The release dates of their respective debut albums are separated by nearly 50 years. One has a viral YouTube music video in which he vows to “get it on” like Marvin Gaye, and the other has turned an actual Gaye cover (1975’s “How Sweet It Is (to Be Loved by You)”) into a top-five Billboard hit and classic radio staple.
While 26-year-old pop vocalist Charlie Puth and 70-year-old, five-time Grammy winner James Taylor are many figurative oceans apart in career experience, years of recording and performing have not put Taylor above studio jitters, at least in Puth’s personal assessment.
Puth — most known for “See You Again,” his 2015 Wiz Khalifa-assisted, tear-jerking hit tribute to late The Fast and the Furious actor Paul Walker — features Taylor as a surprising guest vocalist on the song “Change” off his recently released sophomore album Voicenotes. In an interview with ABC Radio, the singer said that when he met Taylor in the recording studio for the first time, he was shocked by the legend’s apparent shyness.
“I was walking in, about to record with the guy [who’s] the reason that I do what I do,” Puth told ABC. “When I saw that he was anxious to get started and worried if he’d be able to deliver, I assured him he would.”
And of course, Taylor more than delivers on “Change,” a song about love and understanding as a cure for society’s ills that is thematically right up the “Shower the People” singer’s alley.
The extent to which Puth might be confusing anxiousness with modesty or mature professionalism cannot be known for sure, but Taylor has long been associated with a private and somewhat timid persona. Regardless, the young performer certainly knows how fortunate he is to add Taylor, who has sold over 100 million records in his lengthy and eventful career, to his list of collaborators.
Taylor will put a sample of his impressive resume on display when he brings hits like “Fire and Rain,” “Carolina in My Mind” and “You’ve Got a Friend” to OKC with a show 7:30 p.m. May 25 at Chesapeake Energy Arena, 100 W. Reno Ave.
Fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Bonnie Raitt was originally scheduled to join Taylor on this tour but had to cancel some of her appearances (including the OKC show) to recover from an unspecified medical condition. Her prognosis is reportedly good.
‘Fire and Rain’
Though it would take more time to truly get the ball rolling on what would become an all-time career, Taylor’s musical journey got a bold start as an artist signed to The Beatles’ Apple Records.
Taylor recorded and released his self-titled debut in 1968. The album was produced by his manager and former British pop star Peter Asher. It was recorded in London’s legendary Trident Studios at the same time the fab four were putting together The Beatles, a.k.a. the “white album.”
Bass from Paul McCartney and backing vocals from George Harrison can be heard on “Carolina in My Mind,” and while the song would achieve popularity with a 1976 rerecorded version, neither the single nor the album earned much attention in their initial debuts.
Taylor’s career fortunes did not hit an upswing until 1970’s Sweet Baby James, which was driven by the undeniable, introspective songwriting on No. 1 hit “Fire and Rain.” The song alludes to Taylor’s fierce battle with drug addiction, particularly heroin. The songwriter actually checked himself into mental institutions (formerly thought to be appropriate for drug rehabilitation) multiple times in his early career.
Sweet Baby James also marks the beginning of his working relationship with pianist and songwriter Carole King, whom he would later cover on another No. 1 hit “You’ve Got a Friend.” Over the course of his career, Taylor has turned several covers into his own high-charting hits.
When Taylor established himself as a force in the entertainment world, he was seen as the start of a new wave of restraint and refinement in popular music. The perception long stood in contrast to his struggles with hard substance abuse and depression. But despite some career ups and downs, Taylor has been sober since the mid-’80s and has been actively performing and recording in the early stages of what might be his career’s last act.
"If merely finding a way to make a living off personal vulnerability is the obstacle, Taylor has cleared the threshold with miles to spare."
Taylor gave an interview to London-based Uncut magazine in its April issue. In the article, he says the widespread recognition that has come with a wildly popular music career has never been a comfortable reality for him — even decades into his career.
“The fact is that I never trusted celebrity or fame; I still don’t,” Taylor told the magazine. “[I’m a] cloistered and very private person… it’s [a] major challenge: with something that’s extremely private, how do you take that to market?”
If merely finding a way to make a living off personal vulnerability is the obstacle, Taylor has cleared the threshold with miles to spare. But Taylor, as much as anyone, has endured the pain of public exposure in times of weakness. It’s the cost of fame and fortune, but the pain involved is still real.
Taylor told Uncut that he still fights with addiction, even though he has been sober for the last 35 years.
“It never goes away,” he said. “You prioritize your recovery on a daily basis or it’ll come back and get you again… It was 1983 when I finally got the [12-steps] program and I credit it with saving my life.”
Most of the fights Taylor takes up today, however, are political and social. He actively campaigned for President Barack Obama and performed “America the Beautiful” at his second inauguration. Taylor cancelled a 2017 concert in the Philippines to protest its government’s extrajudicial killings of civilians. In 2013, he played at the memorial service for Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer Sean Collier, who was killed by Boston Marathon bombers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
Taylor told Uncut that he has not been pleased with what he has seen from President Donald Trump’s administration.
“The fact that [Trump’s election] happened at all and is tolerated is very alarming,” he said. “Every day I shake my head and wonder what’s going on.”
Taylor has often used his music and comforting voice as a soothing force in the face of adversity, but he also recognizes that it takes lot more to bring tangible change.
“It’s food for the soul and a connection with the universe,” he said. “I don’t think music will save the world, it’s just a beautiful part of it.”