Taylor first learned the cello as a child in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, then switched to the guitar in 1960. His style on that instrument evolved from listening to hymns, carols, and Woody Guthrie, and would later become an easily recognized linchpin of his sound. While attending Milton Academy, a prep school in Massachusetts, Taylor met Danny Kortchmar at Martha’s Vineyard and the two began playing folk music together. After dropping out of school, James formed a band with his brother, Alex, then was committed to McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, due to depression. He believes that this action on his behalf saved his life. He earned a high school diploma while in the asylum, then left and formed a band called The Flying Machine with Kortchmar and Joel O’Brien. The band was signed to Rainy Day Records and released one single, “Brighten Your Night with My Day” (B side: “Night Owl”); the song was not a success.
While living in New York, Taylor became addicted to heroin. One night, after receiving a desperate phone call, his father (Dr. Isaac Taylor) drove to New York and “rescued” him. Later, Taylor wrote a song called “Jump Up Behind Me”, that paid tribute to his father’s help during a time of desperate need. The song also reflects on Taylor’s memories of the long drive from New York back to his home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
In 1968, Taylor moved to London. He was signed to Apple Records after sending a demo tape to Peter Asher (of Peter and Gordon) and released his debut album, James Taylor. The album did not sell very well and Taylor’s addiction worsened. Moving back to the United States, Taylor checked into Austin Riggs Hospital in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, to try to break his drug problem. By 1969, he was well enough to perform live and had a six-night stand at the Troubadour Club in Los Angeles. On July 20, 1969, he performed at the Newport Folk Festival. Shortly after that, he broke both hands in a motorcycle accident on Martha’s Vineyard and was forced to stop playing for several months.
Once recovered, Taylor signed to Warner Bros. Records and moved to California, keeping Asher as his manager and record producer. His second album, Sweet Baby James, was a massive success, buoyed by the single “Fire and Rain”, a song about his experience in an asylum and the suicide of a friend. The success of this single and the album, piqued interest in Taylor’s first album, James Taylor, bringing it and the single “Carolina on My Mind” back onto the charts.
Taylor worked with Dennis Wilson (of The Beach Boys) on a film, Two-Lane Blacktop, but this was unsuccessful at the time. Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon, another hit album, were released in 1972. He won a Grammy Award for his version of Carole King’s “You've Got a Friend”.
In 1972 Taylor returned with One Man Dog and married Carly Simon, another singer-songwriter. His next album, 1974’s Walking Man, was a disappointment but the following one, Gorilla, was a success, partially because of a successful single, a cover version of Marvin Gaye’s “How Sweet It Is (to be Loved by You)”. This was followed by In the Pocket in 1976, and then a Greatest Hits album that included some re-recordings of Apple Records-era material. It became a huge hit and remains Taylor’s best-selling album.
Taylor signed to Columbia Records and released JT in 1977, winning another Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, for “Handy Man”.
After collaborating with Art Garfunkel and briefly working on Broadway, Taylor took a two-year break, reappearing in 1979 with Flag. The album was a success, though there were no hit singles from it. Taylor also performed at the No Nukes concert in Madison Square Garden, then appeared on the album and film from the concert.
Beginning in 1985, once he had recovered from his drug problems, Taylor’s career revived. That's Why I'm Here started a series of studio recordings that, while spaced further apart than his previous records, showed a more consistent level of quality.
He began touring regularly, and was especially popular on the American summer outdoor amphitheatre circuit. His concerts, which continue to this day, feature songs from throughout his career and are marked by the musicianship of his band and backup singers. The 1993 two-disc (LIVE) album captures this well, with a highlight being Arnold McCuller’s descants in the codas of “Shower the People” and “I Will Follow”.
Taylor’s two albums of original material from the 1990s were notably successful: his thirteenth album, New Moon Shine, went platinum in 1991, and he won the coveted Grammy for Best Pop Album in 1998 for Hourglass.
Flanked by two greatest hit releases, the new October Road appeared in 2002 to a receptive audience. It featured a number of quiet but sophisticated instrumental accompaniments and passages, one of which won the corresponding Grammy. In 2004, with his Columbia/Sony record contract having concluded, he released James Taylor: A Christmas Album with distribution through Hallmark Cards; it continued the accompaniment trend.
Always visibly active in environmental and progressive causes, in October 2004 Taylor joined the “Vote for Change” tour, playing a series of concerts in American swing states. These concerts were organized by MoveOn.org with the general goal of mobilizing people to vote for John Kerry and against George W. Bush in that year’s Presidential campaign. Taylor’s appearances were joint performances with The Dixie Chicks.
In 2001 Taylor wed for the third time, marrying Caroline (“Kim”) Smedvig, Director of Public Relations and Marketing for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The couple have twin boys born in 2001.
On April 26, 2003, James Taylor and members of his family (sister Kate and mother Trudy) visited the Chapel Hill Museum for the dedication of the new James Taylor exhibit there. The reception honoring Taylor that day was attended by old and new fans, as well as local people who remembered him as a child. Also in attendence was renowned writer Reynolds Price, with whom Taylor co-wrote the hit song “Copperline”. Taylor, always was the gentleman, greeted and shook hands with almost every one in the crowd.
After the dedication of the James Taylor Exhibit, another ceremony was held at the Dean Dome at UNC-Chapel Hill. This event highlighted the re-dedication of a highway bridge over Morgan Creek, near the site of the Taylor family home.