The Best Of James Taylor

The Best Of James Taylor

Posted 9 Mar 2020
james taylor best of
(Photo by Jack Robinson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

To celebrate the release of James Taylor's American Standard – his first album in five years - let's look back to the legendary singer-songwriter's early days and pick five favourite tracks. We also look at a cover of one of James Taylor's more throwaway tracks by the King himself, Elvis Presley.

1.    Fire and Rain 

Hard to go past this to start with, one of James Taylor's best-known songs and his first big hit. The first single from his second album, 1970s Sweet Baby James, it helped establish what would be known as the West Coast sound in the 70s. Type-cast as "laid back", Taylor, like Jackson Browne to come, was actually a brooding, highly sensitive singer-songwriter. Indeed "Fire and Rain" recounted his troubles with depression – for which he was hospitalised at length in the mid-60s – and drug addiction – he was already a long-time heroin addict at this point – as well as a friend's suicide. Not much "laid back" back about any of that. Significantly, Carole King played piano on the track, and was particularly touched by the line "I've seen lonely times when I could not find a friend." Here is a live version from 1970. 

2.    You've Got A Friend 

Inspired by that line in "Fire and Rain", and gifted to Taylor by Carole King, "You've Got A Friend" became the #1 hit single from Taylor's third album Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon while simultaneously being the cornerstone of King's massive Tapestry album. Taylor's version features his then-girlfriend Joni Mitchell on backing vocals. Check also this nice little clip of Peter Asher talking about the song and both recordings, and how James Taylor really kick-started the legendary songwriter's career as a performer and recording artist.

3.    Something In The Way She Moves 

From Taylor's self-titled 1968 debut, a notable flop of an album, despite being released on the Beatles' Apple label, and recorded at Abbey Road in the studio next to where the Beatles were at the same time working on the White Album. The sweetness in Taylor's voice and his melodicism reveals what the Beatles saw in him and why they signed him; George Harrison was taken enough to borrow the title of this track for a song of his own. (Ironically, Taylor meant for the song to be called "I Feel Fine" – after a line in the chorus – but didn't want the song to be confused with the Beatles song of that name!) Harrison sung backing vocals and Paul McCartney played bass on another track on the album, "Carolina On My Mind", and the album was produced by Apple's Peter Asher, who would accompany Taylor when he left Apple and moved back to the US. Asher would become Taylor's manager and also produce his next few albums.

4.    Sweet Baby James  

The title track of Taylor's second album – his first for Warner Records – is the song that Taylor believes to be his best. Written about his young nephew, who was named after him, the song is a lullaby but it also expresses what music means to Taylor. Assumedly Taylor has synesthesia - he mentions the colours; "Deep greens and blues are the colours I choose" - he associates with the music he makes.

5.    Rock'n'Roll Is Music Now 

A relatively obscure track from Taylor's unsuccessful 1974 album Walking Man, this is notable for the appearance of his old boss at Apple, Paul (and Linda) McCartney on backing vocals, and for its lyrical content, which bemoans the appropriation of rock'n'roll by money men: "He comes for your gold / Watch out for your soul".

6.    Steamroller 

Another song from his Sweet Baby James album, Taylor claims he wrote this years earlier, as something of a piss-take of the white boy blues phenomena of the time. You can hear him explain it in the introduction to this BBC performance from 1970. Not in a million years could he have thought the song would be singled out by the man who did more than anyone in regards to bringing the blues to a white audience.

And Elvis's cover...

Elvis released his version of "Steamroller" as "Steamroller Blues" in 1973. It was a curious occurrence; Elvis's version was probably the bluesiest track he ever recorded. It was atypical, even for a man who could sing anything. Was he likewise mocking the white-blues phenomena, as James Taylor was when he wrote it? Elvis was no dummy and clearly had a sense of humour, but I guess we'll never know. Regardless, it's a powerful recording, and a choice that was in keeping with the willingness Presley showed from the late 1960s onwards to record material by new songwriters. James Taylor was the latest in a line that had already included Paul Simon, Kris Kristofferson and Tony Joe White.  

Listen to James Taylor on Spotify

Listen to James Taylor on Apple Music  

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