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Wednesday, December 28, 2016

James Taylor

I watched the Kennedy Center Honors last night, one of my favorite programs of the year, and this year James Taylor was honored. Anyone over fifty grew up with James Taylor, his unearthly angelic voice singing what has come to be derisively called "Lite-FM" or soft-rock, but he has been incredibly successful doing so, selling over 100 million records.

Taylor, in a way, was an extension of the 1950s, when white performers interpreted roots music in a more palatable and consumer-friendly way. For example, he recorded a blues song, "Steamroller," reminiscent of old style blues, but there's no way this soft-spoken man could get across the blues the way the old-timers did. When he covered other artists, such as with "Handy Man" and "How Sweet It Is (to Be Loved by You)" there was an infusion of white bread into them.

But Taylor still has strong gifts. And in something of a contradiction, the man who made these delicate songs was a man facing a lot of demons, notably a heroine addiction. It's hard to listen to a beautiful song like "Sweet Baby James" and imagine a man with any problems. But if you listen hard to his greatest song, "Fire and Rain," you can hear the ache. It was written about a friend who had committed suicide, and was during one of his periods of addiction:

"Won't you look down upon me, Jesus
 You've got to help me make a stand
You've just got to see me through another day
My body's aching and my time is at hand
I won't make it any other way."

If Taylor had only written this song, his place in the pantheon would be secure, but he wrote many others, including "Shower the People," "Carolina in My Mind," and "Your Smiling Face," a perfect piece of inoffensive pop.

Interestingly, Taylor was discovered by Peter Asher, who brought him to the attention of the Beatles, who made him the first non-Brit to be recorded by Apple Records. He had the look--the long-hair, the soulful look, and the voice of an angel. Taylor doesn't have much hair now, but he still tours and has turned his life around, bringing happiness to millions. There's a lot to be said for that.

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