James Taylor Sings James Taylor, a BBC broadcast from November 1970, appears above. Though the nearly 40-minute solo performance showcases a player who has developed and mastered his distinctive musical persona, it also showcases one who has only reached a mere 22 years of age. But don’t let his aw-shucks youthfulness fool you; by this point, Taylor had already endured a lifetime’s worth of formative troubles. He’d fallen into deep depression while still in high school, spent nine months in a psychiatric hospital, taken up and quit heroin, bottomed out and spent six months in recovery, underwent vocal cord surgery, taken up methedrine, gone into methadone treatment, had an album flop, and broken his hands and feet in a motorcycle wreck. Fire and rain indeed. But he’d also found favor with the Beatles, becoming the first American signed on their Apple label and recruiting Paul McCartney and George Harrison to play on his “Carolina in My Mind.” At the end of the sixties, the world at large didn’t know the name James Taylor, but his fellow musicians knew it soon would.
“I just heard his voice and his guitar,” said McCartney, “and I thought he was great.” Earlier in 1970, many listeners surely felt the same thing after dropping the needle onto Taylor’s breakthrough second album Sweet Baby James. By the time James Taylor Sings James Taylor went to air, he’d accrued enough of an international reputation to guarantee appreciation from even non-Beatles on the other side of the pond. Knowing his audience, Taylor opens with a rendition of Lennon and McCartney’s “With a Little Help from My Friends.” The Beatles connections don’t stop there: Songfacts reports that Taylor’s “Something in the Way She Moves,” the first single from his pre-Sweet Baby James Apple debut, may have inspired George Harrison to write “Something.” What’s more, Taylor had originally titled his song “I Feel Fine,” before realizing that the Beatles had recorded a song by that name. Though more troubled times lay ahead for the humble (if already well on his way to wealth and fame) young singer-songwriter, this production captures Taylor just before superstardom kicked in.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.