Before James Taylor went out on his recent tour, he had doubts about how much longer he could rock & roll in public. At thirty-one, with a wife (Carly Simon) and two children (Sarah, 5, and Ben, 2), he began to think of performing his music as being “a bit adolescent.” His new album. “Flag,” had not sold nearly so well as his last, “JT,” and the photograph of Taylor tucked inside his LP showed an artist who seemed to want to make everyone understand that he was aging.
But when I got on the bus with Taylor and his band on the way to Pine Knob, a beautiful, acoustically superior open-air theater outside Detroit, I sensed that I hadn’t been getting the complete picture, Unlike most tours, the musicians didn’t seem to be dragging themselves around, trying to fight road stupor. Taylor’s tour manager, Eric Barrett, had hired on Richard Norton, a karate instructor, to give the band workouts. And more than half the group — which includes bassist Leland Sklar, drummer Russ Kunkel, saxophonist David Sanborn, guitarists Waddy Wachtel and Danny Kortchmar, keyboardist Don Grolnick and background singers Arnold McCuller and David Lasley — were exercising with Norton from eleven a.m. until two. And they looked it.
The tour was drawing well. At Pine Knob, Taylor was about to play for his third of four successive sell-out crowds (12,000 per night) that were wildly enthusiastic. Honest-to-good-ness rock & roll made up a healthy portion of the performance, spurred by Kortchmar and Wachtel’s thick, punchy rhythm guitar textures. And Taylor, who more than any other singer has been branded with the term “mellow,” belted out the songs with fire and closed each hard number with flying leaps that brought the audience to its feet.
Taylor almost never grants interviews. Since a 1973 “Rolling Stone” talk he has done only one lengthy interview, for “Stereo Review” in 1978. He trusts only these things: playing music in front of an audience that asks only that he be himself; working with musicians he admires; writing his songs; and most of all, being with his family.
When did you discover you could write songs?
I started when I went to McLean, a psychiatric hospital, in 1965. It was where I started writing seriously. I wrote two songs in McLean, and after that, I went down to New York with the Flying Machine in 1966 and wrote most of the music on my first Apple album [James Taylor, 1969]. That was a hot time; a lot of stuff was getting written and I thought it was good stuff, too.
I’ve written a hundred songs since then, and I think that’s a lot of songs. A lot of them are repetitive and a number of them are lightweight. But I think I’m pretty prolific.
Do any of your old songs embarrass you now?
I was gonna open this tour with “Blossom,” but “Blossom” sort of bothers me. It seems so floral, it seems so cute. Actually, there are so many songs that came after it in that mode that are really a drag.
Did the confessional nature of those songs bother you at the time?
When you write a song, it may come from a personal space, but it very seldom actually represents you. It comes out of a sort of mood of melancholy, somehow. It’s almost theatrical.
Where did you pick up the folk guitar?
Well, probably on Martha’s Vineyard; I used to go there in the summertime, heard some music there. Someone must’ve taught me what used to be called Travis picking; I suppose Elizabeth Cotton is probably more to be credited.
When did you first start playing guitar?
I think I was twelve or so. I played the cello from when I was ten, and then I bought a guitar from the father of some friends of mine and played that for a while. And then when I was fourteen or so, I bought a guitar — a real nice one — in Durham, North Carolina, that I worked with up until I was about twenty-five. Then Mark Whitebook built me the guitar I use now.
When did you start playing rock & roll?
Gee, I suppose I started playing rock & roll when I was thirteen. Kooch [Danny Kortchmar] started to show me a few loose changes and played me some Lightnin’ Hopkins and Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker and stuff like that. I suppose that was the start of it. But my brother Alex had a pretty educated ear. He went out and listened to as much as he could, and I think he probably got me started as much as Kooch did. And then Kooch and I played blues for a while — or we attempted to play blues. And then I had a band with my brother Alex down south, and we just played whatever hits were around there, played on weekends and whatever gigs we could get.
When did you hook up with Flying Machine?
Well, let’s see, I went down to New York in 1966 and saw Kooch, and he said, “Why don’t we try this?” I was with my friend Zach Weisner, who is a bass player, and we decided to do some rehearsing. Kooch had been with Joel O’Brien, who drummed in the King Bees. And Joel also showed me a lot of stuff — I had never known much jazz before.
How did you meet your producer, Peter Asher?
Kooch had worked with Peter and Gordon on an American tour as a member of the backup band, and I was in London to do some traveling and to take it easy, and I’d hoped to be able to sing some small clubs here and there and just make my way through Europe. But it wasn’t as easy as I through it might be. You had to have papers and had to worry about immigration, and I got more and more interested in making a record, a solo album. I went to a little two-track studio in Soho and made an album for eight pounds. I bought forty-five minutes of time and made forty-five minutes of music. And then I double-tracked a lot.