The music icon recalls going from playing in the streets to playing for the most famous musicians on the planet — and the time George Harrison used his lyrics in a Beatles' classic

By Jordan Runtagh
January 31, 2020 09:00 AM
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Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Nineteen-year-old James Taylor arrived in London with his guitar and little else. It was the fall of 1967, and he was recovering from a crippling drug addiction and the devastating collapse of his first band, the Flying Machine. Still reeling from the pain of both, he was ready to give music another try. “I went over to visit a friend,” he tells PEOPLE. “I didn’t have plans to come back. I had a one-way ticket.”

The English capital was the kaleidoscopic epicenter of the Swinging Sixties, and Taylor found himself in a nexus of art, culture and free thinking. “Man, it was just a fabulous time to be in London,” he recalls fondly. For a time he earned money by performing anywhere he could. “I played in the streets a little bit. I was looking for a club I might play in. I played for friends of this friend I had come over to visit, and they said, ‘You’ve got to make a demo tape. We have to be able to shop this around to people that we know. We’ll help you.’”

He scraped together £20 and booked 45 minutes at a small SoHo studio to make a demo. “I came out with an acetate disc and two reel-to-reel copies of my songs. Four songs.” With a tape in hand, he started to approach record companies, the all-important gatekeepers. “Success was getting a record contract,” Taylor explains. “In those days that’s how you got on the radio, that’s how you got an audience, and that’s how you got a career.” He was aiming high. The Beatles had recently launched their own record label, Apple, and were actively seeking new talent to develop. Their offices had been inundated following an open call for submissions, but Taylor had an insider connection — albeit a circuitous one.

His childhood friend and former Flying Machine bandmate Danny “Kootch” Kortchmar had been in a band called the King Bees, which had accompanied the British pop duo Peter & Gordon on tour several years prior. The “Peter” in question was Peter Asher, brother of Paul McCartney’s girlfriend, actress Jane Asher. McCartney was particularly close to his almost-brother-in-law. During the years he’d lived in the Asher family townhouse on Wimpole Street, they slept literally across the hall from one another, and frequently socialized in the London’s intellectual circles. McCartney had penned several of Peter & Gordon’s early hits, and when the group split in 1967, he tapped Asher to head up A&R at their fledgling label.

Peter Asher.
| Credit: Don Paulsen/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

For an aspiring artist in the late ‘60s, Peter Asher was a good man to know. “I called Kootch up and said, ‘Do you still have a number for Peter Asher?’” Taylor recalls. “And he said, ‘I don’t know if it’s any good but this is the number that I’ve got.’ I called it up, Peter answered, and I said, ‘I’m a friend of Danny’s, a songwriter from North Carolina. I’ve got a demo. Could you take a listen to it?’” Asher liked what he heard and invited Taylor to Apple’s Central London offices. “He said, ‘You can play for whatever Beatle is in the building at the time.’ And that’s what happened.”

In a matter of months, Taylor had gone from busking in the street to auditioning for the most famous musicians on the planet. “I was nervous, but I was young and strong. It’s the thing that allows young people to walk into enemy fire; your brain’s half-baked,” he laughs now. “I sat down and played my song, ‘Something in the Way She Moves,’ for Paul and George [Harrison]. They went out of the room and Peter said, ‘What do you think?’ Paul said, ‘Hmm. Sounds good.’ And Peter said, “Well, do you want to make a record with him?” And Paul said, “Yeah sure.’ And that was it.”

They offered Taylor a contract, but there was one problem: At just 19 he was too young to legally sign for himself. He had to reach out to his father, who had last seen him at a personal low when his musical dreams were in tatters and his spirit ravaged by drugs. “I had limped back home after the Flying Machine went down in flames. But signing to the Beatles’ label got my dad’s attention. He said, ‘Maybe this thing’s going to work out for James after all.'”

With Asher acting as producer, Taylor recorded his first album in the fall of 1968, literally following the Beatles into London’s Trident Studios after they had recorded “Hey Jude” and tracks for ‘The White Album.’ For a young artist, the experience was both intimidating and inspiring. “It was like, ‘Holy cow, I can’t believe this,’” he remembers. Asher and Taylor took a page from the Fab Four’s musical playbook, tapping arranger Richard Hewson to score orchestral linking passages between songs. “It was all very new and experimental. We were trying to be like the Beatles a little bit. I was just finding my way.” McCartney and Harrison directly contributed to the session, pitching in on bass and backing vocals respectively on the track “Carolina in My Mind.”

His self-titled debut was released that December, but it got lost in the shuffle of the label’s increasingly dire business problems. “I’m sure Apple was hemorrhaging money like crazy. Nobody was really paying attention to running it like a commercial venture. If it was going to break even, or even lose a little bit, that was fine with the Beatles. While it was open, it was a real resource. It was great.”

His time on Apple would be short-lived, but Taylor’s London excursion paved the way for the success just around the corner. By 1969 he’d moved to Los Angeles to record his commercial breakthrough, Sweet Baby James. “When we got to the States, we had a band that could really interpret the music, and I had a good batch of songs. I wasn’t just cobbling together everything I had ever found. I basically had material to do. So that was the difference, I think.”

Around the same time Taylor was in the studio recording his first chart hit, “Fire and Rain,” the Beatles released their first Harrison-penned A-side, “Something.” The opening lines are more than a little similar to Taylor’s Apple Records audition piece, “Something in the Way She Moves.” Taylor laughs at the comparison today, noting that he borrowed the song’s “I feel fine” refrain from the Beatles’ track of the same name. As far as he’s concerned, Harrison’s song brought the musical cross-pollination full circle. “I like to joke about it. I like to say, ‘I liked your song so much I went home and wrote it myself!’”

For more on James Taylor’s road to fame and peace through music, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE — on newsstands now.