the Beach Boys, Ike and Tina Turner, Boz Scaggs, and her future sister-in-law, Carly Simon. George Harrison and Art Garfunkel hovered backstage. When footage of that concert was aired as a network TV special (Good Vibrations From Central Park) a month later, Kate was watching it in her room at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles. To her horror, the version of herself she saw on television — in white shirt and jeans, her hair partly matted down on her face by sweat — looked bedraggled and run down.

And with that, Taylor signed off.

“I could see that I needed …,” Taylor says, then pauses. She’s speaking via Zoom, sitting in her home on Martha’s Vineyard, the island off the coast of Massachusetts where she’s lived for more than 50 years. Curled up on a couch in a black sweater, Taylor is 71; her hair is long and dignified-grey, her face lean, her demeanor very rustic-grandmom. “I don’t know how to describe it. I felt as if I was not in total control.”

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Kate Taylor in 2020

Jill Jarrett

Over the years, Kate Taylor would periodically resurface, making the very occasional album or giving a live performance. But unlike her brothers, especially James and Livingston, who maintained their careers over decades, she became the mysterious, overlooked Taylor. “It was exhausting for Kate,” says James, “and really sort of an extreme thing for her to experience. I really wanted to see what she would eventually come up with after she settled into it and caught her groove. And she never really got the chance to do that.” In the years before information was widely available online about anybody, she was rumored to be living in a teepee and making beaded jewelry for a living — all of which turned out to be true. “That was a very promising album Kate made,” says Ronstadt of Sister Kate. “And I loved seeing her live. She was really funny. But I think she decided that she wanted a different kind of life.”

The recent release of the documentary Framing Britney Spears has led to plenty of re-evaluation of both Spears’ personal and financial issues, and of the way that young women thrust into the music business have coped with the pressure put on them. In music and image, Kate Taylor was never a Britney; her persona was more tomboy-next-door, her music more earthy soul. But her story is instructive: the tale of a woman in pop who, confronted with forces that would have easily overwhelmed her, repeatedly opted out. “I was so excited about it all,” she reflects on her initial emergence. “I wanted to sing. I loved it completely. But I think it was a survival instinct. I look back on it now and I think I could have fallen down a rabbit hole. I could have made a simple slip-up and done some damage. It just looks to me like I could make a mistake and hurt myself bad.”

Instead, what followed were adulthood, motherhood, and family losses, all of which took precedence. Now, five decades later, Taylor is preparing to pick up where she left off. For the first time since then, she has reconvened with some of the same players on Sister Kate (including producer Peter Asher) for a new record that marks the 50th anniversary of her debut. “I guess I didn’t have that focus,” she says. “I don’t know what it is, that ambition or drive that takes you to that. Many of my colleagues and cohorts out there were much more focused and grounded and ready for what was ahead of them. But now, I guess, it’s a full-circle thing.”

Of all places, it began in a pool. In the spring of 1969, Kate, then 19, was working various jobs in and around Martha’s Vineyard, where some of the Taylors had relocated after growing up in North Carolina. By then, James had already been through the wringer, grappling with mental-health issues and drug addiction. With the help of Asher, then an executive at Apple Records, he’d landed a contract with the Beatles’ label and made an album for them. But sales were disappointing and Apple was now on the verge of imploding. With that, Kate flew to London to visit her brother, only a little more than a year older than she was. As Kate recalls, “I went there to make sure he was being taken care of.”

During the trip, she remembers Asher, who was also her brother’s manager and producer, giving her a tour of the Apple building, where she met Ringo Starr in a staircase. Asher and his then-wife Betsy were renting a home in the British countryside, and one day, the two Taylors found themselves there. Continuing a family tradition that dated back to their childhood and teen years, which involved any number of family singalongs at the dinner table, Kate and James began harmonizing in the empty pool, their blended voices echoing off the tiles. It didn’t strike Kate as an audition, just something to do, but Asher took note of her voice, which was earthier than her brother’s and revealed more R&B influences. “I was super-impressed,” Asher recalls. “She was just so soulful and energetic.”

No sooner had Kate returned to Martha’s Vineyard, where she was working as a secretary in a hospital, than Asher called and told her he was moving to Los Angeles — and would she be interested in making a record with him there? “And I said, ‘Let me think about it,’ ” she recalls with a brief pause. “’Yes!’ ”

Kate and James in Peter Asher's backyard, LA 1971

Kate and James in Peter Asher’s backyard in Los Angeles, 1971

© Peter Simon

James’ success — and the way Sweet Baby James and “Fire and Rain” installed him as the leading exposed-nerve balladeer of that era — had made the music business take notice of the rest of the family. Thanks to music critic and early supporter Jon Landau, Livingston had already landed a record deal, and their older brother Alex, who was even more rooted in soul and R&B, was next.

Armed with only a demo tape of her and James singing Joni Mitchell’s “For Free” and Ian Tyson’s “Someday Soon,” Asher met with Atlantic head Ahmet Ertegun and was able to secure Kate a record contract of her own, with Atlantic’s Cotillion label. Kate relocated to Los Angeles, moving into the house where the Ashers lived at the time. Some in that circle immediately noticed how Kate stood apart from her brothers. “The difference between her and James was absolutely amazing,” says author Chris O’Dell, who was then working for Asher. “James and I could go for a drive in a car for hours and he would never say a word. Kate was not like that at all. She was chatty.”

Kate bought a bicycle to ride around town, but her own ride was just beginning. The heyday of the Laurel Canyon troubadour scene was in full effect: King was just starting to work on Tapestry, James on Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon, Joni Mitchell on Blue. For his first production effort after Sweet Baby James, Asher decided to make a more elaborate pop record for James’ sister, gathering his crew of Los Angeles friends and musical colleagues from that circle — not just James, Ronstadt, and King (who played piano and sang), but also J.D. Souther, singer Merry Clayton, guitarist Danny Kortchmar, bassist Leland Sklar, and drummer Russ Kunkel. The album’s songwriters included King, brothers James and Livingston, Elton John and Bernie Taupin, and Jerry Ragovoy and Mort Shuman.

For someone who’d never been in a big-time recording studio before, on any scale, the process was, Taylor says, “intimidating — it took some getting used to.” Asher patiently guided her through the record-making process. “Sometimes it took her a minute to learn the melody of a song,” he recalls. “It did take a minute to get her bearings. And she would tend to get, even if such a thing is possible, overenthusiastic, and the singing might suffer.”

One night in August 1970, she and Asher went to see Elton John’s now-fabled debut at the Troubadour. “He blew the lid off the place,” she recalls, “and I heard him do ‘Country Comfort,’ and I said to Peter, ‘I love that song — I’d love to record it.’ ” Coincidentally, John and his band visited the Asher home the next day to hang out and use the pool, and Kate asked if she could cover “Country Comfort”; John was flattered and happily gave his approval.

With its front-porch folksiness, that song would prove to be a perfect addition to Sister Kate. Alex Taylor had introduced his sister to R&B and soul records. With Asher’s help, that side of her musical personality came to the fore. Kate could sing a ballad but also whoop it up and toss off a throaty growl. A funkier, more rhythmic and more produced album than most of her brothers’, Sister Kate also integrated spunky soul (a cover of the Big Bopper’s “White Lightning”), what Asher calls a Motown-inspired arrangement of King and Toni Stern’s “Where You Lead,” and a large-scale orchestrated rendition of her brother James’ “You Can Close Your Eyes.” As if to bolster the family connection, the latter became the album’s initial single.

In her singing and speaking style, Kate shared the same slight Carolina twang as her siblings. But the album also revealed how she stood apart from her brothers. “Kate carries a joyous soul,” says Livingston, who’s just over a year younger than her. “James and myself often get slightly clouded by self-doubt and self-concern. We get clouded by introspection. Kate’s joy is irrepressible.”

As Jon Landau recalls, the Taylor brothers were close in almost every regard. Landau remembers standing between Livingston and James one day during the period when he was producing Livingston’s first two albums for Capricorn Records. “One was on my left side and the other on my right, and they’re talking to each other,” he says. “But it was like a person talking in stereo because the speech was at that point so similar.”

As the public soon came to learn, some in the family shared something in common beyond music, which would also be tied in to their appeal at the time. James, Alex, and Kate had also spent time at McLean, the high-end psychiatric hospital in Massachusetts. Kate was the last of the siblings to enter, during a period of family tumult: Their parents, Ike and Trudy, were breaking up, Ike (an esteemed physician and medical school dean) had become an alcoholic, and the once-cozy Taylor family was disintegrating. Kate wound up in a boarding school, finally ending up at McLean. “I’d been seeing a therapist, and he suggested I do this because he could see I was not functioning well,” she says. “I wasn’t taking advantage of the school situation. I wasn’t able to study. I was distracted not being in a structured environment.”

The fact that her brothers had also been patients there also played into her decision to check in to McLean — as did, she admits, a “massive crush” on a boy in her boarding school who went there before her. She wound up living in an open ward in the same building as Susanna Kaysen, who went on to write Girl, Interrupted about that period, even mentioning the Taylor siblings in the book. While she was there, Kate sang in a band with fellow patients, Sister Kate’s Soul Stew and Submarine Sandwich Shoppe; one of their gigs was a “social” at a psychiatric hospital in Connecticut. (The band name was not connected to James, who wasn’t famous yet; instead it was a nod to Taylor hearing one of her folk heroes, Tom Rush, sing the Twenties jazz song “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate.”)

As the Taylor albums began rolling out, each sibling began openly discussing his or her backstory — family and psychological issues, drug and alcohol inclinations — in interviews. James says such candor was largely the result of the publicity machine at work. “When you’re interviewed, you just tend to give the interviewer anything that might be of interest, anything that might interest the audience reading the article, something that could get pulled out and printed in bold type to sort of pull the attention,” he admits. “So it wasn’t a matter of something we consciously were communicating or a preconceived message. You open yourself up and basically say, ‘Anything you can use here and anything that is of interest, help yourself.’ It was part of becoming sort of an act, a product, a recording artist, a performing and touring artist. It was that promotional aspect of it.”

But whatever the intention, the timing proved fortuitous. For baby boomers confronting life after the Sixties, there was something relatable about a family who admitted to their own stumbles and tried to work their way through them amid the new, more downbeat Seventies. “There wasn’t a clear message [from the family], but there might have been a consistent thread running through all of us,” concedes James. “The turning away from our family expectations, taking to music — those things rang a bell with a lot of people.”

“They were people who were able to be sensitive to certain thoughts, feelings, and emotions that were experienced by a lot of people,” says Kate’s daughter Liz Witham, a documentary filmmaker.  “A lot of people experience those things like family addiction, as well as the normal angst a lot of people had in their teenage years. A lot of people had those sorts of breakdowns. But they were people sharing their own feelings and thoughts in their music.” As Kate says, “If we were all looking for anchors, maybe we could be anchors for them.

Liv, Kate and James Taylor athomein kitchen, Chapel Hill, circa 1964

Livingston, Kate, and James Taylor in their family’s kitchen in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in the mid-Sixties

Taylor Family Archives

After her stay at McLean, and before her trip to London in 1969, Kate worked as a store clerk as well as a hospital receptionist. Her career path still seemed unsure, but she says her stint at McLean helped her focus. “I think having that experience at McLean gave me some tools for coping with stuff I would not have if I hadn’t had that gift of that time,” she says. “It didn’t make me a perfectly, you know, sane and grounded person, obviously. But it gave me a little bit of introspection. Be able to roll with the punches a little bit, without having things, you know, totally fall apart on me.”

“I wonder what the audience is going to think,” Taylor said to writer Hilburn before she walked into a coffeehouse at San Diego State University for one of her first shows to promote Sister Kate, in the spring of 1971. “Unless they’ve heard my album, they are probably going to be expecting someone like Joni Mitchell with an acoustic guitar.” Referring to one of the album’s most rousing tracks, she added, “When I get on the stage and sing a rock song like ‘Look at Granny Run Run,’ probably they’re all going to run right out of there.”

Based on reports of the Sister Kate tour, no one fled any of her concerts, but there was no denying how different she was from her brothers. Backed by a small combo dubbed the Magic Duck Band, she would dance, talk to the audiences while she danced, do kicks and arm windmills, and even venture out into the crowds sometimes. Ronstadt, then finding her own way as a solo artist, caught her show at the Troubadour. “She was wonderful,” Ronstadt recalls. “She and I had similar wardrobes — she had Navy sailor pants with buttons on the front.”

But for someone who was barely out of her teens and unaccustomed to the rock & roll circus, life on the road began wearing on Taylor quickly. When she watches the footage of her performing the R&B standard “Barefootin’ ” in Central Park now, it strikes her as better than she remembered. But she acknowledges, “I think I was stoned, you know, and I think I’d been drinking. But you’ve got to take it seriously onstage.” (She admits to doing some weed and “a little bit” of cocaine at the time, both commonplace in the music world of the Seventies.) During a break between legs of her tour, she flew back home to Martha’s Vineyard. On the flight, George Harrison, seated in a VIP lounge, had a flight attendant ask Taylor to stop by his section and say hello; when Taylor did, he told her he’d seen and loved her televised performance.

Taylor’s insecurities were becoming so well-known in the L.A. music scene that they inspired a song by her friend Glenn Frey. “Get Up, Kate,” which the Eagles recorded but never released, found Frey singing, “The people see the pain and the people clap their hands/And I say, ‘Get up, Kate, and do it to ’em once or twice.’ ” Taylor says she only vaguely remembers “Get Up, Kate” and doesn’t recall Frey ever playing it for her, but others in the scene knew it was about her. “Kate was a little shy and unsure of herself when she first arrived in L.A. and became part of the Troubadour community,” says producer John Boylan, a friend of Frey’s. “I’m pretty sure Glenn wrote the song as encouragement, exhorting her to go for it.”

But returning home on the Vineyard, Taylor was spent; her skin looked, in her word, “translucent.” Since she’d never taken any voice lessons up to that point in her life, her voice felt raw. A relationship she’d been in before moving to L.A. had fallen apart. She visited a Vineyard friend then living in a teepee, and her life changed. “I sat down on the ground, there by the fire, with a smoke hole, looking out at the cosmos,” she says. “And I said, ‘I got to have one.’ That’s what I needed; I needed grounding.” She bought needles and thread and hand-stitched one of her own from canvas. With her Vineyard friend Charles (Charlie) Witham, a poet and writer, she drove to Maine to buy the necessary poles to make sure it stayed erect.

Soon enough, she called Asher and asked him to postpone her next show, and then a few more. “She wasn’t enjoying it,” Asher says. “It wasn’t feeling great. In my head, I’m sure I was thinking, ‘This is fine — we’ll take six months off, make another record and remind people how good she is when she comes back.’ ”

But as the months dragged on, it was becoming clear to everyone, starting with Taylor and Asher, that she wasn’t coming back — that, as Asher says, her hiatus was becoming “more of a retirement than a pause.” The Sister Kate tour never resumed, and talk of a second album evaporated. “Kate just wasn’t there anymore,” says O’Dell. “I could see where Kate would get to the point where she thought, ‘I can’t deal with this. It’s too much.’ James was also overwhelmed with things at times and went into himself. So it didn’t surprise me that Kate would have felt that same way. It was a family trait.”

In retrospect, does Asher think Taylor was too young to handle it all? “Maybe I should have asked that question, because it turned out, in some respects she wasn’t ready,” he admits. “I just thought, ‘She’s really good and people will like her and let’s go.’ The subtext, obviously, is that the whole Taylor family are an intense, hyperintelligent, little-bit-nuts family. That’s their nature, and as we know, hyperintelligence and slightly crazy are frequently partners. So you rapidly go, ‘Well, this is the Taylor family,’ and you never know what to expect, at the very least.”

Over the next six summers, Kate and Witham, who became a couple in 1974 and eventually married, began living in one of several teepees during the summers, renting houses in the winter. Their teepee would be set up next to a lighthouse near a beach — an idyllic location that also meant they had no electricity. To compensate, they used a gas refrigerator, and a telephone was installed in a metal mailbox 500 yards away. “It was like camping all summer long,” says their first daughter, Liz, born in 1975. “Very Swiss Family Robinson–esque.” They would often cook inside, surrounding the fire with stones to ensure it wouldn’t grow too big. “There were some moments when the fire would snap a little and a little coal would come out and land on the rug,” Kate says. “You know, my angels looked out for me, I say.”

As Livingston says, amusedly, of the times he visited, the accommodations were “a little smoky, occasionally buggy.”

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Kate Taylor on Martha’s Vineyard in 1978

Peter Simon/Courtesy of Liz Witham

No electricity also meant no stereo, so she missed out on entire genres of music, like disco, or bands like Led Zeppelin. But she says she never missed it or the business. “It was magical,” she says. “If you’re living in a teepee, that’s your life. You have to be there to tend to it every day. If a wind comes up, you have to make sure that the smoke holes are in the right position and that your bedding is dried out after a rain. But there are benefits of living that close to the earth, and there’s nothing between you and me and the natural world but a little thin piece of canvas. You have great dreams.”

Before she bowed out, she made what turned out to be a decisive call. When she had informed Asher of her break, Taylor had also suggested he manage Ronstadt. Asher had been conflicted about overseeing two female singers at the same time and having to decide who would record which songs, and other matters. But visiting Ronstadt at a show in New Jersey, Taylor pressed her on it again. “She decided not to become professional at that point, and she said I should go and ask Peter again,” Ronstadt recalls. “And I did.” Adds Ronstadt, “It’s a lot of pressure to be in the music business. It’s so hard to keep a band together. All those things weighed on [Taylor]. She wanted to have a real relationship with a man and have children, and there’s nothing wrong with that. You know, not everybody has to be a levelheaded, producing professional all the time.”

“If you’re living in a teepee, that’s your life. You have to be there to tend to it every day.”—Kate Taylor

Taylor’s suggestion would change both Ronstadt’s and Asher’s lives; with Asher as her manager and producer for many years after, the two made albums (Heart Like a Wheel and Simple Dreams) that turned Ronstadt into one of the major female rock stars of her time. Asher even admits he used the template of Sister Kate — finding the most appropriate songs and cover versions and using a similar core of musicians, especially for a singer who wasn’t a songwriter — in his work with Ronstadt. “When you’re making a record with a non-songwriter, that’s how it ends up,” he says, “and I ended up making a lot of Linda records that very same way.”

Several years later, Taylor’s brother James popped into her yard. He’d just signed with Columbia Records, and thought the time was right for her to make another record — for his new label and with him producing. Arriving seven long years after Sister Kate, 1978’s Kate Taylor was a more relaxed and mature record that included a duet with James on a cover of “It’s in His Kiss (The Shoop Shoop Song)” (before Cher scored an even bigger hit with a remake of the same song) and Walter Robinson’s “Harriet Tubman,” a prescient tribute to the abolitionist. During the sessions in New York, Kate was awestruck by the sight of Mick Jagger dropping by one night. She remembers him thanking her — he had borrowed the bicycle she had once owned in L.A. when he himself was there for a visit.

But the return would be short-lived. Touring was trickier with a toddler. Then, in 1979, Kate was invited to participate in the weeklong series of anti-nuclear-power No Nukes concerts at Madison Square Garden in New York. The lineup included Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, the Doobie Brothers, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and her brother James. The first night, she joined some of them for a group version of “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” but the experience proved to be too much, too soon. “I was a shy little country mouse at that time, and it was overwhelming to me,” she says. “The backstage and what was going on …  I was not prepared for that.”

Taken aback by the big-time rock world of the Seventies on display at that event (many drugs were taken by other artists, and backstage the stressed-out organizers were scrambling to find a last-minute headliner for the final night), she headed back to Martha’s Vineyard the next day. “I wish I had stuck it out for the other nights, because singing at Madison Square Garden with that band and that crowd, that song and the whole thing …,” she pauses. “I could have plowed through.”

As a result, Taylor is not seen in the No Nukes movie nor heard on the accompanying album, and the only memento of her participation is a group photo taken on the first day of those shows; in the lower corner, she’s seen flashing the faintest of smiles. That same year, her next album, a collection of soul and R&B covers called It’s in There … and It’s Got to Come Out!, was released but sold poorly. When Columbia declined to renew her contract, she was officially cut off from the big-time music business, and this time the break would last far longer.

Other than a few Taylor family concerts in 1981, music moved to the back seat for Kate during that decade. (A fourth brother, Hugh, also participated, but has opted for a career as an innkeeper instead.) “I didn’t really think about it at the time,” she says. “I didn’t think I was escaping some sort of thing. I just had this other life I was leading.” She and Witham’s second daughter, Aretha, was born in 1981. To support their family and earn a living, they turned to a time-honored Vineyard moneymaking tradition: scalloping. Anyone visiting Taylor at the time would notice her chipped fingernails and calloused hands from the hard work involved.

During an earlier trip to a nearby museum, Witham saw belts made from wampum — the Native American art of beads made from shells — and he and Taylor realized they were crafted from the same type of quahog shells found on the beaches of the Vineyard. Starting in 1975, they began making wampum bracelets and necklaces, initially for themselves. The work was hard and grueling, involving cutting shells with a small saw, pulling out the beads, then grinding and drilling the shells. “You have to have bead lust,” she says, smiling, “because it’s very hard. It takes time, and there’s a lot of the heartbreak of the broken bead and also all the time on your hands and knees trying to find a piece that went flying across the room.”

Eventually, they began selling the products, a business that continues to this day. In the Eighties, one of her customers was another Martha’s Vineyard resident, Jackie Onassis, who stopped by the small house where the Taylor and Witham were living at the time. Before Onassis walked in, she had to step over an upside-down fish tub that acted as a doorstep. As Kate recalls, “She puts her foot on the fish box, and then other foot in the house, and she looks around and says, ‘I love your place. It’s so … airy.’ That is gracious.”

Finally, in the mid-Nineties, her children grown, Taylor began turning toward music again. She had befriended Tony Garnier, who was and remains Bob Dylan’s regular bassist. When Dylan took a break from the road following a heart condition, Taylor and Witham (who was also working as her manager) recruited Garnier to help them make a new record, her first in what would be more than 20 years. She even began venturing out to Vineyard clubs to do shows. A sense of delicacy still hung around Taylor, as Garnier observed during those Vineyard performances. “She was learning again how to do music live again,” Garnier says. “She doesn’t have a belting kind of voice, so if things were too loud onstage, she had to learn voice control.”

Singer James Taylor, second from right, and members of the Taylor family share a laugh, Aug. 6, 1981 prior to their concert at New York’s South Street Seaport Museum to benefit the Museum’s Save Our Ships Fund. They are, from left: Alex; Livingston; Kate; James and Hugh Taylor. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

The Taylor family prior to their August 1981 concert at the South Street Seaport Museum in New York, to benefit the museum’s Save Our Ships Fund. From left: Alex, Livingston, Kate, James, and Hugh

Richard Drew/AP

During a benefit that featured both her and James, Garnier observed Kate’s older brother dote on her and make sure her soundcheck went well. Garnier also sensed how well her husband looked after her: After one gig, Garnier watched as Witham warmed up the family car for 10 minutes to make sure Kate and her voice wouldn’t suffer upon emerging into the cold night.

Some in Taylor’s world say part of her was always curious to return to music on a somewhat more full-time basis, and she acknowledges that fans would remind her of those days: “Folks would come up and say, ‘I loved your first record. It really meant the world to me. Everybody in my dorm was female. We all blasted out that record.’ ”

But her return was again delayed, this time by tragic circumstances. In the late-Nineties, Witham began having health issues, which were eventually diagnosed as liver disease. His health deteriorated, and on September 10th, 2001, his family was told he was dying. As they were huddled in his Boston hospital room on September 11th, Liz saw the second airplane hit the World Trade Center and immediately turned off the TV in the room. Her mother did not dissuade her from it. “I didn’t know how conscious he was,” Kate says, “but I wasn’t sure I wanted to have those images be the final thing he would see. He didn’t have to know that the world was falling apart.” Witham died the next day, September 12th. In keeping with the Taylor family tradition, Kate and her daughters sang the Staple Singers’ “Uncloudy Day.”  When she looked over at her husband, she saw one tear streaming down his cheek before he passed.

Beautiful Road, the album she, Witham, and Garnier had been working on sporadically for several years, was finally released in 2003. An album steeped in Americana and roadhouse blues — like a Lucinda Williams record but topped with a less roughed-up voice — it features a duet with James, on his “I Will Fly,” and guest appearances by Mavis Staples and Levon Helm. Kate’s voice exhibited a new grittiness. Like its successor, 2009’s Fair Time!, it was released on her own indie label, so distribution and visibility were minimal.

But after another dozen quiet years on the music front, the missed opportunity of Sister Kate all those decades before remained in the back of her mind. At her 70th birthday party on the Vineyard in 2019, her agent, who also manages Asher, brought up the idea of a reunion as the 50th anniversary of that album approached. Everyone also realized how many of the principals, from Asher to some of the original musicians (namely Kortchmar, Kunkel, and Sklar), were still around. Recalls Asher, “I said yes right away. I said, ‘Look, if Kate’s up for it, let’s start thinking about songs, and of course I’ll do it.’ “

Since Taylor didn’t have a record deal, she went the online-funding route, raising just over $42,000 for the project. She flew out to Los Angeles wearing a mask and visor last October, during a period when Covid-19 had momentarily subsided in California, and the basic tracks were cut in just a few days. What did she think of finding herself in that situation again?  “I thought, ‘Is this really happening?’ ” she says softly and with a sense of awe.

The album, Why Wait, is named after her own song, a choogling country tune about living in the here and now. It also includes covers of the Beatles’ “Good Day Sunshine” (during which Taylor exclaims, “Good morning, world!”), Ed Sheeran’s “She” (rewritten as “He”), Tommy James’ “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” the old Bert Berns–written hit “Tell Him,” and Taj Mahal’s “She Caught the Katy.” Her voice feels both lived-in and more expressive. “Her singing seems more heartfelt,” says Asher. “Singing the blues when you’re 20 and when you’re 70 is different. Everybody has the blues sometimes, as the saying goes. But they’re different blues when you’re 50 years older. And I think they’re somewhat more thoughtful blues that affects your singing.”

A release date and label are pending for the album. But the mere fact that such a project was even completed, so many years later and during a pandemic, comes as a relief to friends and family. “For Kate to be doing this with Peter, and that both of them have this life experience that brings them back together, it’s really a moving thing,” says James. “I think it’s so great that Kate will have this next iteration, you know, this next chance for people to hear her and pick up on her.” Kate may even return to the road, whenever touring is possible, and continue from where things left off so many years ago.

For decades, her brother James’ journey — taking in a breakdown or two, addiction, divorce, children, even hair loss — has spoken to his generation and fans. Given the way Kate chose family over work and experienced loss of her own — not just that of her husband but also her hard-living brother Alex, who died of a heart attack in 1993 at 46 — it’s possible that his sister’s story will also reverberate.

“You know, I hope they get something from it,” she says. “I guess I’ve just been a lucky little, you know, rock & roll singer who just got put in these amazing situations throughout my life. So, you know, don’t give up on your dreams. Enjoy the ride. Anything is possible.”

 

Newswire

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