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Editor’s note: This North Carolinian of Note profile was produced by students in Dean Emeritus Richard Cole’s feature writing class in the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The profiles were distributed by the North Carolina Press Foundation. For reprint information, contact email@example.com.
By Caitlin McCabe
Something about the chords of “Carolina in My Mind” inspires North Carolinians, evoking proud images of red-soiled rolling hills, golden skies and tranquil seasons.
It’s an unofficial anthem at best, but natives of the Old North State revere the song. It inspires crowds to gather in friendship, arms linked, harmonizing while gently swaying. It’s a celebration of North Carolina. It’s also a celebration of its lyrical mastermind, James Taylor.
While most people know Taylor as the five-time Grammy Award-winning singer with deep North Carolina roots, few know about his experiences growing up and his battles with depression and drug addiction.
His songs deal with personal issues, so his lyrics recall his childhood adventures and translate his feelings of despair, love and loss into music.
Growing up in Chapel Hill
Taylor’s musical talents found expression during his childhood—a childhood primarily spent in Chapel Hill, less than two miles from the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill.
He was born in Boston, Mass., but came to Chapel Hill at age 3 when his father, Ike, took a job as assistant professor of medicine in UNC-CH’s School of Medicine.
More than 50 years ago, Taylor taught himself to play cello and guitar, but those who knew him as a child say fame and prominence were the last things they expected of the young introvert.
Helen Perlmutt, a next-door neighbor of the Taylor family in Chapel Hill, watched James Taylor and his four siblings—Alex, Kate, Livingston and Hugh—grow up with her own three children. Perlmutt is endearingly called the “Georgia peach” in Taylor’s well-known tune “Copperline.”
“James was more thoughtful than the rest of his siblings and other kids his age,” Perlmutt said. “I always knew he was musically talented, but I never expected anything of it until suddenly he burst forth.”
Still, early in his life, Perlmutt noticed the musical and artistic talents that shaped Taylor’s career.
“I remember James being the only person I ever knew who could take a garden hose, cut holes in it and play music,” Perlmutt said.
“James used to carve the most beautiful jack-o’-lanterns and line them up around his house,” Perlmutt said. “They were just works of art.”
Perlmutt said Taylor spent most of his childhood playing in Morgan Creek behind his home. James and his four siblings would often build rafts and float up and down the creek. When they weren’t rafting, the Taylors spent time playing on the homemade zip line they built in trees in their backyard.
Taylor featured Morgan Creek in his 1991 song “Copperline,” which nostalgically looks back on his childhood, complete with a mention of his dog, Hercules.
Taylor broadened his musical talent when he began to play the guitar seriously in 1960, at age 12. A year later, he left home and began attending Milton Academy, a boarding school in Milton, Mass. There he met Danny Kortchmar, an aspiring teenage guitarist from New York. The two played in coffeehouses around Martha’s Vineyard, the popular Taylor summer vacation spot in Massachusetts and called themselves Jamie & Kootch.
By age 14, Taylor had written his first song on guitar.
“Taylor was a good kid, and when he was young, he led a happy life,” Perlmutt said.
Addressing personal issues
As a teenager, while applying to colleges, Taylor became depressed. He was not immune to the lure of the 1960s, the era of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.
Struggles with depression and drugs turned into song lyrics, such as “Knockin’ Round the Zoo” and “Fire and Rain.” His album “Sweet Baby James,” (1970) which includes “Fire and Rain” moved to third on the Billboard chart and earned numerous nominations for a Grammy Award, given by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences for outstanding achievements in the music industry.
The album reached number 103 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Taylor wrote “Carolina in My Mind” in 1968 for Apple Records, the label founded by The Beatles.
Taylor married singer-songwriter Carly Simon in 1972. His career continued to thrive, and music took priority over his family life.
In the early 1980s, Simon gave Taylor an ultimatum to cut back on the music and spend more time with their family or their marriage was through. They divorced in 1983.
Around the same time, hoping to be a better father to his two children, Ben and Sally, Taylor kicked his drug habit for good.
After his divorce from Simon, Taylor married twice more. In 1985, he married actress Kathryn Walker, whom he later divorced.
In 2001, he wed Kim Smedvig, director of public relations for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. They are parents to twin sons.
Today, Taylor remains active in his career.
“You know, I think my press makes me out to be more serious and somber than I am,” Taylor said in a 1981 interview with The Sydney Morning Herald. “I don’t like to be miserable for a living.”
Singing about his roots
Taylor has inspired a love for singing among many musicians, including the UNC-CH Clef Hangers, the oldest a cappella group at UNC-CH.
The Clef Hangers sing Taylor’s “Carolina in My Mind” in almost all of the group’s concerts, according to Ashcon Livingston, a junior biology and French major and a Clef Hanger.
“The best part of the song is that it’s taken a lot of different meanings for different people,” Livingston said. “It’s grown to be sort of a way to represent the University and bring people together. James Taylor has definitely left a mark on the Clefs and I’m guessing on most Carolina students. Everybody knows his song.”
Taylor still performs around the nation when he isn’t at home with his wife in Washington, Mass.
His most recent concerts supported Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. Taylor, who calls himself an “unabashed liberal,” opened the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte in September.
“This president represents the best instincts of America and Americans,” Taylor said in a 2012 interview with The Charlotte Observer.
“I’m not a political scientist or an expert,” he told that newspaper. “I’m a singer and basically I write personal stuff. I’m a citizen.”
Perlmutt said Taylor remembers his roots and often returns home to Chapel Hill.
“It’s clear that he has an attachment here,” Perlmutt said. “He remembers where he came from.”
The original profile was written by a student in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, UNC-CH. Provided by Newspapers in Education, the N.C. Press Foundation, www.ncpress.com.