He turned being a sensitive singer-songwriter into an art form. A freewheeling hippie who was signed to The Beatles’ Apple label, his early material (mostly for Warner Brothers) could be heard in every college dormitory and was the key to a sophomore girl’s heart. (Trust me on this. Dan Fogelberg wasn’t even a gleam in their eyes yet.). “Sweet Baby James,” “Carolina In My Mind,” “Fire And Rain,” “Shower The People”; the list goes on and on. The adult contemporary radio format was invented for Sensitive Young Guys like Taylor, and with each release he ruled those airwaves.
With his Greatest Hits album (still a huge selling record 25 years later) fresh in the rear view mirror, Taylor moved over to Columbia Records, where these first five records take him from 1976 through the late 1980s. This time period found him settling into a groove as he lightly dabbled in different styles while surrounding himself with crack musicians (a trick Paul Simon would soon try as well). The formula was simple—stay within the successful laid-back-in-L.A. white lines; rock songs didn’t really rock, Caribbean and reggae were merely spices, not dishes. One could argue that these five CDs could be set on “shuffle play” without sounding disjointed.
Of the five, 1977’s JT might be the most popular with fans. Leading off with the buoyant hit “Your Smiling Face,” other highlights include the duet with Linda Ronstadt on “Bartender Blues,” the bouncy “Honey Don’t Leave L.A.”, and his soulful version of “Handy Man,” which won the Grammy Award for Best Pop Vocal. Depending on how much you like his music, “Traffic Jam” is either a fun pseudo-acapella song or an exceptionally silly track. In fairness, it plays much better in a live setting.
Two years later, with Flag, Taylor continued to prove that he can be as skilled an interpreter as he is a songwriter. Although he butchered “Day Tripper,” his soaring take on Carole King’s hit “Up On The Roof” is one of the highlights of his recorded career. “Is That The Way You Look?” mined the same soul/doo-wop blend to great effect, while “Sleep Come Over Me” is a powerful tale of the acceptance of death. Yes, it’s even more somber than the song sung in French.
Dad Loves His Work features more keyboards than the prior records, but still leans towards old formulas. “Only For Me” is a beautiful ballad reminiscent of his earliest songs, and “I Will Follow” sounds like the old hits as well. The band does step it up for “Stand And Fight,” and almost Buffet-izes “Summer’s Here” with Fender Rhodes, organ swells and rhythmic snare rim-snaps. But the standout track here is “Her Town Too,” the duet with the under-appreciated J.D. Souther that sounds as good today as it did almost 20 years ago.
Four years would pass before 1985’s That’s Why I’m Here, and one could almost interpret the title as an defensive answer to the question not yet asked. Like the sentiment of the song, old reliable Taylor pitted his clear voice against uptempo songs like “Turn Away” and laid back yet funky “Limousine Driver.” A cover of Buddy Holly’s “Everyday” is well done, as is his gentle version of Rogers and Hart’s piano ballad “My Romance.” If I were picking a Bacharach-David song to include, however, I would have avoided “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”
Never Die Young (1988) boasted a classic sounding title track and more toe-dips in different musical oceans. “T-Bone” is Caribbean Lite, “Runaway Boy” features some nice fiddle appetizers, and “Valentines Day” is sweet rainy day blues. But there’s nothing that jumps off the record for me 12 years later. “Home By Another Way” sounds like mid-period Billy Joel and “Sun On The Moon” is overproduced and dull. Taylor fans are a loyal lot, but the latter half of the eighties didn’t increase their fold very much, and it’s not difficult to see why.
James Taylor has been more than just a survivor, not that surviving the turbulence of the music industry for over three decades is a small accomplishment. He has 37 gold, platinum and multi-platinum awards (including these five records—Dad Loves His Work finally went platinum this year). In the past two years he’s been inducted into both the Songwriter’s Hall Of Fame and the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, and his 1997 release, Hourglass, went from sleeper nominee to double Grammy winner. His gracious and easygoing manner remain intact, and his voice has only improved with age. There are those who have loved him unconditionally for 35 years, and others who just never “got” him at all. At this stage of his career, he’s certainly not flashy enough for the fickle pop culture meter, but so what? There’s something pure and timeless about James Taylor. Maybe now he’s the Sensitive Older Guy.
Note: Columbia’s digitally remastered versions do not include any bonus tracks, but do contain restored artwork and photos from the original versions. Perhaps some alternate versions or live tracks would have been a nice treat to entice the fans (as Columbia did with its recent Burton Cummings reissues). So although they sound marvelous, there are no new doors to open.