James Taylor had a simple answer for what the best part of success has been for him in his nearly 50-year career.
“Just being able to make music for a living,” he told Rolling Stone in an interview in May. “I have an audience that supports me and my band, and they like to in each other’s company. It’s the totality of the experience.”
Taylor and his band will play on July 13 at Lake Tahoe Outdoor Arena, and while seeing that audience sounds like the high point for him, he was blunt about his own low points of success.
“I express things in my lyrics that come from a private place,” he told Rolling Stone. “And when you take that public, that can be a shock. People are killed by success, like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. John Lennon is a pure example. I never got to that level. I was never tabloid fodder.”
Riding the wave
Even though he managed to avoid the mass-media spotlight, Taylor did begin his career under the eye of the biggest band in the land at the time. After playing with a band in his younger years called the Flying Machine, Taylor struck out for England in 1967. It was there that Beatles Paul McCartney and George Harrison heard his demo and signed him to their fledgling Apple Records for his first, self-titled solo album a year later.
“To be in London and recording for the Beatles in 1968, I felt like I was riding a wave,” Taylor told Rolling Stone. “I was invited to the premiere of ‘Yellow Submarine,’ and they sent me to a mod tailor on King’s Road in London, who built me a skintight bell-bottom suit made of green and blue velvet, with a big wide collar. It looked great.
“Later, my girlfriend jumped off a stairwell to give me an embrace and I had to catch her. I had the suit on and it split right down the back of the right leg.”
Catalyst to fame
Signing to Warner Brothers in 1969 was the real catalyst to Taylor’s solo fame. His first album with that label, Sweet Baby James, featured a huge hit with “Fire and Rain” and his follow-up, Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon, included a No. 1 cover of Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend.”
Taylor recently told Acoustic Guitar magazine that writing and performing in the early ’70s was an amazing time, as his songs and others helped soothe people after a rancorous end to the ’60s.
“The function those songs serve for me is that, whatever it is that makes you want to put into the language of music an internal emotional experience and to make that both outside of you and in front of you, they show that my music can resonate with other people, too,” he said. “And that’s what you want as a performing artist — you want other people to share in that experience.
“Not to get too cosmic, but the human condition is that we live in these isolated individuated consciousnesses that re-create the entire world inside our heads. It’s obviously the thing that allows us to compete, and it’s been a great survival strategy as a species. But it does isolate us, and we’re constantly looking for a way back to oneness or connection with each other and the world.”
Reaching the top
After that first rush of fame, Taylor continued to have hits in the ’70s, including “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight,” “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You),” “Handy Man” and “Your Smiling Face.”
Although he has slowed down over the years when it comes to releasing albums, he still has scored radio hits such as “Everyday,” “Copperline” and “Little More Time With You.”
His last four albums — “Hourglass,” “October Road,” “Covers” and “Before This World” all reached the top 10, while “World” was his first No. 1 album when it was released in 2015.
“It’s more gratifying than I would’ve thought,” Taylor told Billboard magazine about finally reaching the top spot. “Generally speaking, I think people have too much of a tendency to turn art into a competitive sport; to compare one thing to another and say, ‘This is the best, this is the second best, these are the top 10’ — I think that’s not necessary with art. Either it moves you or it doesn’t. At the same time, we worked really, really hard on this album.
“I also feel as though the record company, Concord Records, did an excellent job of lining it up and promoting it and announcing it and releasing it. Debuting at No. 1 is proof of that. It’s an acknowledgment of what they did. It was a great thing to have happen.”
“Before This World” was his first set of original songs in 13 years. Taylor told Acoustic Guitar magazine that the long wait is by design.
“I like the idea of slow evolution and practice, the way the Japanese revere their masters and pass their technique down to subsequent generations,” he said.
You've got a friend
Taylor has also earned some bigger honors in the past two decades.
He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in the same year, 2000.
Then, last year, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. It’s given to people who have made contributions to world peace, security or culture in the U.S.
“I don’t know how to adequately describe it,” Taylor told Billboard after receiving the award. “It completely took me by surprise. I got to readjust my entire self-image here. It’s a huge honor, really. I was just blown away by it.”
Billboard reported that President Barack Obama introduced Taylor at the ceremony by saying, “I’m proud to call this next honoree a friend.”
Taylor added later that “it makes a surprising amount of difference to me who the country has chosen to represent it, and in the case of Barack Obama, it just makes me feel good about being an American. In my opinion, he is a wonderful president and a great leader. I’m gonna miss him.”