‘It’s good for people to see the real deal.’ After all these years, James Taylor still delighting the masses. - The Boston Globe (2024)

“What I’m doing for myself, I make available to other people,” said Taylor, silhouetted by a large window overlooking the October Mountain State Forest.

‘It’s good for people to see the real deal.’ After all these years, James Taylor still delighting the masses. - The Boston Globe (1)

It’s an approach that has worked remarkably well for Taylor. In the six decades since he started doing open mics on Martha’s Vineyard, he’s sold 100 million albums, building an enduring fan base whose emotional attachment to his music remains intense. Taylor and his band will be at Tanglewood next Wednesday and Thursday to mark the 50th anniversary of the singer’s first performance in the Koussevitzky Music Shed.

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This uncommon ability to comfort and connect has always been something of a superpower for Taylor. It’s the reason he’s so often summoned now in moments of celebration and sadness. Last fall, in the days after 18 people were killed in a mass shooting in Maine, Taylor, who sang “America the Beautiful” at President Obama’s second inauguration and “You Can Close Your Eyes” at a ceremony commemorating the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, was asked to sing the national anthem before a Lewiston High School football game.

“There’s just a very reassuring quality to James’s voice,” says Carole King, whose 1971 song “You’ve Got a Friend” was a response to Taylor’s lyric, “I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend.”

“Above all, there’s an authenticity to James,” King said. “The guy you see on stage is the guy he is.”

‘It’s good for people to see the real deal.’ After all these years, James Taylor still delighting the masses. - The Boston Globe (2)

At 76, Taylor isn’t sure how much longer he’ll carry on, but over a lunch of lobster rolls, kettle chips, and coleslaw at his home on a hill in the deep woods of westernmost Massachusetts, he doesn’t look or sound like someone ready to retire. Yes, he’s lost his hair and moves more deliberately (in part because Butter Bean and Bosun, his two pugs, are often snorting underfoot), but Taylor, wearing a familiar blue work shirt and Red Sox cap, seems relaxed, content in his role as classic rock’s elder statesman.

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“That’s the thing about this time of life,” he says, rising from a chair to retrieve a Tums from his pocket. “You can feel as good as you felt when you were 55, but two years later you can be in the ground.”

If you’re wondering whether, after all these years, he’s still playing the hits, the answer is of course. Because, believe it or not, the songs continue to affect him, too. Taylor figures he’s played about 4,000 shows — performing “Carolina in My Mind” at every one, he says — and yet even now he feels something when he stands (or, occasionally these days, sits) in front of an audience fingerpicking his Olson acoustic guitar.

“It’s mysterious to me why this continues to be so compelling,” he said.

‘It’s good for people to see the real deal.’ After all these years, James Taylor still delighting the masses. - The Boston Globe (3)

But the pleasure Taylor gets from playing is only one reason he’s still touring. He also needs to. Taylor isn’t broke; far from it. He and his wife, Kim, whom he met in the mid ‘90s when she was working in the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s publicity office, divide their time between Brookline and a large, shingle-style house and recording studio on 150 acres in the bucolic Berkshire County town of Washington (pop. 454). But in the late ‘60s, like so many young songwriters, Taylor naively signed a bad record contract and a disastrous publishing deal that combined to deprive him of millions in royalties and earnings. “I signed away my publishing at the age of 18 for a sandwich,” he said. Now that streaming has rendered record sales a thing of the past, the money he makes playing shows — Taylor and his band do about 50 dates a year — is important.

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That he’s alive, let alone performing, is actually astonishing. For nearly two decades, Taylor abused his mind and lanky, 6-foot-3 frame with an unquenchable opiate addiction that, more than once, nearly killed him.

“There were about five times,” he says quietly.

Finally, in 1983, a year after the overdose death of his friend John Belushi — and with the aid of Michael Brecker, the late saxophonist who was his sponsor — Taylor managed to get clean. He says surviving the agony of addiction and meeting Kim, with whom he has twin, 23-year-old sons, Rufus and Henry, are “the best things that ever happened to me.” (Taylor was quick to add that he has “no regrets and nothing but gratitude, love, and appreciation” for his two ex-wives, Carly Simon, with whom he had a son and daughter, Ben and Sally, and Kathryn Walker.)

‘It’s good for people to see the real deal.’ After all these years, James Taylor still delighting the masses. - The Boston Globe (4)

Taylor grew up in Chapel Hill, N.C., where his father, Ike, was dean of the medical school at the University of North Carolina, and he spent summers on the Vineyard. His association with the Berkshires began with the stay at Austen Riggs in 1969. Taylor had just returned from London, where he recorded his debut album, ”James Taylor,” for the Beatles’ label Apple Records. (Paul McCartney plays bass and George Harrison sings backing vocals on “Carolina in My Mind.”) In nine months at Austen Riggs, Taylor wrote most of the songs for “Sweet Baby James,” the 1970 album that catapulted him to stardom, selling more than 3.5 million copies in the US alone. In 1971, two weeks before his 23rd birthday, Taylor was on the cover of Time magazine. Suddenly, everyone knew his name.

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“My relationship with James goes back further than his relationship with me,” says singer Jackson Browne, a longtime friend who co-headlined a tour with Taylor in 2021. “I was really aware of him because he changed things. James came from folk music, but these weren’t folk songs he was playing, they were song songs.

“They were songs from his experience, his life,” says Browne, “and that was a really stunning development.”

For a while in the early ‘70s, Taylor lived in LA’s Laurel Canyon, a storied scene and community teeming with gifted singer-songwriters, including his then-girlfriend Joni Mitchell, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Brian Wilson, Judee Sill, Linda Ronstadt, and Browne. Eventually, though, he moved back east. Taylor’s mother, Trudy, grew up in Newburyport and instilled in her five children a powerful affinity for New England.

For Taylor, the appeal of the Berkshires — his house is about a mile up a mountain road — is its relative remoteness. New York feels far away even if it isn’t, and the tiny town of Washington, incorporated in 1777, is mostly old-growth forest, giving the place a profound tranquillity. “It’s its own place,” he said.

‘It’s good for people to see the real deal.’ After all these years, James Taylor still delighting the masses. - The Boston Globe (5)

Taylor is thankful for all the success he’s had, and he understands that his music isn’t for everyone. In a memorable essay titled “James Taylor Marked for Death,” the rebellious critic Lester Bangs famously dissed the singer’s soothing melodies. Taylor admits even he winces at some of his early stuff.

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“If it’s ‘Shower the People’ and it feels a little bit maudlin, a little bit embarrassing, well, that’s just what came through,” he says of the mid-tempo tune that was a Top 40 hit in 1976. “In that moment, it resonated and I’m grateful for it.”

Taylor can’t remember anything about his first performance at Tanglewood 50 years ago. He’s been on the stage of the BSO’s summer home dozens of times since, often playing to sellout crowds on July 4. But a Berkshire Eagle review of his inaugural performance, on July 30, 1974, makes clear the audience was enthusiastic: “Many fans in the front row … seemed determined to devour [Taylor] bodily rather than listen to his music.”

‘It’s good for people to see the real deal.’ After all these years, James Taylor still delighting the masses. - The Boston Globe (6)

In photos of the show, which featured an opening set by Ronstadt, Taylor is barefoot, wearing bell bottoms and a T-shirt. Next week, he’ll be in a collared shirt and a pair of R.M. Williams boots, backed by an ace, eight-person band that includes Steve Gadd on drums and Michael Landau on guitar. (Taylor’s wife and son Henry usually join him on stage at some point.)

“No matter what room we’re in, it’s a great privilege to play with James,” says Gadd, whose studio credits include the Steely Dan album “Aja” and Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.” “James is the real deal and, these days, it’s good for people to see the real deal.”

Gadd can also confirm that Taylor’s music makes people feel things.

“My wife says it all the time,” he said. “We’ll be shopping in the supermarket together and a James song will come on and she’ll say, ‘Does it every time. Just makes me feel good.’”

Today, Taylor says he still endures periods of anxiety before a tour starts. He wonders if people will buy tickets or if he’ll be able to conjure that distinctive ringing sound from his guitar. But once he’s on stage, playing music he describes as “an agnostic’s attempt at a spiritual connection,” he settles down.

King, who’s performed with Taylor countless times over many decades, says he’s truly one of a kind.

“When I watch James singing at a mic, I think of the joy that comes out of him,” she said. “It’s like the music is playing him.”

A previous version of this story misstated where James Taylor grew up. It was Chapel Hill, N.C. The Globe regrets the error.

‘It’s good for people to see the real deal.’ After all these years, James Taylor still delighting the masses. - The Boston Globe (7)

Mark Shanahan can be reached at mark.shanahan@globe.com. Follow him @MarkAShanahan.

‘It’s good for people to see the real deal.’ After all these years, James Taylor still delighting the masses. - The Boston Globe (2024)
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