James Taylor was born James Vernon Taylor on March 12, 1948 to a well-to-do family in Boston, Massachusetts. His father was a resident physician of a hospital where he was born, while his mother was an aspiring opera singer. Taylor was the second of five children, all of whom became professional musicians as well. As his family was musically-inclined, Taylor had been once trained on playing the cello but during his teens he switched to guitar.
He attended a prep boarding school in Massachusetts where he met an aspiring musician Danny Kortchmar. The two later shared a common bond which was music, and began to listen to folk and blues music and play them together. It was Kortchmar who noticed Taylor’s talent and hit-making potential. Kortchmar would later become a producer who would also work with Taylor’s own recordings.
Taylor eventually dropped out of school when he was 16. He later joined his brother Alex’s band The Corsayers. The group cut a few singles, including James’ own composition “Cha Cha Blues.” He went back to the prep school to complete his education there.
By then depression overtook him terribly, and because of this his grades suffered considerably. He also began to sleep more than normal. This led him to check in at a psychiatric hospital in Massachusetts in 1965. A year later he left the hospital, and helped form a band called The Flying Machine. During his period with the band, Taylor had begun using drugs, particularly heroin. When his drug addiction and depression escalated, his father came to the rescue, putting him into a six-month treatment.
After he recovered for the time being, Taylor decided to disband the Flying Machine and then flew out to London, England in late 1967. It was where the Beatles’ Paul McCartney discovered Taylor’s amazing talent. Eventually, Taylor signed to the Beatles’ Apple Records, becoming the first non-British act in the label’s stable of artists. In 1968, he released his self-titled debut album on Apple label; the album was well-received by critics but was a relative flop. One of album’s tracks is titled “Something in the Way She Moves,” a phrase that Beatle George Harrison would use as an opening line in his own song “Something.”
Taylor returned to the US in 1969. Around that time, he went back to his habit of using drugs. When his struggles with addiction worsened, he finally committed himself into a hospital in New York, and then moved to a psychiatric facility in Massachusetts. After overcoming his addiction, Taylor moved to California where he signed with the Warner Brothers label and recorded his second album. The result was the LP Sweet Baby James (1970), which finally hit goldmine — or in this case, platinum.
Sweet Baby James sent Taylor into a commercial breakthrough, buoyed up by hit single “Fire and Rain” which peaked at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1970. “Fire and Rain” is now considered one of Taylor’s masterpieces and most well-loved songs. Sweet Baby James also went to #3 on the Billboard 200 album chart.
He followed this up with Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon in 1971. Its single “You’ve Got a Friend” was written by Carole King (she would release her own version of the song). It went to #1 on both pop and adult contemporary singles chart, and won him his first Grammy the following year.
Taylor’s sixth album Gorilla was released in 1975. It became one his Top 10 hit albums on the Billboard 200 that year, peaking at #6. Its single was Taylor’s cover of Marvin Gaye’s “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)”, which rose to the Top 10 of the Hot 100 singles chart at #5.
After some few moderately successful singles, Taylor released his first Greatest Hitscompilation in November 1976. It was a staggering success, having sold 11 million copies in the US alone and receiving a “diamond” certification (an album that has sold more than 10 million copies receives such certification).
In 1977, Taylor released his eighth studio LP JT. It featured his cover of Sparks of Rhythm original “Handyman,” written by one of the group’s members, Jimmy Jones, together with Otis Blackwell. It also gave Taylor his last Top 10 pop hit, peaking at #4.
Over the next few years, Taylor released singles, albums, live recordings and best-of compilations, and even worked on a Broadway production. His reputation as a folk-rock-pop artist who crafts fragile, introspective songs, grew each passing year, and he has somewhat become a music legend in his own right.
Even as the years wore on, he still managed to score gold and platinum albums. One of his later works, 1998’s Hourglass, helped him to win his first Best Pop Album Grammy.
To date, James Taylor has sold 33 million copies, and won five Grammy Awards. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2000.