An unknown 20 year old with a history of psychiatric and drug problems arrived in London in 1968 and within days was recording his debut album for Apple Records. The label was founded that year by the Beatles and it was an artist-focused label, reflecting their tastes and those of Peter Asher (formerly a member of the duo Peter and Gordon, who became the head of the A&R (Artist & Repertoire) department at Apple). The young man who was given an introduction to Asher through a mutual friend was James Taylor and his debut album had Paul McCartney on bass and George Harrison on backup vocals.
James Taylor’s Apple album was not a hit but when he returned to the United States, with Asher as his manager and recording producer, they struck gold. “The Essential James Taylor” (on Columbia/Legacy) starts with the hits from that first American album on Warner Brothers, “Sweet Baby James” and includes the title track and the memorable “Fire and Rain.” One point worth noting is that the pianist on that album was the esteemed songwriter Carole King, whom Taylor was coaxing into becoming a performer. (There is a fictionalized version of Taylor in “Beautiful,” the Broadway bio of King.)
The set includes selections from his work on Warner Brothers and, after that, Columbia. The best songs from the Apple album (“Carolina on my Mind” and “Something in the Way She Moves”) appear in later recordings. Taylor worked with various producers after his albums with Asher. He had a fruitful collaboration with Don Grolnick (1947-1996), an important jazz artist, who was Taylor’s producer, music director and keyboard player. They worked together sporadically between 1974 and 1995 and the set includes numbers from the albums “Never Die Young,” “New Moon Shine” and “James Taylor (Live).”
What is striking about Taylor and is evident from his earliest recordings is that he is not only a fine guitarist but his voice is instantly recognizable. The set also shows how pliant it was, and still is. The voice you hear from 1970 is basically the same today. So, for that matter is his flawless diction. If he never penned a song, he would still be a star.
He moves effortlessly between genres, from folk (“The River is Wide”) to blues (e.g., “Steamroller”) and soul (e.g., Holland/Dozier/Holland’s “How Sweet it is (to be Loved by You”) and Jimmy Jones and Otis Blackwell’s “Handy Man”). He is a superb interpreter of Carole King’s songs (and the two have often toured together). His way with her songs is represented here by his hit version of “You’ve Got a Friend.”
Taylor’s lyrics are occasionally sappy (“Shower the People”), but at his best he injects some melancholy, for example, “Fire and Rain’s” reference to his learning of a friend’s death (“Just yesterday morning, they let me know you were gone./Suzanne, the plans they made put an end to you.”) “Something in the Way She Moves” (which allegedly inspired George Harrison’s “Something”) is a love song that refers to his struggle with depression (“Every now and then the things I lean on lose their meaning/And I find myself careening/Into places where I should not let me go”). The subtlety of his writing is matched by his restrained delivery.
Another notable example of his interpretive ability is Stephen Foster’s still timely “Hard Times Come Again No More” backed up by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, bass player Edgar Meyer and violinist Mark O’Connor. Unfortunately, the set omits Taylor’s revelatory recording of Foster’s “”Oh! Susanna” on his “Sweet Baby James” album. A minstrel song with nonsensical lyrics (“It rain’d all night the day I left/The weather it was dry/The sun so hot I froze to death…”), Taylor slowed it down and made it into a soulful ballad, accompanied only by his guitar.
Every admirer can probably pick out some songs they would have substituted for a couple of the tracks. However, the 2-CD collection is a satisfying career retrospective of the artist so far. Taylor is still active and will appear on July 20 at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts in Bethel Woods, NY; on July 22 at Susquehanna Bank Center in Camden, NJ; and on July 24 at Molson Canadian Amphitheatre in Toronto, Canada.