ED GORDON, host:
Just the sound of his music can illicit a smile.
(Soundbite of "Your Smiling Face")
Mr. JAMES TAYLOR: (Singing) Whenever I see your smiling face, I have to smile myself, because I love you. Yes, I do.
GORDON: Legendary singer and songwriter James Taylor has written and performed some of the most memorable tunes of the past 30 years.
(Soundbite of "Fire and Rain")
Mr. TAYLOR: (Singing) Oh, I've seen fire and I've seen rain. Seen sunny days that I thought would never end.
GORDON: You might think his audience is all folk. But Taylor credits African-American blues and jazz as his musical inspiration.
Mr. TAYLOR: I've always thought of my sources as being very diverse. You know, I grew up in North Carolina, mostly, and there was a lot of gospel music, there was country music and there was a good deal of blues and I sort of got into music at the time of folk music, which, you know, sort of people refer to as the Great Folk Scare of the early '60s. But I got a strong dose of Ray Charles from my older brother when I was coming up. I remember I used to listen to Jackie Wilson a lot. My own take on it is that the music comes from a lot of different places.
GORDON: Let me ask you about one of those songs, which, clearly, I think, it fair to say, a modern-day classic, a song that has been embraced by many, many African-American artists, and that's "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight." I think, initially, of Nancy Wilson, Isaac Hayes, The Isley Brothers, all of whom have their renditions of that song.
(Soundbite of "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight")
Unidentified Man: (Singing) Don't say yes, but please don't say no. I don't want to be lonely tonight.
Mr. TAYLOR: That's really a thrill when someone like that picks up your song, you know? You know, I think of that song as having a sort of jazz cast to it, you know? And it has been covered a lot and been great to hear it.
GORDON: You also have done, most recently, a cover of one of the great American songs, and I believe you did it for the television show "West Wing," but that's "Change Is Gonna Come."
Mr. TAYLOR: Yeah, that's...
GORDON: Any trepidation in taking that on? I mean, so many people think of Sam Cooke's rendition and it is one of those songs that's seminal to American music, I think.
Mr. TAYLOR: Yes, absolutely. Well, you know, I'm a dyed-in-the-wool Sam Cooke fan and listened to him a lot coming up, and he was an early influence.
(Soundbite of "Change Is Gonna Come")
Mr. TAYLOR: (Singing) There were times that I thought that I wouldn't last too long. Somehow I've been able just about carry on. (Technical difficulties) been a long, long time coming, but I know that a change, a change is gonna come.
I'd always loved the song and I said I like the show, too. I wanted to give it a try. No, I agreed. That's always the thing with a cover is whether you can add anything or take it anyplace different, you know? So the thing about Sam Cooke, for me, is that, generally speaking, his stuff is so--his material is so positive, it's so--you get the feeling of how much Sam Cooke loves being Sam Cooke. You know? I delight in Sam Cooke.
GORDON: Let me ask you about a song that you wrote called "Shed A Little Light." And it's a tribute song to Martin Luther King Jr.
(Soundbite of "Shed A Little Light")
Mr. TAYLOR: (Singing) Let us turn our thoughts today to Martin Luther King.
To me, King is really one of the central heroes, you know, just in our time, a real exceptional, rare person who contributed the right things at the right time. You know, I think my parents, they led me into an awareness of what was going on. You know, they felt amazingly strongly about the civil rights struggle, and I guess it stayed with me. It always stayed with me. So it came out in a song.
(Soundbite of "Shed A Little Light")
Mr. TAYLOR: (Singing) There is a passage through the darkness and the mist. And though the body sleeps, the heart will never rest.
Chorus: (Singing) Shed a little light, oh, Lord.
Mr. TAYLOR: (Singing) Shed a little light, oh, Lord.
Chorus: (Singing) So that we can see.
Mr. TAYLOR: (Singing) Oh, now...
Chorus: (Singing) Just a little light, oh, Lord.
Mr. TAYLOR: (Singing) A little light, oh, Lord.
Chorus: (Singing) Gonna shed a little light.
GORDON: Let me ask you. You mentioned Ray Charles, and the "Genius Loves Company" project.
Mr. TAYLOR: Yeah, I was involved with the "Genius Loves Company" project and I jumped at the opportunity, and sent along a couple of songs that I felt would work and we went in and did a song of mine called "Sweet Potato Pie." Boy, what a thrill that was.
(Soundbite of "Sweet Potato Pie")
Mr. RAY CHARLES: (Singing) Oh, Lord, I feel fine today. Walking on cloud nine today. I'm over that line today. Happiness is finally mine today.
Mr. TAYLOR: (Singing) I guess I'm just a lucky guy. And I'm prepared to tell you why. It's strictly on account of my sweet potato pie.
GORDON: Let's talk a little bit about, finally, before we let you go, the tour that you'll be embarking on this summer. You're a great live performer. And you've been doing it now for years. I'm curious, though, does the road ever get old for you or are you looking forward to this?
Mr. TAYLOR: It's what my work is. And live performance is as real as it gets. These summer evenings are amazing events, really. There's a mixture of excitement and apprehension and sort of the gravity of it and then the--putting the show together and working up new material. It really is great. You know, as long as I can, and, in whatever form I can, I'll carry on with it. But I do love it.
GORDON: Well, I know that there are many James Taylor fans who gear up for these appearances and this is a full-fledged tour throughout the United States. You'll be able to catch James all summer long as he tours our fine country. James Taylor, thanks so much for spending some time with us. Greatly appreciate it.
Mr. TAYLOR: Ed Gordon, thank you very much. It's been nice talking to you.
(Soundbite of "How Sweet It Is")
Mr. TAYLOR: (Singing) I just want to stop just to thank you, baby. Yes, I do. How sweet it is...
GORDON: James Taylor kicks off his 30-city national tour today.
That does it for the program. We close with yet another Taylor classic. This is jazzman Jonathan Butler's rendition of "Fire and Rain."
GORDON: To listen to this show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the American-American Public Radio Consortium.
(Soundbite of "Fire and Rain")
Mr. JONATHAN BUTLER (Singing) ...see you again. Been walking my mind to an easy time, my back turned towards the sun. Lord knows when the cold wind blows, it'll turn my head around. Well, hours of time on the telephone...
GORDON: I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS & NOTES.