Happy Birthday James Taylor

A look at his seminal self-titled debut for Apple

Periodical advert for James Taylor’s debut LP


In a way, it was an auspicious beginning. In 1968, any artist who had the good fortune to be given a nod by the Beatles and the keys to their Apple empire automatically gained superior status, regardless of the relative merits of what they would ultimately accomplish.

The immediate winners weren’t especially well known, although some — Badfinger and Mary Hopkin in particular — would reap worldwide recognition courtesy of their initial outings. Other, like Lon and Derek Van Eaton and Jackie Lomax, would make admirable attempts, but ultimately fall short as far a permanent placement as far as superstar status was concerned.

James Taylor landed somewhere in-between. A veteran of the ill-fated band Flying Machine, his first  attempt at recognition crashed and burned, “Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground,” as he’d later say it in song. He, in tandem with pal and compatriot Danny Kortchmer attempted an early recording, but when Taylor fell prey to drug abuse, ineffective management and an inability to get the Flying Machine off the ground, Taylor, fresh out of rehab, made his way to the U.K. in hope of bettering his fortunes.

It was Kortchmer who introduced the 20 year-old Taylor to Apple A&R man Peter Asher who, in turn, played his demos for Paul McCartney and George Harrison. The two Fabs were impressed, and Taylor became the first non-British act signed to Apple. Both Beatles made cursory appearances on the track “Carolina in My Mind,” a song which failed as a single but remains a memorable part of Taylor’s live repertoire to this day. (Both songs were later recut when his next label, Warner Bros. opted to include the songs on a greatest hits LP.) Perhaps more significantly, another prime cut, “Something in the Way She Moves” gave Harrison the first line of his own classic, “Something,” a year later.

James Taylor James Taylor, Apple 1968/69

Asher, who would later take on the role of Taylor’s manager, sat in the producer’s chair for recording sessions that lasted from July to October 1968 at Trident Studios, during which they usurped some of the studio time that had been reserved by the Beatles for the recording of the so-called “White Album.” Still, despite the Beatles’ backing, the sessions were often chaotic. Taylor reverted to his earlier heroin habit and eventually agreed to check himself in at a British psychiatric hospital. While the critical response to his debut was generally favorable, Taylor’s inability to properly promote the album due to his convalescence hindered substantial sales.

Nevertheless, the album’s U.S. release in February 1969 after its U.K. bow the preceding December, set the stage for his imminent signing with Warner Bros. Records the year after. The label would provide him with greater glories from the get-go, starting with the release of his sophomore set Sweet Baby James and its contemporary classic “Fire and Rain.” Ironically, Taylor had laid down an early version of that tune, as well as a demo for “Sunny Skies,” another song that would surface on Sweet Baby James, during the sessions for James Taylor.

Although James Taylor would be its namesakes first and only outing for Apple, in hindsight, it’s still seen as an excellent effort overall. Its other notable offerings included “Rainy Day Man,” originally written for the Flying Machine, “Brighten Your Night With My Day,” “Knocking Around the Zoo,” and the prophetically titled “Something’s Wrong.” Orchestral arranger Richard Hewson’s string interludes muted the effect of some of the songs, but even so, it remains a definitive example of James Taylor’s seminal style. Some 50 years later, it ranks with the best — and boldest — work of his lengthy career.

 

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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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