He tours almost constantly, across the country and around the world. He plays benefits for environmental causes. He does cable and public television specials. Every so often, he cuts another album.
For a star of his magnitude in the galaxy of rock ‘n’ roll heroes, he is surprisingly averse to taking it easy.
Meet James Taylor, working stiff.
“Some places we play a lot and seem to show up there a lot,” Taylor said the other day. “The simple answer is, that’s my work. That’s what I do. It’s what I do best.”
Indeed, J.T. loves his work. And that work is most rewarding when he’s on stage.
“I’m not really a studio musician,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, music is meant to be performed live in front of an audience. That’s where it has its most energy and that’s where reality tests it and puts it in real time and makes it happen and brings it into focus. It makes it a real event.”
Two “real events” are in store here for fans of this personable purveyor of poignant pop. Taylor makes his New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival debut today and will perform Friday night at the UNO Lakefront Arena.
Taylor hit the big time in the early 1970s with million-sellers such as “Fire and Rain” and “You’ve Got a Friend.” Over the years, he continued to pepper the charts with hits while stumbling through the gauntlet of excess that accompanied his success. After bouts with depression and drug and alcohol abuse and the breakup of his marriage to singer Carly Simon, Taylor reached a turning point in Brazil, of all places, a decade ago.
“I had . . . sort of bottomed-out in a drug habit, my marriage with Carly had dissolved, and I had basically had been depressed and lost for a while,” he recalled. “I sort of hit a low spot. I was asked to go down to Rio de Janeiro to play in this festival down there. We put the band together and went down and it was just an amazing response. I played to 300,000 people. They not only knew my music, they knew things about it and were interested in aspects of it that to that point had only interested me.
“To have that kind of validation right about then was really what I needed. It helped get me back on track.”
Now, at 47, Taylor is once again in top form. Married since 1985 to stage actress Kathryn Walker, he is clean and sober and a physical-fitness devotee. Life on the road, once the catalyst for many of his troubles, has become a necessary part of his existence.
“My home and personal life is sometimes sort of bewildering and baffling to me, but my life on the road, touring and performing, it feels like my family,” he said. “The people that I work with, I need to be with them and I need to be in that sort of functional mode of doing that thing.”
His live performances are the stuff of legend among his fans. There are people who would pay good money, time and again, to see him even if he did nothing but come out on stage, take a seat and smile for two hours, but he does a lot more than that. His intense renderings of his repertoire, ranging from introspective readings of the human condition to effectively reworked rock ‘n’ roll standards to flat-out rockers, are interwoven with a disarming stage persona and an understated wit to make his concerts greater than the sum of their parts.
Taylor’s music is so enduring that he can sell out concerts coast to coast, year after year, whether or not he’s touring to promote a new album. In fact, his last studio album, the critically acclaimed “New Moon Shine,” was released in 1991; he is working now on songs for his next album, but it’s a year away.
Taylor rarely gives interviews anymore. But he called last week from North Carolina, where he was visiting a friend in the county where he grew up, to discuss his affinity for New Orleans and his excitement about finally doing Jazz Fest.
He figures he has performed in New Orleans 10 to 12 times and made a few other trips to the city, including an extended stay in the mid-1970s for a recording stint with his brother, Alex, at Allen Toussaint’s Sea-Saint Studio.
“So, I’ve been there and I’ve partied pretty heavy in that town, too,” he said. “There used to be a period of time in my life where I had to watch out not to get swept away in New Orleans.”
The Jazz Fest gig was years in the making.
“I think that we’ve been talking back and forth with the good people there about bringing me down there for a number of years,” he said. “It takes awhile sometimes to bring things off. For instance, at this time last year we were beginning a tour; we were in the middle of rehearsals. I don’t know what we were doing the year before. But it’s taken until now to clear the time.”
He’s happy to be back, he said, because it’s so easy to like New Orleans.
“In a world that seems increasing aligned by the monoculture, when everything seems to be increasingly the same, no matter where you go in the world, New Orleans has a definite unique flavor to it, ” he said. “It doesn’t change. I guess it’s a combination of things: the food, the music, the people. It’s interesting the way it is. It always feels different, as though you’ve arrived in a singular place.”
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Originally published in The Times-Picayune, May 4, 1995.