Next week sees the release of a new album by James Taylor, entitled Covers. Yep, JT has recorded an album of songs written by other people. This is his second album on the Hear Music label, a branch of the Starbucks lifestyle corporation. His prior release was a live album, also containing some covers, and a very healthy portfolio of re-recordings of songs that he’d already recorded at least once during his career. Prior to that, he released a Christmas album (James Taylor at Christmas, covers again, for the most part), which was preceded no more than two years earlier by yet another Christmas album which was released exclusively to Hallmark greeting card stores. Before that, The Best of James Taylor was issued on CD in 2003. You have to go back to 2002, and his October Road, to find the most recent batch of original songs by James Taylor.
This really hurts me. I grew up with Sweet Baby James, Mud Slide Slim, Gorilla and JT as prominent soundtracks to my life. I had his and Jackson Browne’s albums on the turntable or cassette deck frequently and learned all of the lyrics, as both of their voices occupied that vocal mid-range that I could easily sing along in without much effort or error. Ironically, Browne has just this week released a new album of original material. But, that older, original stuff of James’ has settled deep within my consciousness, and can immediately make me feel good, albeit wistful: “Sunny Skies,” “Hey Mister, That’s Me Up On the Jukebox,” “Secret O’ Life,” “Captain Jim’s Drunken Dream.” That stuff is choice.
So, I cautiously opened James Taylor’s Covers CD when my review copy arrived in the mail, already acknowledging my disappointment at the absence of original songs. My opinion of the album only worsened when I read the song list. Track number one: “It’s Growing.” No, I thought to myself, it can’t be.
James’ sister Kate Taylor recorded a self-titled album in 1978. I purchased it on vinyl while I was living in Cambridge (and amassing a weighty passel of possessions to keep me tethered earthward – see yesterday’s post). On side two of Kate Taylor was a little ditty with a slight and pleasant bounce, and positive lyrics about a slow and steadily growing love. It was called “It’s Growin’.” It was and still is one of my favorite songs on the record, but not necessarily for the depth of meaning in the words – the ideas and sentiment are straightforward and simple. It just feels good going into my ears, as odd as that sounds. And, for me, it had an added luster, as the backing vocals were quite clearly provided by one of my favorite singers and Kate’s brother, James (who had also co-produced the album).
I didn’t know this at the time, but “It’s Growin'” was a cover of a Temptations recording taken from the 1965 album The Temptations Sing Smokey. The song was co-written by one William Robinson Jr. (otherwise known as Smokey) and Warren “Pete” Moore, and hit #18 on the Billboard Hot 100. You can imagine that this record was probably hanging around the Taylor house or playing on the radio while James and Kate were growing up, along with a single of Otis Blackwell singing “Handy Man” (James’ cover version of that song gave him a #4 Billboard hit in 1977). Somgs of that era have provided a wealth of material that James, and Kate, have borrowed from repeatedly throughout their careers.
The Temptations’ original interpretation of “It’s Growing” is smoking (pun intended) and has a “g” at the end of the title. Kate Taylor’s removal of that extra “g” announced that hers was to be a folksier version of the song, and had the additional freedom of not laboring under the Motown yoke of being either “The Big Sound” or “The Sound of Young America.” To her, it was just a song that she loved, and her rendering of it shows that clearly.
Like a snow ball rolling down the side of a snow covered hill
Like the size of the fish that the man claims broke his reel
Like the rose bud blooming in the warmth of the summer sun
Like the tale by the time its been told by more then one
I queued up the James Taylor Covers CD and pressed Play. Everything about his recording, with the exception of the added brass and tinkly piano part and added-back “g” at the end of the song title, is basically a carbon copy of his sister Kate’s take on it from thirty years earlier. Or, from another view, a cover of a cover of a cover.
I’ll take the memory of my first time, please, and thank you, Kate. And, James, though I’m not necessarily wanting more of the “funny, earlier” stuff, please give us some new songs of your own. Even if they are only about the blissful life on your western Massachusetts farm. Beggars can’t be too choosy.
“It’s Growing” (1965) by The Temptations
“It’s Growin'” (1978) by Kate Taylor
“It’s Growing” (2008) by James Taylor
“Choosey Beggar” (1965) by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles