For years, James Taylor has been covering many of his favorite songs from the 1950s and 1960s during soundchecks before his concerts. This past September, he released some of them on Covers, a collection of twelve classic tracks he recorded at his Massachusetts studio. He recently sat down with Rolling Stone to discuss some of his favorites songs on the set, from Leonard Cohen to Elvis Presley to the Drifters.
Leonard Cohen – “Suzanne” “Leonard predates me a little bit, but not by much. The first time I heard any of his songs was Judy Collins’ version of ‘Suzanne’ on her In My Life album. I loved her version and it had a huge affect on me and informed my writing. He’s an important writer. I love that line ‘The sun pours down like honey.’ I recently ended up playing ‘Suzanne’ over and over. I’d play it at sound checks, I’d play it in hotel rooms, I’d just play it when I picked up a guitar.”
Elvis Presley – “Hound Dog” “Elvis was one of my first exposures to rock n’ roll. But Big Mama Thornton’s version has a much…I just love the groove on it. It is completely live as we recorded it, probably our third take. It’s one of those instances where everything just falls into place It’s my favorite track on the album. We put it right after ‘Suzanne’ because we wanted palates to be clear for ‘Hound Dog.'”
Buddy Holly – “Not Fade Away” “That’s one of a series of up-tempo rabble-rowsing cover tunes we play live just to get the crowd on their feet and to keep them on their feet as an encore. We played it in several different versions over the years, so that had evolved as an arrangement and by the time we got in it was one of the songs we knew we wanted to cut. Buddy Holly was a big influence on me.”
The Drifters – “On Broadway” “It’s about somebody trying to hang on in New York. I had the experience myself of being in a band in New York City in 1966-67, and eventually we dropped off the face of the planet. The band just died of starvation and lack of interest. I had that experience and of struggling to make it in New York, and I lived right off of upper Broadway and this song resonated with me for sure. I’ve played it in various bands, but in the beginning I played that song a lot and I really felt it.”
Junior Walker – “Road Runner” “The reason this one made it onto the album was partially because I got a chance to play harmonica on it, and I don’t often play harp. The other reason was it was such a great track: the horn parts on this particular version are amazing. It was amazing that these players could actually, as the song was being run down, come up with a horn part for this. I think it’s a valid alternative to Junior Walker’s. Not as good, but good.”
“The Spinners – “Sadie” “Spinners have that great sophisticated Philadelphia sound. They’ve definitely got that groove, but they’ve got a level of harmonic and musical sophistication in the arrangement of the track that was the earmark of the Philadelphia sound. From the beginning, I have been fascinated with choral things; I’ve written a number of song that involve choruses. So I’m always fascinated to work on harmonies and vocal parts, and it’s not just a coincidence or a mistake that I travel with four singers: I really love that choral thing, and always have. It’s not one of the Spinners’ biggest hits, and I think it’s great that people get a chance to hear it.”