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Born: March 12, 1948
Biography: When people use the term "singer/songwriter" (often modified by the word "sensitive") in praise or in criticism, they're thinking of James Taylor. In the early '70s, when he appeared with his introspective songs, acoustic guitar, and calm, understated singing style, he mirrored a generation's emotional exhaustion after tumultuous times. Just as Bing Crosby's reassuring voice brought the country out of the Depression and through World War II, Taylor's eased the transition from '60s activism and its attendant frustrations into the less political, more inward-looking '70s. He was rewarded with a series of hit albums and singles (surprisingly, many of the latter were covers of old songs rather than his own compositions), and he managed to survive his initial fame to achieve lasting popularity. He continued to tour successfully for decades, and, starting with his 1970 breakthrough Sweet Baby James, all but one of his regular album releases for the rest of the century went gold or platinum, while his 1976 Greatest Hits album achieved a diamond certification reflecting sales of more than ten million copies.
Taylor was the son of Dr. Isaac and Gertrude Taylor. His three brothers Alex (1947-1993), Livingston, and Hugh -- and his sister Kate -- all became musicians and recorded albums of their own. In 1951, Dr. Taylor was appointed dean of the medical school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the family moved from New England to the South. Taylor studied cello as a child, but first took up the guitar in 1960. In 1963, he began attending Milton Academy, a prep school in Massachusetts. That summer, he met fellow guitarist Danny "Kootch" Kortchmar while staying on Martha's Vineyard, and the two formed a folk duo. Taylor dropped out of school at 16 and formed a band with his brother Alex. Having moved to New York, he suffered from depression and checked himself into McLean Psychiatric Hospital in Massachusetts, a stay that would inspire some of his early songs. While there, he earned a high-school diploma.
Upon release, he returned to New York in 1966 and formed a new group, the Flying Machine, with Kortchmar and Joel O'Brien. The band played in Greenwich Village and was signed to a fledgling record label, Rainy Day Records (the name taken from Taylor's song "Rainy Day Man"). It released one single, "Brighten Your Night with My Day"/"Night Owl," both songs written by Taylor. The record was unsuccessful, and the band broke up in the spring of 1967.
By 1968, Taylor had become addicted to heroin. In an attempt to overcome his addiction, he moved to London, where he submitted a demo tape to Peter Asher, former member of Peter & Gordon, then working for the Beatles' Apple Records label. As a result, Taylor was signed to Apple and recorded his debut solo album, James Taylor, released in the U.K. in December 1968 and in the U.S. in February 1969. Initially, it received little attention. A more pressing concern, however, was that Taylor had not been able to kick heroin. As a result, he returned to the U.S. and checked into the Austin Riggs Hospital in Massachusetts. By July 1969, he had recovered sufficiently to make his solo debut at the Troubadour nightclub in Los Angeles, but soon after he was in a motorcycle accident and broke both of his hands, which put him out of commission for several months.
Freed of his Apple Records contract, Taylor signed to Warner Bros., moved to California, and, retaining Asher as his manager and producer, recorded his second album, Sweet Baby James. It was released in February 1970 and became a major success during the course of the year, spurred by the single "Fire and Rain," a song that reflected on his experiences in mental institutions, which peaked in the Top Five in October, the same month that Sweet Baby James achieved the same status on the LP charts. With that, interest in Taylor's first album was re-stimulated, and it belatedly reached the charts along with the single "Carolina on My Mind," as did James Taylor & the Original Flying Machine: 1967, a short collection of unfinished recordings made by his '60s band. Sweet Baby James then spawned a second hit single, "Country Road," which peaked in the Top 40 in March 1971. The same month, Taylor appeared on the cover of Time magazine, touted as the founder and leading proponent of the "singer/songwriter" trend in popular music.
Meanwhile, Taylor acted in a feature film, Two-Lane Blacktop, co-starring with the Beach Boys' Dennis Wilson. It was not successful, and Taylor didn't pursue an acting career, though the movie has been well-reviewed since then. Taylor also worked on a new album, returning to record stores in April 1971 with Mud Slide Slim & the Blue Horizon. As he toured the U.S., the LP spent the summer in the Top Ten, eventually peaking just below the top of the charts, paced by its first single, "You've Got a Friend," written by Carole King, which hit number one in July and went gold. A second single, "Long Ago and Far Away," reached the Top 40, and the album eventually sold more than two million copies. On March 14, 1972, Taylor won the 1971 Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male, for "You've Got a Friend." [Read more via AllMusic here]