Biographies & Memoirs


In Vancouver, British Columbia, the Stowe family had just gathered for dinner when the phone rang. To the amazement of his children, Irving Stowe, the family’s bushy-bearded patriarch, found himself on the line with Joni Mitchell, talking about her friend James.

With a group of like-minded friends in the area, Stowe, a pacifist, teacher, and convert to Quakerism, was none too thrilled when he’d heard the United States would soon be conducting nuclear tests on Amchitka, a small island off the coast of Alaska. Although the government had detonated hydrogen bombs in the area before, in 1965 and 1969, the third, planned for 1971, promised to be the most brutalizing; the five-megaton bomb threatened to extinguish sea otters, bald eagles, and any other wildlife unfortunate enough to live in the area. To protest the tests, Stowe and his wife, Dorothy, had helped launch the Don’t Make a Wave Committee, and his passion for music (and the Newport Folk Festivals he’d attended) led him to consider organizing a concert to raise money for their actions, which included sailing a boat to the island as a visible act of protest.

Although Joan Baez passed on an invite to the show due to her schedule (but sent a check for $10,000), she’d suggested Mitchell. Stowe reached out to Elliot Roberts, who phoned back to say Mitchell would do it. By the time Mitchell called Stowe at home two weeks before the concert, the committee had changed its name to Greenpeace. At a meeting, Stowe had flashed a peace sign and another member replied, “Let’s make it a green peace.” The new, more compact moniker stuck.

“Hello, Joni,” Stowe said, as his family—his wife, daughter, and son—quieted down and eagerly eavesdropped. Stowe cupped his hand over the phone and turned to them. “Joni wants to know if she can bring James Taylor,” he whispered. “Who’s James Taylor?”

The family members shrugged; they didn’t know either. His fourteen-year-old daughter Barbara thought Mitchell might mean James Brown, but that didn’t seem right. Back on the line, Stowe told Mitchell she could certainly bring her friend, then hung up and told his family not to mention it to anyone. “We don’t know who this is,” he said, “and if he’s no good, it could ruin the whole concert.” Later, the family ventured out to a nearby record store and, to their relief, saw Sweet Baby James in the window. When they asked the clerk how the album was doing, he said, excitedly, “It’s number 10 on the charts!”

Like a shy kid at a prom dance, “Fire and Rain” had stood on the sidelines all year, waiting for its moment. In the spring, Warner Brothers had hesitated to release the song to radio. With its subdued tone and elliptical lyrics, it wasn’t an odds-on favorite to be a hit. “I thought it was maybe too obscure in its message,” said Taylor’s friend and guitarist Danny Kortchmar. “It was too dark to be a hit.” The label also hesitated when soul singer R. B. Greaves, who’d had a major hit the year before with “Take a Letter, Maria,” a story-song about a black executive in a failing marriage, released a cover of “Fire and Rain.” No one wanted Taylor competing against his own song.

Yet “Fire and Rain,” a regular part of Taylor’s set on the road, was making inroads with his audiences; its understated vulnerability, uncluttered melody, and easy-to-follow metaphors drew them in. When L.A. pop star Johnny Rivers unveiled another cover of the song in August—this one a lavish production with horns and female backup singers—Warners had no choice but to promote Taylor’s own version. “Finally,” announced an ad in the music press, “the original (and, we think, best) ‘Fire and Rain’ is now a single.” The accompanying photo—Taylor playing a piano in Asher’s living room, a cat hovering nearby—conveyed the singer’s, and song’s, hypersensitive image.

Since “Sweet Baby James” hadn’t made the charts, expectations were modest; true enough, “Fire and Rain” debuted on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart at number 100. It didn’t stay there long. Far faster than the song’s tempo, stations in New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia pounced on it, as did outlets in Atlanta, New Orleans, and Athens, Georgia. During the final days of filming Two-Lane Blacktop, Taylor told director Monte Hellman that people were starting to respond to the song, but his delivery was so muted Hellman didn’t know how big this news was. “Fire and Rain” also found its way onto playlists of stations at Knox College in Illinois, the Rochester Institute of Technology, and the State University of New York in Oswego. In one week, it vaulted from 83 to 50 before sneaking into the top 10 the week of October 17. Two weeks after that, it was the third most popular song in the country.

By then, the country, even the world, was exhausted after ten months of Vietnam-related anguish and homegrown terrorism, pandemonium and death on campus, and the collapse or failure of so much from the past decade, be it the Beatles or moon missions. The two previous years had jarringly demonstrated that social or political change was no longer in plain sight. It had all accelerated that year, so that the worlds of January 1970 and twelve months later felt like polar opposites.

What everyone—especially rock fans verging on age thirty—wanted was quiet, and pop was there to serve. The Carpenters, a brother-sister duo from Southern California who looked like student-council candidates and made polite music to match, had scored their first major hit in the spring with “(They Long to Be) Close to You”; in the fall, their second smash, “We’ve Only Just Begun,” proved America wanted more, please. Elsewhere on the radio that fall were Bread’s “It Don’t Matter to Me,” Elton John’s “Your Song,” Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind,” and Cat Stevens’ “Wild World”—a parade of balladeers,

American, Canadian, and British, with less interest in making a racket and more in expressing their innermost feelings to unplugged, consoling backup. These were songs—superb ones, sometimes—for men who wanted women to know they were thoughtful and caring (and could make pretty good bedmates as well). Stevens’ “Where Do the Children Play?” from the Tea for the Tillerman album that arrived that November, was mellow and eco-driven—the best of both new worlds.

Dylan turning to country music was one thing. The rise of this new genre, with the seemingly contradictory name “soft rock,” was a telling sign of the times. Some of the musicians, like Stevens and Neil Diamond, were once teen-market-scrubbed pop stars who’d given themselves shaggy-dog makeovers. Some, like Lightfoot, had been making folk records for years but had grown out their hair and now looked like members of the back-to-the-land movement.

In this context, “Fire and Rain” found a home. After a year of breakdowns and death, a song about a mental collapse and a friend’s suicide—by a performer only too willing to let the world know he’d spent time in “a nuthouse,” as he called it onstage—felt like a natural extension of the collective mindset. The times picked “Fire and Rain” as much as any radio programmer. Taylor’s good looks didn’t hurt, either. In her neighborhood in Carbondale, Illinois, fourteen-year-old Shawn Colvin was babysitting for a neighbor when a friend brought over the “Fire and Rain” 45. Playing the record on the family’s stereo, Colvin and her friend were instantly besotted with singer and song. (“God knows where the kid was,” Colvin recalled of the child under her care.) When they found a copy of Sweet Baby James, Colvin, like many that fall, was immediately taken with the handsome face on the cover. “He was dark, but he was easy on the eyes,” Colvin said. “We were all in love with him. Forget it. It was a good package.”

The song took Sweet Baby James along for the ride; by late October, the album had sold eight hundred thousand copies, nearly half of them that month alone, and peaked at number 3. “The cycle has come back to romanticism,” Carole King told a reporter that fall, in an unpublished interview. “People got sick of the psychedelic cloud and wanted to get softer moods.... He was what people were ready for and he happened to be there at the right time. His institutionalized past is also something they can identify with. A lot of people think they’re going crazy: ‘What I’m thinking is totally unrelated to what anyone else is thinking. Am I crazy?’ James is like a friend to them.” In short order, thanks to Taylor, King would be their friend as well.


Irving Stowe and his son Robert met Taylor and Mitchell at the airport the day of the concert, October 16. A limo took them to the arena, where, backstage, the two walked in hand in hand, Taylor glancing downward and Mitchell beaming for all to see. Mitchell did a few interviews, Taylor none. For an encore, they were planning to sing Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” and Mitchell’s “The Circle Game” together and spent time in the dressing room working out chord changes. Once that was done, Taylor seemed more interested in working his way through a bottle of Southern Comfort.

Appearing at the concert had been Mitchell’s idea; after all, she was Canadian. In interviews during the previous months, though, Taylor had made it clear that his music contained no sociocultural or political messages. “I couldn’t urge anybody to think a certain way politically without feeling uneasy,” he told the Times’ Susan Braudy. “. . . Just because I sing a tune people enjoy doesn’t mean anybody should follow my political ideas.”

Plenty of people agreed with him, but like Stowe, Bob Hunter, and other cofounders of Greenpeace, others were starting to channel their frustration—and their fears of what was happening to the planet— into a new movement. The list of scientists warning of pending planetary doom had been growing ever since the publication of Rachel Carson’s best-selling and influential Silent Spring in 1962, and each year brought increasingly disturbing reports of pollution and endangered species. In January 1969, a blowout at a Union Oil offshore well near Santa Barbara dumped over three million barrels of oil into Southern California waters, mucking up beaches and killing thousands of dolphins and fish. As it had at the dawn of the new year, Mad magazine rammed home the point harder than the mainstream media could. Its July 1970 issue included “obituaries for traditions, pastimes and other Dying-out Landmarks of the American Way of Life.” Included were obits for “Efficient Customer Service,” “Reliable Postal Service,” “Melody in Popular Music,” and “Clean Air.” “Death took place at 1:33 this afternoon when the final trace, a small breathable patch above Lincoln, Nebraska, was smogged out,” the magazine joked, deadpan. “. . . There will be no funeral service, due to survivors being too choked up to speak.”

Inspired by the Vietnam Moratorium, a Wisconsin Democratic senator, Gaylord Nelson, proposed a “teach-in” on the environment in the spring. Before long, his idea expanded into Earth Day. On April 22, some twenty million people across the country gathered, demonstrated, swept, and planted trees. In effect, they were protesting a different kind of war. A few months later came Yale law professor Charles Reich’s book, The Greening of America, which advocated “choosing a new lifestyle” rooted in a new, eco-minded consciousness. In his State of the Union address in January 1970, Nixon had mentioned the environment as a priority. His commitment was flimsy, his concerns more careerist than ecological. (“The hell with them,” he would snap at his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, during a discussion about environmentalists the following August. “. . . You know they’ve bled over every goddamn atomic test that’s been made. We’d be fighting Japan still if they had their way.”) Always in search of ways to capitalize on a trend that would give him a boost in the polls, he’d launched an Office of Environmental Affairs in January, followed by an Environmental Protection Agency.

Something positive had finally begun to emerge from the ruins of the previous decade: a green movement that merged both political and personal concerns. The “Greenpeace Benefit” at the PNE Coliseum brought together the new and old singer-songwriter guard in one setting. Phil Ochs, who drank heavily at the Stowe household before the show, came on first and delivered a stirring set of his older topical songs, like “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” and “Joe Hill.” (As Ochs himself sensed, his songs were already beginning to feel like nostalgia.) Out of nervousness, Mitchell’s voice broke during “Chelsea Morning,” yet she recovered with a tender and occasionally rollicking set, slipping “Bonie Maronie” into her own pro-environment song, “Big Yellow Taxi.”

For someone coping with substance-abuse issues, Taylor was proving himself a more than capable showman. At this and other shows that year, he was unwaveringly steady, in tune, and endearingly funny onstage. (“He hates the success,” King said about Taylor that fall. “He almost reluctantly goes out onstage. But at the same time he enjoys performing.”) “I’ve got a single out now and I’d like to play it for you, a little ditty,” he said before “Fire and Rain.” When they began applauding after the first two lines, he interjected, “Thank you, folks.” In a self-mocking but also self-aware tone, he referred to Sweet Baby James as “my smash-hit album on Warner Brothers.” The audience ate it all up, and the show—with Garfunkel, Nicholson, and Bergen in the crowd—wound up raising an impressive $17,000 for Greenpeace.

Taylor and Mitchell’s affair continued into the autumn, friends all the while wondering how Mitchell, who was not a heroin user, was coping with his drug use and moodiness. “I’d go over there and he’d be sitting in the dark in the corner,” recalled Essra Mohawk, one of Mitchell’s neighbors and a singer-songwriter in her own right. “He was on heroin at the time. We all were.” (Mohawk recalled regular smack deliveries to the neighborhood by way of “a very clean-cut fella in a crisp white shirt who used to come to our back door.”) In spite of Taylor’s recurring addiction, his and Mitchell’s mutual attraction was obvious: Both were young, beautiful, and horny. In and around Los Angeles, they acted like love-struck teenagers, giggling or necking in the backs of cars. Taylor was seen wearing the vest she’d knit for him on the set of Two-Lane Blacktop. They traveled together, to New York and London, for each other’s concerts. When she joined him at his November 7 concert at Princeton, coincidentally her twenty-seventh birthday, Taylor had the audience join him in singing “Happy Birthday” to her. The following week’s issue of Rolling Stone went so far as to announce they were getting married.

In London for one of Mitchell’s concerts, she and Taylor spent an afternoon at the apartment of none other than her former lover, Graham Nash. As Nash’s friend, drummer Johnny Barbata, watched, the three passed around guitars and a hash pipe. “One would play a song and the others would say, ‘Fantastic,’” recalled Barbata. “There was a lot of mutual respect.” Given that Mitchell had dumped Nash about six months earlier, the situation could’ve been extremely awkward. According to Nash, though, no one was unnerved: They were loving the ones they were with. “We were grownups,” he recalled. “James was a very shy man, with a great sense of humor. A brilliant writer.” He smiled. “That motherfucker.”


As soon as he took a seat behind Taylor at the Troubadour club in Los Angeles, Leland Sklar—a twenty-three-year-old bass player with the full beard and mustache of a California mountain man—knew something had changed. It was November 24, and Taylor was back at the club he’d already played several times before. Now, though, he was settling in for six nights starting Thanksgiving evening. In another sign of his success, he could afford a band—drummer Russ Kunkel, who’d played on Sweet Baby James, and Sklar, a Milwaukee-born musician who’d moved to California with his family and later attended college there.

That summer, Sklar had been stunned to receive a call from Peter Asher, asking if he was willing to audition for Asher’s client James Taylor. Sklar didn’t recognize Taylor’s name; if anything, he was far more awestruck to hear the voice of one half of Peter and Gordon on the line. Asher said Taylor had heard Sklar play and had described him as “better than Paul McCartney” on the bass. Sklar suddenly recalled the time he was rehearsing with his hard-rock band Wolfgang and a mutual acquaintance had brought by a quiet, friendly, and possibly drunk friend—who, it turned out, was Taylor. To Sklar, Taylor was “one of those messed-up hippie guys” who always seemed to be crashing at various people’s houses. “He’d walk around with a shirt torn down the back and he’d wear it every day,” he recalled. “A pretty funky guy.” At Asher’s house for rehearsals, Sklar was impressed with Taylor’s intricate chording and the way he played bass parts on his acoustic guitar: Maybe he was more than a messed-up hippie guy after all.

In early fall, Sklar had played his first—and he thought only—show with Taylor, at a half-filled Troubadour. But when Asher asked if he wanted to go on tour, Sklar reluctantly said good-bye to his own band to join up with Taylor. Toward the end of Taylor’s sets, like another show at the Berkeley Community Theater, Kunkel and Sklar emerged from the wings to add a modest thump to “Country Road” and the new songs, “Highway Song” and “Riding on a Railroad.” One reviewer detected “a crack of emotion” in Taylor with a rhythm section behind him.

For Taylor’s third 1970 stint at the Troubadour, Sweet Baby James now a certified hit, Sklar took his seat on a folding chair behind Taylor—and instantly sensed something was different. The last time, he could see the audience chatting among themselves during the set. Now, he glanced out and saw them staring intently at the stage, singing all the words to all the songs. “It was visually obvious,” Sklar said of the difference. “It was like sitting on a beach when a tsunami hits. It was so fast that you’re caught off guard.”

Everything about opening night felt like a combination inauguration and celebration. For dramatic flair, Asher hired Jack Belden, who’d done the horn arrangements on “Steamroller,” to march onstage with his big band at the end of the show. Taylor persuaded King, who still wasn’t accustomed to playing her own songs onstage, to be his opening act. Although a seasoned songwriter, King had stage fright; despite his comparative lack of professional experience, Taylor became her mentor. During soundcheck, King played a newly written song, with her own lyrics, called “You’ve Got a Friend.” Hearing it while standing in the Troubadour balcony, Taylor was riveted and decided to record it himself one day. King decided to put it on tape as well, on an album she would start cutting in January 1971 called Tapestry.

On opening night, three songs into King’s set, a Troubadour employee informed the audience over the sound system that the club had received a bomb threat. “As long as it’s not me,” King joked. (The warm laughter she received from the crowd did much to ease her jitters.) Everyone was ordered to leave as fire marshals and police swarmed in; Taylor and the musicians stood in the back alley. After a half hour, the four hundred customers were readmitted.

The police were never able to determine whether the threat was real or not; there was no way of telling if it was a political statement or, more likely, someone’s way of trying to sneak into the sold-out show. After the drill was over, it would have been easy to slip into the Troubadour without a ticket stub. Then again, Taylor’s new fans were proving to be an ardent lot. After the set, Sklar watched as a parent with a sick child talked her way into Taylor’s dressing room and asked if he would help heal her child.


“It was very gratifying,” Taylor recalled of the way Sweet Baby James was embraced by the public. “No question. It was what I was hoping for, that people would listen to my music and I could make a living doing it. There’s no doubt it was a great thing.” It was an equally great thing to his former label. To cash in on the newfound success of its former act, Apple re-released “Carolina in My Mind” from his first album. (It reached number 67 on the charts, a respectable showing for a two-year-old song from a flop album.) By year’s end, Allen Klein was bragging that Taylor’s Apple album had sold 400,071 copies in the U.S., along with 71,647 eight-track tapes.

The money that began streaming in sped up the growth of the James Taylor industry. Asher’s management company, Marylebone Productions, was still based out of his house, but Asher was now able to afford an assistant, former Apple employee Chris O’Dell. In search of a new camper for an upcoming tour, O’Dell drove Taylor around to car dealerships. She’d met him before, in London during the Apple days when he’d crashed at her apartment, but was struck by how much more depressed he now seemed. “He hardly talked,” she recalled. “It was hell trying to talk to him all the way out to somewhere south of L.A. He didn’t seem like a guy who had all this great stuff going on. Either he was still on drugs or maybe off drugs, which maybe was the problem.”

Taylor could now afford a larger band and hired Kortchmar back into the fold. Kortchmar, who’d spent much of the year recording and touring with the Laurel Canyon funk-pop band Jo Mama, made his impact felt immediately. As soon as they began rehearsing, Kortchmar started needling Taylor: “Get your ass out of that chair!” he’d bark. “Come on—you look like an old man! You gotta rock!” Honoring his friend’s request—Kortchmar was a wiry stage presence himself—Taylor began standing up, but only during the last song of the set.

Being an animated showman didn’t come naturally to Taylor. He’d emerged from the folksinger tradition, where perching on a chair was as standard as learning to play Weavers songs. Taylor sat onstage so frequently that by fall he’d hired a carpenter from Martha’s Vineyard to build him a custom-made wooden seat: No right arm, so Taylor’s guitar wouldn’t bang into it, and a stand on the left arm to hold his guitar picks and glass of water. The chair was also slightly elevated to accommodate his long legs and arms. It was, Asher recalled with a laugh, “the James Taylor Chair.”

The second reason for staying put onstage was the drugs. “He was still pretty strung out on serious drugs at that point,” recalled Kunkel. “So sitting down was probably a better thing.” Sklar, who avoided illicit anything, would often be the one to lead Taylor or one his bandmates back to the tour bus when they could barely stand. It wasn’t a chore he relished, but someone had to be straight. “James didn’t really talk about how he was dealing with it much,” said Asher. “Perhaps I should have said, ‘Are you all right?’ But I didn’t. Neither of us discussed our personal and emotional lives that much. He’s shy; I’m English.”

Since everyone else seemed to be high—one reporter spied coke and pot backstage at the Troubadour shows—Taylor’s problems didn’t raise any alarm bells, for those around him or Taylor himself. “I was a very functional addict,” Taylor recalled. “I’m not saying it didn’t get in the way of my work and my creative stuff. But I could also say in a strange way that it contributed. It was definitely something I had to go through.” The drugs were just there, and as far as anyone knew, they didn’t seem to be harming Taylor or anyone else.


Sensing a cultural phenomenon in the making—the rise of the new, inward pop, the anti-hard rock—Time magazine decided to pursue what would have been unthinkable months before: a cover story on James Taylor. In keeping with the magazine’s reporting tradition, editors dispatched writers to campuses around the country to gauge Taylor’s impact. Colleges were still a reliable barometer of his connection with those under twenty-five: At the student store at one of the University of Michigan campuses, Sweet Baby James sold out every three days.

At that and other schools, the Time reporters, in files not included in the final article, described Taylor’s fans as “former freaks who have become more serious and mellow,” people who saw Taylor as “a pleasant relief from acid music.” They were “quiet, sometimes inarticulate; they certainly will not undertake the sort of diatribes that accompany much of ‘heavy’ rock.”

“Many of them feel he is simple and sincere,” filed a stringer from the Duke University campus, quoting students who deemed Taylor, in a positive way, “not an act, but a performer” who was “really good to hear when you’re down.” (One student added, approvingly, “I like his songs because they’re all about heroin.”) To another student, Taylor was proof “the Love Generation doesn’t work.” The Wisconsin stringer noted that Taylor’s record sales on campus had eclipsed those of the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, the previous year’s top sellers. “It’s nice, relaxing stuff,” a female student at that school observed. “It’s pleasant. You don’t get too excited about it.” When the story finally hit newsstands the week of March 1, 1971, its cover line read, “The New Rock: Bittersweet and Low.”

Not everyone was enthralled. There were grumbles that Taylor marked the end of social protest in rock. One undergrad dubbed Taylor “post-revolutionary, post-radical decadence,” while another said, “With him, we’ve finally returned to TV, to middle-class values—he’s a WASP Tom Jones.” Another dismissed Taylor as “the emasculation of rock, obviating everything rock has ever tried to do.” One student wondered if “the people interested in James Taylor are those who never quite got over a fascination with Simon and Garfunkel.” (In his notes, the Time reporter added, “Upon whom it is now fashionable to dump.”)

They were all right, in their respective ways, but by and large, the comments were positive and confirmed the feeling that Taylor had, accidentally and unintentionally, tapped into something larger than himself. “Sometimes you have a desire for something loud to wash all your sins away,” a Wesleyan undergrad told one Time reporter, “and sometimes you want something quiet and lyrical.” For many, there was no better way to wind down from one year, one decade, and one moment, than with James Taylor.

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