Stories abounded when a powerhouse lineup of Sheryl Crow, Bonnie Raitt, Paul Simon, Jackson Browne, David Crosby, The Dixie Chicks, Dr. John and Taj Mahal kicked off Grammy week by honoring the 57-year-old Taylor as MusiCares Person of the Year on Monday night.
Crow was 12 when she saw Taylor at her first concert.
"It was the first time ever I heard 16,000 people sing in unison," she told 2,200 people at the Los Angeles Convention Center. "It was the first time I ever smelled pot and I knew I wanted to be a musician. This is for you, James. You changed my life."
Then she, Browne and Crosby launched into "Mexico," highlighted by a standout horn section.
Sting first saw Taylor as a 19-year-old in Newcastle, England, in 1971.
"I'm a budding songwriter. At least I think I am," the former Police frontman recalled. "I want to see what all the fuss is about. Within four bars, I realize he's a virtuoso of the guitar. He starts to sing in this soft, rich baritone. I think, 'I have to change my career.' I'll become a bass player in a punk band."
Springsteen walked out with no introduction, hailing the North Carolina-raised Taylor as "an authentic Southern voice."
India Arie showed off her fondness for Taylor by carrying onstage a purse with his black-and-white picture on it. Alison Krauss sang "Carolina In My Mind," The Dixie Chicks harmonized on "Shower the People," and Simon opened the show with an acoustic version of "Sweet Baby James."
Raitt recalled being a college student in Massachusetts and playing shows with Taylor.
"He used to let me open for him and he tuned my guitar," she said before singing "Rainy Day Man."
With companion Nicole Kidman keeping time in the audience, Keith Urban played a driving guitar version of "Country Road."
"Everyone has been telling these great James Taylor stories, and nothing for me says it better than this song," Carole King said, launching into "You've Got a Friend."
Taylor joined her at the piano and they performed a duet on the final chorus of the song that was an individual hit for both of them.
"I can't thank you enough for showing up. It's not the same without you," Taylor said. "It's strange to be at an event like this and still be alive. It's very moving, very terrifying and very wonderful to hear these songs done live."
It was a working evening for Taylor, who joined his band for "Copperline" and "Shed a Little Light."
Taylor's brother, Livingston, sang backup on "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)" while Taylor's twin 4-year-old sons, Rufus and Henry, jumped up and down to the music and the crowd clapped along.
Taylor returned for an encore of his classic "Fire and Rain."