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James Taylor on career, Kennedy Center Honors

This piece originally aired Dec. 5, 2016.

Five-time Grammy-winner James Taylor has sold more than 100 million records in his career. But his first number one album came just last year.

Away from the bright lights and crowded arenas, Taylor spends most days in the serenity of the Berkshires. Most of the songs for his latest album, “Before This World,” were recorded in his home studio. 

It’s his first collection in 13 years. “Yeah, it has been a long time,” he said.

The music was always there; Taylor only needed the time to reach it. “It takes a couple of days of empty time before ideas start to show up.”

And what is “empty time”?

“Well, there used to be this thing called boredom,” he laughed. “And it pretty much has been eradicated. It doesn’t exist anymore. But it turned out that a lot of things got done when you were bored. Growing up in North Carolina, you know, we had a lot of empty time. You see yourself as one thing or another. You sort of pretend that you were a songwriter, and then it maybe turned out you were.” 

Back when he was 19, Taylor was in New York with a band called the Flying Machine, “for lack of a better name. Turned out there was another Flying Machine that was doing better than we were. So this Flying Machine crashed and burned. I went back down to North Carolina to lick my wounds. I had a heroin habit. I weighed about 89 pounds and was like a deck chair in a high wind.

“My dad came -- he heard my voice on the phone, he said, ‘You stay there, James. I’ll kinda come getcha.’ And he and my brother, Hugh, drove up the coast, moved all my meager belongings back down to North Carolina. I sat around there for six months.” 

He then talked his folks into buying him a ticket to visit a friend in London, where he became the first artist to sign with the Beatles’ label. “It was an amazing stroke of good luck. And for all its rough edges and faults, it got that first album recorded. It got me noticed a little bit.”

“The earliest reviews of your work were noteworthy,” said O’Donnell. “You were described as the ‘first superstar of the ‘70s.’  Your music was called ‘the coolest breath of fresh air.’”  

“I don’t know who comes up with this stuff!”

Warner Brothers

Taylor’s second album, “Sweet Baby James,” delivered his first Top 10 hit, “Fire and Rain.”

“Oh, I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain.
I’ve seen lonely days when I just can’t find a friend…”

The next year he landed on the cover of Time magazine as the face of “new rock.”

“That really got people’s attention, particularly my family and my friends, the culture at large,” Taylor said. “Time magazine was still a really big deal. So yeah, that was a big change.”

“One of the writers described your look as a ‘cowboy Jesus,’” O’Donnell laughed.

“Oh, these people are more creative that I! ... I don’t know, I thought I was trying to look like George Harrison.”

Nearly all of Taylor’s songs are personal and heartfelt reflections, but his first and only single to top Billboard’s Hot 100 -- “You’ve Got a Friend” -- was written by his friend, Carole King.

In tribute to Taylor, King said, “He showed me the confidence. He completely mentored me as a performer.”

“That’s a lovely thing to say,” Taylor said. “Carole, of course, was a huge talent. And she’s genuine. She’s very genuine.”

What does the Kennedy Center Honor mean to Taylor? “I’ve been part of this event so many times in the past; I often did wonder whether or not they’d ever tap me for it. Remember me? ‘You’ve Got a Friend’?” he laughed.

The recipients of the 39th annual Kennedy Center Honors: Joe Walsh, Don Henley, and Timothy B. Schmidt of the rock band The Eagles; actor Al Pacino; gospel and blue singer Mavis Staples; Argentine pianist Martha Argerich; and singer-songwriter James Taylor. Getty Images

“Of course. I’m honored. I’m very glad as it turns out that I get to do it in the company of my favorite president, Barack Obama. 

“People in general, when they hear about the Kennedy Center Honors, that really seems to get people’s attention. So I think it has given me a certain amount of cred.”

This year’s Kennedy Center Honors will be broadcast by CBS on Tuesday, December 27. 

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