James Taylor

(b. 1948)

With his warm, intimate voice and personal, often brooding songs, James Taylor rose to prominence in the early 1970s as one of the leading voices of the West Coast Singer-Songwriter movement, becoming in the eyes of many the avatar of the sensitive, male Singer-Songwriter. A star and hitmaker throughout the 1970s, he endures as a popular concert draw and recording artist.

Taylor was born in Massachusetts but grew up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where his well-off family moved when he was three. He studied cello as a child, but switched to guitar at age 12. He credited his cello training with helping him develop his intricate style of guitar finger picking, in which he plays bass lines with his thumb while picking chords and melodies with his fingers.

In his teen years Taylor started writing songs, played in a garage band with his older brother and played coffeehouses as part of an acoustic duo in Martha’s Vineyard, where his family spent summers. But as his high school years ended, Taylor felt consumed by the pressures of starting adult life and fell into a depression, committing himself to a mental hospital for treatment.

After his release, Taylor moved to New York City and formed a band called the Flying Machine, playing clubs and releasing an unsuccessful single. Taylor developed a drug problem and once again was hospitalized, for treatment.

In 1967, then 19, Taylor sought a fresh start by moving to London. There he recorded a collection of demos that reached Peter Asher, formerly part of the duo Peter and Gordon and now working for the Beatles’ newly formed Apple Records, and Taylor became the first U.S. act signed to the label. His debut album, James Taylor, released in 1968 in the UK and 1969 in the U.S., received critical praise but failed to sell. The single "Carolina in My Mind" would become one of Taylor’s classics but failed to break the top 100 at the time.

Seeking change yet again, Taylor moved to California, sleeping on friends’ couches. After a six-night-stand at the Troubadour, a club that was the center of Los Angeles’ Folk and Singer-Songwriter movements, he signed with Warner Brothers and recorded the album Sweet Baby James with a band of L.A. studio musicians and Carole King helping out on piano and vocals.  Released in early 1970, the album was a critical and commercial success, with the album and poignant single “Fire and Rain" both reaching No. 3.

Taylor would release seven more albums in the 1970s (most notably the double-platinum J.T., from 1977), reaching the charts with a mix of original songs like "Shower the People" and covers like Carole King’s "You've Got a Friend" and Marvin Gaye’s "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You).” Taylor married singer-songwriter Carly Simon in 1972, and the couple had two children before separating in 1981.

In the years since his 70s heyday Taylor has slowed his pace, while maintaining significant popularity as both a performer and a recording artist. His 1997 album Hourglass won a Grammy for best Pop album and went platinum; in the years since he’s recorded the all-covers album Covers, co-headlined a tour with Carole King, and, in 2012, received the National Medal of the Arts from President Barack Obama.

Related Lessons

Singer-Songwriters and the Environmental Movement

Grades: High, Middle
Subjects: ELA, General Music, Social Studies/History

How did the singer-songwriters of the 1960s and 70s address the concerns of the environmental movement?

Singer-Songwriters and the Environmental Movement (Elementary Version)

Grades: Elementary K-2
Subjects: Art/Design, Science, Social Studies/History

How did the singer-songwriters of the 1960s and 70s address the concerns of the environmental movement?