James Vernon Taylor’s astonishing debut album, recorded over four months in autumn 1968, came at a crisis point in the singer’s life. James Taylor, who was just 20, had already been through the mill: he’d been treated in hospital for severe depression, and then developed a heroin addiction that eventually forced his parents to pay for him to move to England to aid his recovery and concentrate on music.
The fresh start worked. Luck played its part, too, because it was in London that he hooked up with Peter Asher – a singer who’d had a million-selling pop hit as part of the duo Peter And Gordon – by then head of A&R for The Beatles’ burgeoning record label, Apple.
Asher was the brother of Paul McCartney’s then girlfriend Jane, and knew the star well enough to persuade the celebrated songwriter (and fellow-Beatle, George Harrison) to listen to a reel-to-reel demo tape of ‘Something In The Way She Moves’. They were enthralled. At a formal audition, Taylor played the same song (“It was the best I had at the time,” he said), joking that Asher “thankfully only told me about an hour before it was going to happen… I wouldn’t have slept for a week if it had been a week ahead”.
McCartney and Harrison offered a lucrative deal to the unknown singer-songwriter. James Taylor was the company’s first release from a non-British artist. They were sure they had signed someone special. The Beatles were recording “The White Album” at the same Trident studios in London’s famous Soho district, but McCartney found time to play bass on ‘Carolina In My Mind’, and Harrison sang backing vocals on this understated masterpiece.
James Taylor had started writing the song during a holiday to “a primitive Mediterranean island” when he “could not shake” the yearning for home. He completed it at Asher’s London flat on Marylebone High Street, as he explored his homesickness for his childhood house, his family and even his dog. “I realised how lucky I was to be listening to The Beatles’ playbacks and watching their process in the studio,” Taylor said. “But at the same time that I was surrounded by this holy host of my absolute idols, I missed my home in North Carolina. This captured that feeling of being called away to another place.”
The music is gorgeous, too, and Taylor – a musician who is always specific about the basslines in his songs – said he wrote out McCartney’s part to learn “as a simple Bible-belt chart with chord symbols”.
‘Night Owl’ was another song inspired by place – this time the Night Owl Café in New York’s Greenwich Village, where Taylor and his early band, The Flying Machine, often performed; former bandmate Joel “Bishop” O’Brien provided drums on James Taylor.
‘Carolina In My Mind’ is one of 12 songs on the original album, which featured orchestration from The Aeolian Quartet and Amici String Quartet under the direction of arranger Richard Hewson, who also played bassoon and oboe. The excellent harpist was Skaila Kanga. There were musical links to many tracks, including a truncated version of ‘Greensleeves’ – arranged and played by Taylor.
The tuneful ‘Something’s Wrong’ was said to have inspired Harrison’s ‘Something’, and Taylor said amiably, “All music is borrowed from other music, so I just completely let it pass. I raised an eyebrow here and there, but when people would make the presumption that I had stolen my song from his, I can’t sit still for that.”
Other songs that showed Taylor’s burgeoning songwriting talent include ‘Don’t Talk Now’, ‘Sunshine’, ‘Brighten Your Night With My Day’ and ‘Rainy Day Man’, which was co-written with Zachary Wiesner. ‘I Know You Rider’ is a blues-based track that has its origins in the 20s and songs by Blind Lemon Jefferson, while ‘Knocking ’Round The Zoo’ is a powerful autobiographical song about his stay at a psychiatric hospital.
The cover of the album shows a slightly bedraggled Taylor lounging on the ground in a suit, tie and braces. He later joked that it was at a time when he looked like “Joni Mitchell with a moustache”.
The album did not initially achieve the sales it deserved, reaching only No.62 on the Billboard charts. It was released in the UK in December 1968 and in the US two months later, but there were problems with marketing and publicity. Taylor, whose drug problems had resurfaced, was back in rehab and unable to do any publicity work.
He pulled himself together again, and his star began to rise after a solo debut at the influential Troubadour nightclub in Los Angeles in early 1969. However, that year, he was in a terrible motorcycle accident. He broke both hands and both feet and was unable to play for months.
It gave him lots of thinking time. “As soon as I got out of all those casts, I had a lot of energy,” he later recalled. A revitalised Taylor went on to be one of the seminal singer-songwriters of the 70s (‘Fire And Rain’, ‘Millworker’ and Walking Man’ are among dozens of wonderful James Taylor songs from that era).
However, the launching pad was that audition for The Beatles and his superb debut album. “It was as if someone had opened up a door,” Taylor said years later, “and the rest of my life was on the other side.”