James Taylor’s Apple Debut a Triumph Despite Secret Life

James Taylor with ex-wife Carly Simon.

His drug addiction hidden from view, Apple Records could sense the immense talent in a young James Taylor, the first American to sign with the label.

In the recovery business, moving to another location to escape a substance addiction is called a “geographic cure.” I’ve heard people say that it hardly ever works.

James Taylor, battling an addiction to heroin, was probably looking for that geographic cure when he moved to London in 1968. That, and a desire to succeed in the music business.

The young man had a lot to prove. He had come from a well-to-do musical family: his mother was a classically-trained soprano, and siblings Livingston, Alex and Cate were finding varying degrees of success in popular music.

All In the Family

“There’s a mysterious sort of darkness in my family tree,” Taylor confided to Oprah Winfrey during a recent appearance on Oprah’s Master Class. Taylor described his father as a “functional and brilliant alcoholic” and said he had a brother who died from the disease of addiction.

“There’s definitely that gene in my family,” Taylor said. “Whether it’s nature or nurture, we tend to be addicted.”

At the tender age of 15, Taylor made friends with Danny “Kootch” Kortchmar and the two formed a band. However, JT’s musical progress was interrupted two years later when he committed himself into a mental institution for the treatment of depression. When he was released, according to Taylor, “I got involved in junk.”

James Taylor wrote a song in 1966 about his experiences at the psychiatric facility McLean Hospital. Titled “Knocking ‘Round the Zoo,” the song was included on Taylor’s 1968 debut album for Apple Records. Here is a lively three-minute video, published by Toby Walker via YouTube:

Making an Impression at Apple Records
Taylor's hit song was a remembrance of his time in rural North Carolina, when his father headed a medical school there.
Taylor’s hit song was a remembrance of his time in rural North Carolina, where his father headed a medical school there.

When Taylor arrived in London, his friendship with “Kootch” was his ticket to audition for Kortchmar’s buddy Peter Asher, of Peter & Gordon fame. Asher was then an A&R rep for the fledgling Beatles record label.

While the Beatles were still under contract to EMI and Capitol Records, Apple Records had big plans to sign other artists. James Taylor became the first non-British act to be signed by Apple.

Apple Records had big plans to sign artists other than the Beatles.
Apple Records had big plans to sign artists other than the Beatles. Note Taylor’s top billing.

From the liner notes in Taylor’s debut album, Asher remembers the audition:

I still remember my utter astonishment and delight. These were not traditional rock ‘n’ roll songs. They had elements of folk to them but with an R&B groove. The guitar parts had the elegance of classical Spanish guitar playing, but used occasional jazz chords. The vocals were intense and soulful but introspective and thoughtful at the same time. The songs were brilliant blends of poetic elegance, humor and precision. I was overwhelmed.

The cover of James Taylor's self-titled debut album on Apple Records.
The cover of James Taylor’s self-titled debut album on Apple Records.
Mysterious Trips to the Bathroom

In a 2015 biography, Taylor freely confesses that he was addicted to heroin during his breakthrough sessions at Apple Records. “I was stoned in most of the sessions,” Taylor admits. “Peter didn’t know…I guess he thought I was sleepy or something.”

Asher: I was far too naive to recognize the symptom for what they were.” Asher recalls JT “disappearing into the bathroom for long periods” during the Apple sessions, but having no idea why they were occurring.

Rubbing Elbows with the Beatles

With Asher producing, the album was recorded from July to October 1968…at the same time The Beatles were recording The White Album. Many Beatles parallels abound: Paul McCartney played bass and back-up vocals on Taylor’s biggest hit on the album, “Carolina In My Mind.”

For Taylor’s song “Something in the Way She Moves,” he wanted the song title to be “I Feel Fine,” after a dominant line in the chorus. Well, that title was taken. And that first line to the George Harrison song, “Something,” from Abbey Road was: “Something in the way she moves…” Tribute or coincidence?

The critical reaction to James Taylor’s first record was positive. Jon Landau gave it a rousing review in Rolling Stone. But JT’s first release didn’t sell as well as expected, in part due to Taylor’s repeated absences for drug addiction treatment.

Ultimately, though, Sweet Baby James slayed the dragon:

Clean and sober for 37 years.
Out the Door at Apple

Taylor wasn’t at Apple for long. The label was hemorrhaging money on far-flung projects and there was new blood at the top. Allen Klein, the recording industry’s “biggest bastard in the valley,” had just spent years managing the Rolling Stones, and Klein’s malfeasance with the Stones’ royalties and publishing rights had not yet become public knowledge.

Amazingly, Klein’s next stop was to the top: the Beatles. John, George and Ringo supported Klein while Paul McCartney demurred. That would have big-time consequences for James Taylor. Peter Asher was the brother of Jane Asher, McCartney’s soon-to-be ex-girlfriend.

That was all Klein needed.

Peter Asher was fired from Apple. Taylor followed him out the door.

Coda

James Taylor’s fabulously productive music career is still going strong. In the world of rock ‘n’ roll, Taylor is one of the lucky ones…a survivor.

Andrew Goutman

Andrew Goutman is the editor of The Record.

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