James Taylor began achieving success in the 1970s, both for the songs that he wrote himself and the covers he performed of famous classics. Some of his most notable hits include “Fire and Rain,” “You’ve Got a Friend,” “Handy Man,” “Country Road,” “Mockingbird” (with Carly Simon), “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)” and “It’s Growing.” He had a number of other classics as well, such as “Night Owl,” “Something in the Way She Moves,” and “Highway Song.”
While he’s recorded dozens of songs while accompanying himself on guitar, the true trademark of every James Taylor number is in the vocal quality that he manages to maintain on a consistent basis. His tessitura, the range in which he operates best, is certainly a rich baritone. But songs such as “Country Road” demonstrate his ability to soar into the tenor range with seamless transition and remarkable pitch accuracy. This vocal quality does well to complement the lyrics of his music. Seen again in “Country Road,” not to mention the song “Gaia,” Taylor often sings of a love for life and the world around us.
Between the content of his lyrics and the style of his vocals, it is clear that James Taylor was in no small way influenced by folk musicians of his time. He has collaborated with other musicians known for their ability to lay down rich vocals over acoustic guitar tracks. The most notable example is Carly Simon, to whom he was married for some time. He also recorded a highly memorable track with Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, a cover of “(What a) Wonderful World.” Apart from his love of nature, Taylor’s music reflected a prodigious love for his fellow man. This can be seen not only in his recording with Simon and Garfunkel, but also in “Shed a Little Light,” an on-the-nose tribute to Martin Luther King released in 1991.
James Taylor’s career has not always been easy on him, but he has a tendency to persevere. He was in a terrible motorcycle crash in 1969 that made it impossible for him to play for a period of a few months. Even so, he kept writing until he had fully recovered. There was another lull in his career after his marriage, until he and his wife, Carly Simon, released their cover of “How Sweet It Is” by Marvin Gaye. This spiked his career for a while, and in 1976 he was able to record an album (In the Pocket) with a number of his friends, such as David Crosby, Bonnie Raitt, Art Garfunkel and Stevie Wonder.
Still performing regularly to this day, James Taylor continues to pay tribute to his favorite recording artists whenever possible. For instance, in 2002 he and Alison Krauss performed “The Boxer” in honor of Paul Simon. In 2004, he performed a cover of “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke. In 2010, he performed “In My Life” by the Beatles at the Academy Awards, in honor of all the artists who had been lost that year. And in 2011, he performed the Taylor Swift number “Fifteen,” also joining the artist in a duet of his first-ever hit, “Fire and Rain.”
While many recording artists long to create hit new singles, James Taylor focuses on his skills as a musician and his never-ending love for music itself. The songs he has written have all been highly successful, but the sheer beauty of his voice is what makes every song he performs a bona fide classic, no matter who originally wrote it.
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