James Taylor definitely remembers his personal and musical journey across the past five decades, and feels gratified and vindicated to be a Kennedy Center honoree, but when it comes to the flowery, immortal phrases used to describe the singer-songwriter in terms of history, words seem hard to find for the heartfelt man of memorable verse. He shares thoughts on how being bored has brought prolific results, being the first prodigy signed by Apple records, and why his recognition as a Kennedy Center honor recipient seems to have taken so long in the setting he loves with Norah O'Donnell of “CBS This Morning” for Dec. 5, and had moments in which words failed.
Strolling through his property in his beloved Berkshires, inspiration seems to surround the legendary singer-songwriter who brought the imagery of “The Berkshires seemed dreamlike on account of that frosting” to tangible life in “Sweet Baby James,” describing another December, “covered with snow.” James Taylor candidly confesses, though, that it was a blank time in his memory that sparked a new beginning. Coming off a stint in New York with a band called the Flying Machine, only to find out that there was another Flying Machine “that was doing better than we were,” the gifted but wayward son had only to be heard on the phone by his dad, Dean of the University of North Carolina Medical School, to speak that he was in trouble. “I had a heroin habit,” James admits, “I weighed 89 pounds, and was like a deck chair in the wind.”
The remedy to bring James Taylor back to himself, back to life, back to music, was simple solitude. After being retrieved and rescued by his father and brother, Hugh, the North Carolina winds and wistful times of earlier life brought healing “empty time” which the artist says is merely “this thing called boredom” which has “mostly been eradicated” now, and not for the good. Then, as now, in making his latest acclaimed return to all new compositions with “Before This World,” James Taylor needs time to “reach” the songs, and in the empty time, “they start to show up.” He shrugs off critical commentary that came exponentially quickly with the release of “Sweet Baby James,” the album, in February, 1970, and praise that the unassuming nor'easter by roots was “the cowboy Jesus” or “The Face of New Rock,” as proclaimed on the cover of Time magazine, despite appreciating how that exposure brought him to “the culture at large.” “I was trying to look like George Harrison,” he quips. That influence is very natural, considering that it was when he made a visit to London, per his parents’ donation of the ticket, to see a friend, and got the attention of Paul McCartney and the Beatles, who swiftly signed him to their fledgling label, Apple, and fostered the recording of his first album, that “got me noticed a little bit.” The endorsement of the gentlemen from Liverpool is one for which James Taylor still holds humble gratitude, even 100 million records, and five Grammys later.
Gaining the distinct attention of Barack Obama, “my favorite president,” as complimented by the artist, and the entire country, is an accolade that James Taylor seems to think took a very long time, in light of the fact that “I've been part of this so many times in the past,” as performer, but never subject, “I often did wonder whether they'd ever tap me for it,” as he feigns raising a hand with “Remember me? “You've Got a Friend,” the folk rock icon’s only number one hit, written by steadfast friend, Carol King, whom James Taylor calls “so genuine.”
James Taylor will be joined in receiving recognition by gospel and soul great, Mavis Staples, and the Eagles, along with Argentine pianist, Martha Argerich, in music. Better late than never, he feels glad to be there, and can definitely clear another slot in his engagement roster. The televised special for the honorees airs Dec. 27 on CBS.