The famous self-titled debut album James Taylor was released on December 6, 1968. It received positive reviews but Taylor’s relapse into heroin addiction and hospitalization killed his opportunities to promote the album. It was the first release by Apple Records of a non-UK citizen. As is well known, this album was recorded from July – October at Trident Studio, at the same time The Beatles were recording The White Album there.
The most noteworthy songs on the album are “Something in the Way She Moves”, “Carolina in My Mind”, and “Rainy Day Man”. Of course, the title to the song “Something in the Way She Moves” inspired the opening line for George Harrison’s “Something” on the Abbey Road album. “Carolina in My Mind” featured McCartney on bass and Harrison on backing vocals. In the 1970s, Taylor had problems in obtaining licensing rights from Apple, so in 1976 he resolved the issue by re-recording “Something in the Way She Moves” and “Carolina in My Mind” for his Greatest Hits album.
On every track on this debut album with Apple, Taylor provided lead vocals and acoustic guitar. He wrote every song except “Rainy Day Man”. The album was produced by Apple A&R man Peter Asher, who made an ironic error. Taylor recorded an early version of “Fire and Rain” for the debut album, the song that would appear on his second album and become his famous signature song. However, Asher decided not to use it for the debut album.
The critical praise for the album generated a buzz, but with Taylor in a hospital for heroin issues, his inability to promote the album made it destined for very poor sales. A highly positive review in Rolling Stone by Jon Landau put forth “This album is the coolest breath of fresh air I’ve inhaled in a good long while. It knocks me out.”
James Taylor is an album that may not have sold well, but it certainly has a history.
In the 2011 book Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY and the Lost Story of 1970 by David Bowne, the genesis of Taylor’s signing to Apple is described:
“In early 1968 Peter Asher introduced Taylor to McCartney and the Apple executives. Only a month before, Taylor had called Asher at his apartment and asked he if would listen to his demo tape of songs. Asher agreed, and eventually Taylor ended up crashing at Asher’s apartment for a few weeks. Taylor said of the quick turn around time, “I was signed before I knew what was happening . It was really a remarkable turn of events. I was this huge Beatles fan and I definitely landed on my feet in a great position.”
In the 2001 biography James Taylor: Long Ago and Faraway: His Life and Music by Timothy White, Paul McCartney is quoted about eagerly giving the go-ahead on Taylor’s album: “I heard his demos – Peter played them for me – and I just heard his voice and his guitar, and I thought he was great. And then Peter brought him around, and he came and played live, so it was like, ‘Wow, he’s great.’ And he’s been having troubles ; Peter explained to me that he just got clean off drugs and was in a slightly difficult time in his life. But he was playing great and he had enough songs for an album. Peter said, ‘I think it’d be good to sign him.’ So I said to the guys [The Beatles] ‘We should sign him.’”
Taylor became friendly enough with The Beatles to drop in and listen to the first playback of “Hey Jude” with them, as well as be right in the studio to witness them working on “Revolution.” The recording of Taylor’s album began in July 1968 with both Taylor and Asher working feverishly on it. They used Trident Studio whenever the Beatles were not using it. McCartney dropped in and played bass on one song, “Carolina in My Mind”, on which George Harrison also provided some uncredited vocals.
In his own words, Taylor said in Timothy White’s biography, “We recorded at Trident Studios between July and October of ’68 and sort of worked around The Beatles who were in there doing The White Album [aka The Beatles]. I would usually be coming into the studio as they were beginning or finishing a session, and so I’d hang around and get to hear a playback of the material, listening to early versions of ‘Hey Jude’ and ‘Rocky Raccoon’. I also heard them covering ‘Revolution’ in the Abbey Road studio.”
When the sessions got underway, Asher and McCartney brought in arranger Richard Hewson who had done magic with a recording of another Apple artist, Mary Hopkin. Hewson crafted her single “Those Were the Days” – an old Russian folk song given lyrics by lyricists Gene and Francesca Raskin – to retain the original Russian texture while at the same time incorporating the nightclub vibe of the new lyrics by the Raskins. Of course, “Those Were the Days” was an international hit single, scoring number one in many countries. The song was covered on this blog in a post entitled “Back When Everyone in Wales Spoke Welsh: Those Were the Days!“. Taylor thought that Hewson’s touches on the album were too far-reaching and intrusive. There was tension between Taylor and Hewson.
The album James Taylor was released in the U.S. on Capitol Records in February 1969 and didn’t make the charts. In the U.K. even the Apple publicity kick resulted in sales of only 8,000 copies. As was the case with other Apple artists, people thought that the label did not try to promote their artists like James Taylor as much as they did works by The Beatles.
While Taylor began the recording of his first album with much enthusiasm and discipline, his personal life took a downturn during the album’s recording. Taylor, who had been treated for heroin addiction two years prior at the famed McLean Hospital in Massachusetts was in an odd position in London in that he was able to buy heroin with no problems from certified addicts who were registered with London’s maintenance treatment program. His unraveling began halfway through the recording of the album.
In the British magazine Disc and Music Echo, Asher was quoted as saying:
“When I joined Apple the idea was that it would be different from the other companies in the record business. Its policy was to help people and be generous. I didn’t mean I actually had a tremendous amount of freedom; I was always in danger of one Beatle saying, ‘Yes, that’s a great idea, go ahead,’ and then another coming in and saying he didn’t know anything about it. But it did mean it was a nice company to work for. Now all that’s changed. There’s a new concentrative policy from what I can see and it’s lost a great deal in original feeling.”
The changes at Apple Records with the arrival of Allen Klein in addition to the very poor performance of Taylor’s debut album meant that the young American wished to leave the British label. The American was dropped from the label. Peter Asher, sensing the shake-up at the label, left Apple Records shortly after the release of James Taylor and intended on both managing Taylor and producing his album with the new record company.
In White’s book, McCartney described the departure of Taylor and Asher. ‘So James Taylor came, ‘McCartney recalled of their meeting, ‘and he and Peter said, ‘We don’t want to stay on the label. We like you, we like the guys, but we don’t like this Klein guy and we don’t like what’s going to happen.’”
Bob Spitz wrote in his 2005 book The Beatles: The Biography, “Peter Brown was ordered to oust Peter Asher as well. Since the days of Paul’s residency at his parents’ house, Peter had made quite a name for himself, first as half of the hit-making duo Peter and Gordon, then more recently developing talent as Apple chief A&R man. After producing James Taylor’s debut, Asher was in great demand, with a dozen acts vying for his services. But to Allen Klein, this power was intimidating. Asher, who went on to become one of the most successful producers in the music business, refused to give Klein the satisfaction of sacking him, and resigned.”
Of course, Peter Asher is famous in Beatles’ lore outside of his subsequent job at Apple Records. He was the Peter in the famed duo Peter and Gordon, who made history as the first artists other than The Beatles to score a number one hit in the U.S. with a Lennon/McCartney song. Paul gave Peter “A World Without Love”, which sat atop the Billboard Hot 100 for one week beginning on June 27, 1964. The duo had ten Top 40 songs in the U.S. between 1964 and 1967, including the top ten songs “I Go to Pieces” (# 9) and “Godiva” (#6). As is well known, Paul McCartney dated Peter’s sister, famed model Jane Asher, for a few years and actually lived in a third floor apartment in the London home of the Asher family. Paul regularly gave Peter Lennon/McCartney songs that The Beatles decided not to record. The joke in the entertainment industry in 1964 was that Paul finally paid some rent to the Asher family by giving Peter & Gordon their first worldwide hit record. In 2019 Peter Asher published his own personal remembrances pf The Beatles in a book called The Beatles from A to Zed: An Alphabetic Mystery Tour.
To say that James Taylor found immense success and fortune after leaving the Apple label is an understatement. His hit songs and top-selling albums speak for themselves. Between September 1970 and March 1981, he scored 14 singles in the Top 40 portion of the Billboard Hot 100, which included one number one hit and four Top Five hits. His first single to chart was an updated version of “Fire and Rain”, which was first recorded for the debut album with Apple but set aside by Peter Asher. The second version, also produced by Asher, shot about to number three on the charts and became Taylor’s signature song. His next single to chart, from the 1971 album Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon, was “You’ve Got a Friend”, which hit number one on July 31, 1971 and stayed on top for a week. The song was given to Taylor by his good friend Carole King, who ironically was recording her famous debut album Tapestry with producer Lou Adler in a studio practically next to where Taylor and Asher were recording their album. “You’ve Got a Friend” was included on Tapestry while the Taylor version was released as a single. While King gave the song to Taylor for his album, she reaped the benefit of having another song she wrote top the charts in less than two months as the first single released from Tapestry, a double-sided hit of “It’s Too Late” and “I Feel the Earth Move”, had sole possession of the top slot on the charts for five weeks beginning on June 19, 1971. Tapestry was the best-selling album of all-time until it was passed out by Michael Jackson’s Thriller in December 1983 as the latter sold an amazing 32 million albums in 13 months after its November 30, 1982 release. The intersection of Carole King and The Beatles was covered on this blog in the post “‘Chains’: A BEAUTIFUL song by The Beatles”
In 1974 Taylor and wife Carly Simon recorded a duet version of the American folk song “Mockingbird” which climbed to number five on the charts. In 1975 Taylor recorded his own rendition “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)”, the 1964 Marvin Gaye hit written by the famed Motown songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, which reached number five. Taylor also scored a number four hit in 1977 with a cover of the 1959 Jimmy Jones classic “Handy Man”. Also in 1977 his own song “Your Smiling Face” hit number 20.
A special event took place when in 1977 when Taylor joined forces with Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon to share lead vocals on “(What A) Wonderful World”, the 1960 hit written and recorded by Sam Cooke that was also an international hit for Herman’s Hermits in 1965. This rendition by the one-time all-star trio reached number 17 on the Billboard Hot 100, but also topped the Billboard Adult Contemporary Chart for five weeks. Taylor, Garfunkel and Simon performed the song on Saturday Night Live and it took off from there.
In the summer of 1979, Taylor once again covered a song penned by Carole King when he had a minor hit on the charts with “Up on the Roof”, the song written by King and then husband Gerry Goffin and recorded by The Drifters who had a number four hit with it in 1962. Taylor’s last Top 40 hit was “Her Town Too” from in March 1981 which was co-written by Taylor and J.D. Souther, who shared vocals on the track. It was released under “James Taylor and J.D. Souther”. Souther has an uncanny knack for success while collaborating with big name artists. For instance, he co-wrote three of the five number one hits by The Eagles; with Don Henley and Glenn Frey, Souther co-wrote the Eagles’ number one hits “Best of My Love”, “New Kid in Town”, and “Heartache Tonight”.
Some 52 years after the release of his self-titled debut album on the Apple Records label, James Taylor is still selling out major arenas on his summer concert tours. The 2020 tour kicks off on May 16 at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas.