Cresciuto nella cittadina di Chapel Hill (Carolina del Nord) dove, incoraggiato dalla mamma soprano, fin da bambino studiò violoncello, a partire dal 1960 preferì dedicarsi alla chitarra ispirandosi allo stile di Woody Guthrie. Abbandonò la scuola e formò una band col fratello Alex, ma venne ricoverato in un ospedale psichiatrico per curare una forma di depressione. Riuscì ad ottenere il diploma durante il soggiorno in ospedale, quindi si iscrisse alla Milton Academy dove incontrò Danny Kortchmar, col quale formò il gruppo “The Flying Machine”, che incise un singolo di scarso successo: Brighten Your Night with My Day. Trasferitosi a New York, Taylor divennetossicodipendente da eroina.
La canzone Jump Up Behind Me si riferisce a quel periodo: è infatti un omaggio a suo padre, Isaac, che in seguito ad una disperata telefonata del figlio dovette correre a New York per riportarlo a casa a Chapel Hill. Nel pezzo Taylor lo ringrazia per l’aiuto avuto in un periodo di disperato bisogno e descrive i ricordi del lungo viaggio in automobile verso casa. Nel 1968, durante un soggiorno a Londra, grazie ad un amico che aveva suonato per il duo inglese “Peter&Gordon” riuscì, tramite Peter Asher (parte del duo e fratello di Jane Asher, allora fidanzata di Paul McCartney) ad ottenere un’audizione per la Apple Records dei Beatles. Svoltasi in una piccola stanza della Apple, alla presenza di Peter, Paul McCartney e George Harrison, in quella audizione James scelse di far ascoltare Something in the Way She Moves (che poi ispirò George per la sua Something).
Il brano piacque ai due Beatles e Paul chiese a Peter se volesse produrre James per un album. Peter accettò e iniziarono le registrazioni di James Taylor. Al disco collaborarono anche Paul McCartney e George Harrison. Il disco non ebbe immediato successo. Tornato negli Stati Uniti si fece nuovamente ricoverare in ospedale per porre rimedio alla sua dipendenza dalle droghe, nel frattempo divenuta più forte. Quando le sue condizioni migliorarono, nel 1969, si esibì per sei serate al Troubadour Club di Los Angeles ed il 20 luglio al Newport Folk Festival. Poco tempo dopo ebbe un incidente motociclistico che gli procurò fratture multiple alle mani, impedendogli di suonare per diversi mesi.
Taylor achieved his breakthrough in 1970 with the No. 3 single “Fire and Rain” and had his first No. 1 hit the following year with “You’ve Got a Friend“, a recording ofCarole King‘s classic song. His 1976 Greatest Hits album was certified Diamond and has sold 12 million US copies. Following his 1977 album, JT, he has retained a large audience over the decades. His commercial achievements declined slightly until a resurgence during the late 1990s and 2000s, when he recorded some of his best-selling and most-awarded work (including Hourglass, October Road and Covers).
James Taylor was born at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston on March 12, 1948, where his father, Isaac M. Taylor, was a resident physician. His father was from a well-off family of Southerners of Scottish ancestry. His mother, the former Gertrude Woodard, studied singing with Marie Sundelius at the New England Conservatory of Music and was an aspiring opera singer before the couple’s marriage in 1946. James was the second of five children, the others being Alex (1947–1993), Kate (born 1949), Livingston (born 1950), and Hugh (born 1952).
In 1951, when Taylor was three, his family moved to what was then the countryside of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, when Isaac took a job as an assistant professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. They built a house in the Morgan Creek area off of what is now Morgan Creek Road, which was sparsely populated. James would later say, “Chapel Hill, the Piedmont, the outlying hills, were tranquil, rural, beautiful, but quiet. Thinking of the red soil, the seasons, the way things smelled down there, I feel as though my experience of coming of age there was more a matter of landscape and climate than people.” James attended public primary school in Chapel Hill. Isaac’s career prospered, but he was frequently away from home, on military service at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland or as part of Operation Deep Freeze in Antarctica during 1955–1956. Isaac Taylor later rose to become dean of the UNC School of Medicine from 1964 to 1971. The Taylors spent summers on Martha’s Vineyard beginning in 1953.
James Taylor first learned to play the cello as a child in North Carolina, and switched to the guitar in 1960. His style on that instrument evolved from listening to hymns, carols, and Woody Guthrie, while his technique derived from his bass clef–oriented cello training and from experimenting on his sister Kate’s keyboards: “My style was a finger-picking style that was meant to be like a piano, as if my thumb were my left hand, and my first, second, and third fingers were my right hand.” He began attending Milton Academy, a prep boarding school in Massachusetts in Fall 1961; summering before then with his family on Martha’s Vineyard, he met Danny Kortchmar, an aspiring teenage guitarist from Larchmont, New York. The two began listening to and playing blues and folk music together, and Kortchmar quickly realized that Taylor’s singing had a “natural sense of phrasing, every syllable beautifully in time. I knew James had that thing.” Taylor wrote his first song on guitar at age 14, and continued to learn the instrument effortlessly. By the summer of 1963, he and Kortchmar were playing coffeehouses around the Vineyard, billed as “Jamie & Kootch”.
Taylor faltered during his junior year at Milton, feeling uneasy in the high-pressured college prep environment despite a good scholastic performance. The Milton headmaster would later say, “James was more sensitive and less goal oriented than most students of his day.” He returned home to North Carolina to finish out the semester at Chapel Hill High School. There he joined a band his brother Alex had formed called The Corsayers (later The Fabulous Corsairs), playing electric guitar; in 1964 they cut a single in Raleigh that featured James’s song “Cha Cha Blues” on the B-side. Having lost touch with his former school friends in North Carolina, Taylor returned to Milton for his senior year.
There, Taylor started applying to colleges, but soon descended into depression; his grades collapsed, he slept 20 hours each day, and he felt part of a “life that I [was] unable to lead”. In late 1965 he committed himself to the renowned McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, where he was treated with Thorazine and where the organized days began to give him a sense of time and structure. As theVietnam War escalated, Taylor received a psychological rejection from Selective Service System when he appeared before them with two white-suited McLean assistants and was uncommunicative. Taylor earned a high school diploma in 1966 from the hospital’s associated Arlington School. He would later view his nine-month stay at McLean as “a lifesaver … like a pardon or like a reprieve”, and both his brother Livingston and sister Kate would later be patients and students there as well. As for his mental health struggles, Taylor would think of them as innate, and say: “It’s an inseparable part of my personality that I have these feelings.