A little help from (and for) James Taylor

In a past life (it seems), I played a lot of guitar and did a lot of singing in a variety of places over many years.

I was playing in a coffee house in Boston one night in the early ’70s. The performer who went on just before I did seemed to be his own biggest fan. He was competent enough singing and playing his guitar, but he also offered an air of smugness. And his set featured a running attempt to belittle James Taylor. I attribute this to an underlying jealousy.

There were snide remarks here and there. Then the crowning touch was his singing “Sweet Baby James,” but when that phrase recurred, he said “Sweet what’s-his-name.” JT, of course, wrote the song about his nephew, who had been named for him. Writing such a song about oneself would take a different kind of person. Maybe someone such as this guy on stage ahead of me that night.

When he announced his last song, he snarled in a tone that left no room for dispute, “I always end with this song. Always.”

Some months before that, I had seen James Taylor perform in the UNC football stadium. He had opened with his then-new arrangement of “With a Little Help from My Friends.” I liked it enough to work it into my repertoire.

I generally started off with something fast and loud, but that night I made a quick decision to begin with the JT-styled “With a Little Help from My Friends.” After I finished and after the applause, I said, “I never open with that.”

I explained that I had recently enjoyed seeing James Taylor open a concert in our mutual hometown with that song. Since it had worked for him, I decided to try it, I explained.

Right off the bat, I had lampooned my predecessor’s introduction of his closing song, and established the object of his derision as my homey.

The opener had acted as if the audience members were fortunate to get to hear him. My attitude always was that I was grateful they wanted to listen to me, realizing that I also had to be good enough for them to want to listen. I’m pretty sure I conveyed that feeling that night. I genuinely appreciated them, and I performed well enough for them to appreciate me.

It was one of my better gigs. There was that always-sought, mystical “connection” with the audience. My “last song” was followed by a mandated encore. Maybe the contrast with the opening act contributed to my success.
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