Without James Taylor and Carole King, there would be no Taylor Swift, Jack Johnson or Norah Jones. Or Garth Brooks or Rickie Lee Jones or Tracy Chapman.
Bob Dylan may have invented the job, but it was Taylor and King who established the blueprint for the sensitive singer/ songwriter. On his 1968 debut album for the Beatles’ fledgling Apple Records, Taylor — a Boston blueblood turned junkie, turned introspective soul — cooed:
There’s something in the way she moves,
Or looks my way, or calls my name,
That seems to leave this troubled world behind.
And if I’m feeling down and blue,
Or troubled by some foolish game,
She always seems to make me change my mind.
With his acoustic guitar, Taylor didn’t rock like Dylan, he didn’t need a singing partner like Paul Simon, and he didn’t leave you scratching your head like Neil Young sometimes did. He was perceptive, soothing and tuneful, but never corny in a moon/ June/ spoon Tin Pan Alley sort of way.
King was a piano-playing songwriter from the old school, literally and figuratively. Working in the New York song factory known as the Brill Building, she and her husband, Gerry Goffin, churned out dozens of 1960s teenybopper hits, including Little Eva’s “The Loco-motion,” the Drifters’ “Up on the Roof” and the Monkees’ “Pleasant Valley Sunday.”
But who knew that Carole King had dreams of being a serious singer/ songwriter?
After divorcing Goffin, she moved to Los Angeles and, in 1970, released an album called “Writer.” The album went nowhere but it did feature Taylor on backup vocals, and she returned the favor, playing on his “Sweet Baby James” album that year. For a few nights in November, they shared the stage at the Troubadour, a small club that was the hub of the L.A. singer/songwriter scene.
Four months later, King released “Tapestry,” a landmark album that established her as one of America’s foremost singer/ songwriters, sold 25 million copies worldwide, stayed on Billboard’s chart for nearly six years and led to four Grammys, including album and record of the year. “Tapestry” was intimate and unpolished, filled with honest and liberating explorations of a young woman’s emotions about a breakup, long-distance friendship and romance. She not only interpreted hits she’d written for others, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” with unvarnished, earthy conviction, but also introduced passionate new pieces including “It’s Too Late” and “So Far Away.”
Taylor sang on “Tapestry” and borrowed one of the tunes for his own 1971 release, “Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon.” Proving that’s what friends are for, he had the hit with “You’ve Got a Friend” but she won a Grammy for it — song of the year.
Turn on the radio four decades later and you can hear the influence of King and Taylor on nearly every genre of station.
Taylor Swift, the 20-year-old darling of both the country and pop worlds, combines both of King’s writing styles — the early catchy Brill Building hooks and teen sensibility with the honest and deep emotionalism of “Tapestry.”
Musically, Norah Jones sounds more like the daughter of King and Taylor than of her biological father, sitar god Ravi Shankar. She plays piano with the gentle ease of Taylor’s guitar playing; her lyrics reflect the introspection and depth of King, with the mellowness and melancholy of Taylor.
Jack Johnson’s surfer-dude pop recalls the warm intimacy and breezy simplicity of Taylor but the backdrop is the Pacific Ocean, not bucolic Carolina roads or beatific Martha’s Vineyard.
Taylor’s most surprising offspring may be Zac (“Chicken Fried”) Brown, the Georgia farm boy who just won the Grammy for best new artist. He may be classified as country, but he cites Taylor as his main influence. In fact, he says he’s worn out two or three copies of Taylor’s greatest hits.
Although they were fast friends and musical soul mates in the 1970s, Taylor and King never toured together — until now. Following several shows in Australia, their three-month North American Troubadour Reunion Tour is under way.
This tour was sparked by a reunion concert in 2007 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the club where they made their debut together. That event is captured on a new and lovingly nostalgic CD/DVD package, “Live at the Troubadour.”
Since their heyday, Taylor, 62, and King, 68, have traveled down different roads. She continued to record albums with limited commercial success, became an environmental activist after moving to Idaho in 1977, wrote songs for others (Celine Dion, Mariah Carey), acted on TV and on Broadway, and performed a few small-room concerts.
Taylor blossomed as an interpretive vocalist and live performer. When he wasn’t penning soft-rock hits like “Shower the People” and “Your Smiling Face,” he was turning rock and R&B oldies (“How Sweet It Is,” “Handy Man”) into lite-soul radio favorites. Not only is he a best-selling recording star, but he’s an inveterate, crowd-pleasing road warrior who fills arenas and amphitheaters year after year.
These days, Taylor’s voice sounds pristine and ageless, King’s a little ragged but soulful and familiar. Raised in Massachusetts and North Carolina, he’s gentlemanly and soft-spoken but warm and witty. Raised in Brooklyn, she’s loud and opinionated but homey and heartfelt.
Sometimes they seem as different as a tall, bald guy and a short, frizzy-haired woman. But in many ways these Rock and Roll Hall of Famers seem cut from the same cloth: smart and sensitive, tuneful and timeless, influential and enduring.