It was quite late on a rainy winter evening in early 1968. I was at home in my flat and I got a phone call out of the blue from a rather nervous-seeming American with a very pleasant speaking voice. I didn’t know him, but he told me his name was James Taylor.
He said that he had arrived in London two days earlier. He had been given my number by our mutual friend Danny Kortchmar. Danny was indeed a good friend of mine — he had played guitar in a band backing Peter & Gordon, we had become close and remain so to this day. As I got to know my mysterious caller I discovered that he and Danny had been childhood friends and had more recently both been members of a New York band called The Flying Machine. The group had broken up, James had apparently decided to go and hang out in London and Danny had given him my number, simply telling James that I was someone he knew and liked.
James explained that he was in London in search of some kind of musical success. He had made a demo the day before and wondered whether I would like to hear it. I told him that I would love to and we made a plan for him to come over the following day
When he did so and played the demo I still remember my utter astonishment and delight. These were not traditional rock’n’roll songs. They had elements of folk to them but with an R&B groove. The guitar parts had the elegance of classical Spanish guitar playing but used occasional jazz chords. The vocals were intense and soulful but introspective and thoughtful at the same time. The songs were brilliant blends of poetic eloquence, humour and precision. I was overwhelmed. I asked him to play a couple more songs live and he did so. I told him how very good I thought his music was. I said that I had a new job as head of A&R for a new record label and that I would like to sign him. I also discovered that he had nowhere to stay and invited him to move into our guest room where he ended up staying for several months.
I worked with James for a while helping him put a band together (we advertised in the Melody Maker) and in developing some of these great songs: ‘Something's Wrong’, ‘Something In The Way She Moves’, ‘Knocking ’Round The Zoo’ (about his experiences in a mental hospital) and ‘Carolina In My Mind’. The last song (one of my favourites) was written after he was signed to Apple and while feeling homesick on the island of Ibiza.
I took him into the office and introduced him to The Beatles, who loved him and his music. I wrote an internal memo (which still exists) to the American head of Apple Records, Ron Kass, who had been brought in as the official businessman to run the overall affairs of Apple Records. It began: "1st June 1968. Re: James Taylor. He is an American songwriter and singer who is very good”, and ended: "We intend to start recording about the 20th of June, by which time he will have enough songs rehearsed and arranged with me. He is ready to discuss contracts as soon as you are”. It all seemed so simple.
Thousands of American musicians and fans were no doubt setting off for London around this time with vague hopes of getting into Apple somehow or even of actually meeting The Beatles. Only in retrospect can I imagine how extraordinary and scary it must have been for a sensitive, nervous artist with a history of psychiatric issues and drug use to come to London and do so within just a week or so of his arrival. And his life was only going to get more complicated from now on.
The business aspects got sorted out and we went into Trident Studios in St. Anne's Court in Soho to make the record. The studio was owned by the Sheffield brothers — Norman ran the place and Barry was the engineer. James' friend, the exceptional American drummer Joel "Bishop" O'Brien, was in London too and joined us in the studio. Musicians were coming and going. From our Melody Maker ad we had found Louis Cennamo to play bass and Don Schinn to play keyboards. While, in retrospect, I think the album could fairly be described as "over-produced", I was so anxious to make everyone pay attention to these remarkable songs and the genius of James' musicianship that I suggested a lot of overdubs. Paul McCartney joined us to play bass on ‘Carolina In My Mind’ (James recalls George Harrison contributed backing vocals, but I don’t remember that). I enlisted my friend Richard Hewson (a jazz trumpeter and brilliant composer) to write arrangements for the songs and for the ‘links’ we constructed to fill the musical interstices.
It was certainly a learning experience for both James and for me. I had only produced a couple of records before, but I had a real sense that this was the important one — and I was quite certain that James was an extremely important artist. James himself was still dealing with some personal and addiction issues during the making of the record but I was far too naive to recognize the symptoms for what they were. Despite all of this we made a record of which I am certainly still very proud — and began a professional relationship which was to last for almost 30 years and an invaluable friendship which continues to this day. And I shall remain forever a founding member of the huge and everlasting global union of James Taylor fans.
James Taylor had just turned 20 years old when he arrived in London in March 1968. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, and raised in rural North Carolina, he came from a professional family in which music was actively encouraged – his sister Kate and his three brothers Livingston, Alex and Hugh, would all embark on recording careers.
At age 10, James began playing the cello — an instrument that would later inform his intricate finger-picking style to a certain degree — but he switched to the guitar by the time he was twelve. Inspired by, among others, Woody Guthrie’s children’s record Songs To Grow On For Mother And Child, James dedicated himself to the new instrument, and found further inspiration in the form of New Yorker Danny ‘Kootch’ Kortchmar, older by two years, whom he met on Martha’s Vineyard, the island retreat to which the Taylor family decamped each summer.
Songwriting came naturally to James, and by 1966, the two teenagers had developed their act from a duo into a band, The Flying Machine, based in Greenwich Village. With Danny and James on guitar, and James composing the music and taking lead vocals, The Flying Machine came to the attention of Chip Taylor (no relation), brother of actor Jon Voight, and writer of hits as diverse as ‘Angel Of The Morning’ and ‘Wild Thing’.
Just as Peter Asher would be a few years later, Chip Taylor was hugely impressed with James’ melodic, contemplative music — “I was so in awe of his writing,” he said later, “that it was difficult for me to write my own songs”. Chip and his business partner Al Gorgoni signed James and set to work trying to get their young protégé a record deal. As coincidence would have it, Chip considered the ideal vehicle for James’ songs to be an album from which, as with jazz and traditional folk artists, no singles should be taken. Peter Asher would take a similar stance at Apple, and in Britain at least, there would be no singles lifted from James Taylor upon its original release; Peter would also commission the album’s novel musical links to further strengthen the idea of the record as a cohesive whole.
Sessions for The Flying Machine began at New York City’s Select Sound Studios in late 1966, and yielded recorded versions of five songs that James would later rework with Peter Asher for this album: ‘Rainy Day Man’, ‘Knocking ’Round The Zoo’, ‘Something’s Wrong’, ‘Night Owl’ and ‘Brighten Your Night With My Day’. But despite early commitment from a local company, Jubilee Records and their subsidiary Jay Gee, The Flying Machine album project stalled and, reneging on the original concept, the label did indeed issue two tracks as single, ‘Brighten Your Night With My Day’ and, as the A-side, ‘Night Owl’, whose title had been inspired by the Greenwich Village establishment where the group was earning itself a good reputation. The record sold in reasonable numbers, but fame and fortune seemed a distant dream
Chip Taylor next started his own label, Rainy Day Records, named after James’ song, but before any more Flying Machine music could be released, the band fell apart and in early 1968, James made the bold decision to relocate to London. “I became a better musician in New York,” James said later. “But I got too caught up in drugs. I definitely got a quick lesson in life there. I hung out with all kinds of strange characters and really got caught up in the Village life. There were times when I thought that I’d never get out of there alive.”
Although there would be more stumbling blocks along the way, it would be London, Apple Records and Peter Asher that provided James with the focus he needed to start turning his life around: "Even though Peter was working for Paul McCartney,” James said, “he was still in total control of his own destiny. I knew from the first time that we met that he was the right person to steer my career. He has this determination in his eye that I had never seen in anyone before”.
James Taylor was released in November 1968, and marked the beginning of a remarkable solo career that continues to shine. The album laid the groundwork for 1970’s Sweet Baby James on Warner Brothers, and the global success that followed. More than 40 years later, the signature songs on this record, including ‘Carolina In My Mind’ and ‘Something In The Way She Moves’, remain the cornerstones of James’ outstanding catalogue of work.
Concludes Peter Asher: “Many of these songs are ones which James still sings and plays live and it is interesting to compare these early versions we did so long ago. James’ voice sounds both higher in tone and more tremulous than it does today. For anyone who came to James’ music later in life there may be a certain fascination in hearing where it all began.”
All four bonus tracks on James Taylor are previously unreleased. ‘Carolina In My Mind’ and ‘Sunshine Sunshine’ are acoustic demo versions made in London during the summer of 1968. ‘Let Me Ride’ and ‘Sunny Skies’ were recorded following the release of this album, at Crystal Sound studios in Los Angeles, in the spring of 1969. James re-recorded both songs when he moved to Warner Brothers Records: ‘Sunny Skies’ on Sweet Baby James in 1970 and ‘Let Me Ride’, to which he added more lyrics, for Mud Slide Slim And The Blue Horizon in 1971.
- Peter Asher
- Recorded at
- Trident / Crystal Sound
- Released (UK)
- Released (US)