By Greg Cahill
In 1970, a scraggly, anti-heroic young man from North Carolina by way of Massachusetts began presenting a biting and dark-yet-comforting new sound, a kind never heard before. Within a year of his first major album, Sweet Baby James, the rock icons of the 1960s were gone: the Beatles, Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison. Maturing Baby Boomers, weary of of the bombast and protest, sought a new soundtrack for their lives—and they found it in “Fire and Rain” and “You’ve Got a Friend,” songs that bred a new Southern California-fed branch of acoustic-pop music and culture. A gawky, insecure singer-songwriter named James Taylor was its reluctant leader.
Author Mark Ribowsky (who has written about Lynyrd Skynyrd, Otis Redding, and Phil Spector) traces Taylor’s journey in the new biography Sweet Dreams and Flying Machines: The Life and Music of James Taylor (Chicago Review Press).
The summer of ’69 loomed as a pivotal time for rock-and- rock social climbers like James Taylor, and though he was admittedly on the lower end of the food chain, [producer Peter] Asher could pitch him as the next big thing about to burst. And the most critical gig he would ever play came when Asher got him booked for a six-night engagement July 7–13 at the Mecca of L.A. rock and self-absorption: the Troubadour.
Nothing, not even a place at Woodstock (had its promoters even heard of James Taylor), could have served Taylor’s interests better than the “Troub,” as it was called in the shorthand of the L.A. rock colony. Opened in 1957 on La Cienega Boulevard before moving to West Hollywood in ’61, it was owned by a ubiquitous figure, Doug Weston, a six-foot- six lamppost with long hair before it became fashionable.
Weston literally made his name synonymous with the place, spelling out “Doug Weston’s Troubadour” in big letters on the long black marquee along the storefront, a landmark that still stands unchanged, and reveled in being called “the godfather,” first of the Southern California folk movement then its regional singer-songwriter movement. Weston, says J. D. Souther, was “totally self-absorbed” and considered himself “the epicenter of music,” and indeed careers were made by a good buzz at the Troub.
The roster of bands, singers, and comics who had earned regular gigs includes Lenny Bruce, the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, the Doors, Judy Collins, Bill Cosby, Arlo Guthrie, Richie Havens, Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, Mort Sahl, Nina Simone, and . . . everybody. Robert Hilburn, the sage L.A. Times music writer, was a regular at the Troubadour and today likens the place and the crowd it gathered to a “spaceship that landed on Earth” carrying an entirely new species, one that by the late ’60s was almost officially branded as the singer-songwriter tribe.
Of those formative days, he says, “It was a new discovery as exciting as rock and roll was when it began.”
The Eagles—or, as they kept trying to tell people, vainly, just Eagles—had met each other at the Troub bar, and would later coin another metaphor for the place—it was, they sang, “The Sad Cafe.” Taylor probably thought so, too. He never would really bond with the crowd of musicians and hustlers at the bar—all of whom had to pay the cover charge to get in, famous or not, per Weston’s anti-“aristocracy” decree.
As Carole King recalled of Taylor, “He wasn’t outgoing then, he was very, very shy, and he lived more internally than he does now.”
To [guitarist] Danny Kortchmar, he hadn’t changed a bit since the Village. “As the expression goes, he’s an interesting bunch of guys. He can be the complete opposite today of what he was yesterday. He is very shy, but he also can be very outgoing. He’s an outstanding performer even though he doesn’t try too hard to be one.”
People didn’t really know what he was, but they would know he was there, assimilating, using that affected Southern gentleman accent he could turn on and off and suddenly become a Southern California folk rocker. It all made for intrigue, though at this stage with limited buzz, thanks to Asher. But the best Asher could do by way of pimping the Troub gig was the least the media gave him. The only advance word came in a blurb the day of the concert in the Los Angeles Times on page C12, which if one blinked, would miss it:
James Taylor Opens: Singer James Taylor, who records for the Beatles record company, the Apple label, opens a week’s stay at the Troubadour tonight, his first Los Angeles appearance. Sharing the bill is the Sunshine Company, a folk-rock group making its fourth appearance at the club.
It’s a matter of conjecture in fact how much of the audience for the run came to see Taylor or the Sunshine Company, whom Hilburn recalled as “a pleasant, but unstirring group.” For both acts, as with everyone else, the gig meant they had to take almost no pay—a hard bargain Weston could drive, further requiring all acts to play the intimate, five-hundred-seat club on the same terms, a headlock some would later pay to get out of.
Weston himself was almost always drunk and stoned, but he had an ear for talent up until his death in 1999. “The people who play our club are sensitive artists who have something to say about our times. They are modern-day troubadours,” Weston once said, the term given new life by the club’s imprimatur. Taylor’s path there had surely been greased by a recent gig by Neil Young, which convinced Weston “there was an avenue that other people would identify with. . . . When Peter brought me James, I could hear him moving in that direction. People were sick of music that looked outwards all the time. They wanted to hear what was on the inside, too.”
Taylor rose to the occasion. In that intimate room you could tell who had real talent, or so Weston believed. You would know who was a big fucking deal. And this was one of those times. Harvey Kubernik, then a rock scribe, later a producer in L.A., recalls Taylor, accompanied only by a drummer and a bass, was “very cool, very nervous. He came out, sat on a stool, and played acoustic guitar. He was doing ‘Fire and Rain’ before it was recorded and it was hypnotic. You knew he had that thing. It’s like porn; you can’t define it, but you know what it is.”
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Robert Hilburn knew.
Recalling that he had been cool to Taylor’s Apple album, on which his voice was “a cross between Dylan and Jose Feliciano,” Hilburn revised his opinion. Tracing Taylor to the “country-folk-blues tradition,” he wrote in his review that he “showed enough promise Tuesday to warrant close attention,” though only on his own songs, the “borrowed” numbers like “A Little Help from My Friends” and “Hallelujah, I Love Her So,” he said, “not overly impressive.”
Of the Taylor compositions—the others including “Carolina in My Mind,” “Knocking ’Round the Zoo,” “Steamroller,” “Sunny Skies,” “Country Road”—they “capture the warmth and memories of familiar places” and were “noteworthy.”
Even a somewhat restrained rave like this was of inestimable value to a young Turk like Taylor, and helped fill the room the rest of the week. David Crosby, despite his own far more ascended standing at the time, says that when he saw Taylor play during the gig, “the first thing I thought was, ‘Gee, I wish I could do that.’ When people like that show up and hit the stream, they’d make an eddy, that’s for damn sure.”
Taylor, who earned his praise, couldn’t seem to avoid being in the right place at the right time. He was up in the big league now, he had Joni Mitchell, and men were about to walk on the moon.
The wonder of being twenty-one, diffident, calculating, and James Taylor seemed infinite.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Ribowsky. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.
Published by Chicago Review Press Incorporated, 814 North Franklin St., Chicago, Illinois 60610