Ira Kantor’s Vinyl Confessions: Look At Little Sister

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Photo Courtesy of Kate Taylor

One of my fondest memories occurred at about 7 AM on August 9, 2014 — my 30th birthday.

I was about the board a ferry with my wife Jen from Cape Cod to Martha’s Vineyard when my phone rang. The rootsy voice on the other end of the phone didn’t say who it was but instead began serenading me with “Happy Birthday.” It belonged to Kate Taylor, musician, noted wampum jewelry maker, and younger sister of music superstar James Taylor.

Jen and I were headed to Chilmark to spend the morning with Kate at her home. Though my face-to-face visits with Kate are few and far between (with years usually occurring between them), I always eagerly look forward to them as they embody the cross between spending time with a warm friend and the coolest aunt ever.

I first got to know Kate while pursuing my master’s degree in journalism at Boston University. What began as a simple profile writing project about her younger brother Livingston, a noted musician in his own write and longtime stage performance instructor at the Berklee College of Music, eventually blossomed into a 5,000-word magazine article thesis replete with Kate’s own unique story about her respective time in the music industry.

We all know a James Taylor song. It’s impossible not to. From “Fire and Rain” to “Handy Man” to “You’ve Got a Friend,” Taylor’s sincere vocals and good-guy demeanor have kept him at the forefront of musical popularity since 1970. But what makes his story fascinating is the fact he’s the second in a quintet of siblings who all struck a distinctive chord in the music business with their unbelievable family dynamic.

James is the superstar, Livingston (number four), the intimate singer-songwriter of “Carolina Day” and “I Will Be in Love With You” fame. Oldest brother Alex, who tragically passed away in 1993, was a bluesman at heart who released five albums in his lifetime. Youngest sibling Hugh runs a bed-and-breakfast on Martha’s Vineyard, but still found time to release one earnest album — It’s Up to You.

And then there’s “Sister Kate” — the middle child, lone daughter, and arguably the most free spirited of the Taylor brood.

In 1971, the then 21-year-old would get her own taste of musical success with the release of her debut album on the Cotillion label. The album title was — surprise, surprise — Sister Kate. Produced by Peter Asher and featuring unique interpretations of such classic songs as Elton John’s “Country Comfort” and Carole King’s “Home Again,” the album is one of the more standout releases from the Taylor family collective. It’s chock full of heart and soul, as Kate simultaneously bears vocal vulnerability while knowing just when to rock out. Case in point, her take on “Look at Granny Run Run,” which sounds like it comes right out of Stax itself.

The album is also unique in that it features a treasure trove of troubadour musicians who would come to light up the LA music scene in the early 1970s, including Linda Ronstadt, guitarist Danny Kortchmar, Carole King, and Eagles’ guitarist Bernie Leadon.

“When we worked on the record, it was a great time to be in Los Angeles,” Kate told me recently. “It was kind of this hotbed of burgeoning music, musical creativity and what was to become mega-stardom for a lot of amazing acts — Carole King, James, Joni [Mitchell], the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt. There was just this stew of incredible musicianship out there and people just on the cusp of not only making great music but being able to deliver it to millions of people. I was kind of in the thick of it. It was a great time to be there. I loved it.”

Kate’s journey to vinyl begins a couple of years earlier during a London trip to visit big brother James, who was poised to release his debut eponymous album on the Beatles’ Apple label. Asher at the time was Apple’s A&R man. After hearing Kate and James sing together inside the empty swimming pool at his country home, Asher knew he heard something special.

“I didn’t think any more about it. I came back to Martha’s Vineyard where I was living. The phone rang at one point. It was Peter Asher telling me he was going to move to Los Angeles and set up his management and production business out there and did I want to make a record,” Kate said. “’Hell yes,’ I said.”

Crafting a demo with the help of James, Kate signed to Cotillion, a subsidiary of Atlantic Records, and set about working on her own debut. Immersed in the innovative artistry happening all around her, Kate finds emotional solace in the songs of a fresh-faced Elton John, currently wowing audiences at Doug Weston’s Troubadour. Along with “Country Comfort,” Kate would also record “Battle of a Well-Known Gun,” both from John’s Tumbleweed Connection album.

“I said, ‘Geez, Peter, I really love those songs. I wonder if I can record them. And he said, ‘Well I know Elton’s manager, perhaps we can facilitate a meeting and you can ask him,’” Kate said. “So I got a chance to meet Elton John and I told him I really loved those tunes and he said, ‘Oh by all means, record the songs.’”

Kate would work on the album in chunks over a period of months, commuting to LA while keeping her home base on the Vineyard, a place of comfort and upbringing for the whole Taylor clan. The family first laid down roots in North Carolina, where the five-child Taylor brood would be weaned on everything from classical, to musicals, to R&B.

“It was very exciting. It was very brand new. It was something I had never done before. It was just one thing after another. I was watching this incredible world go that I was in the middle of. I was excited to be in LA. I had a lot of friends out there that I was getting to know,” she said. “I was very homesick for New England. That’s why I think that song “Country Comfort” really resonated with me.”

Another standout track on Kate’s debut is her killer take on James’ “You Can Close Your Eyes.” James would release the song on his third album, Mud Dog Slim and the Blue Horizon, two months after Kate’s debut. She received the track in the form of a cassette tape from her big brother sent from a Little Rock, Arkansas motel room.

“I had the honor of being the first person to ever record that tune,” she says.

Sister Kate was named by Kate herself, stemming from a teenage experience seeing folk legend Tom Rush play live on the Vineyard. Rush had a song called “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate.”

“Having all these brothers — I kind of adopted this as some way to explain myself,” she told me.

Post-record, Kate toured the country as an opener for such varied acts as Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, and America. She would perform at the Good Vibrations at Central Park concert where her raucous, emotionally unbridled take on Robert Parker’s “Barefootin’” was a sure-fire crowd pleaser.

“I was an excitable 21-year-old,” she told me. “My father, he came out to California. He was at a conference or something and while I was out there rehearsing with the band and getting ready to go out on tour. My record had just come out and we had a single. We were driving around in the car on the freeway and Dad said, ‘So hey, what would you like to see happen with this career you’re embarking upon?’ and I said, tongue in cheek, ‘Well Dad, growing up with four brothers, what I’d like is when I start singing in the car, that somebody leans over and turns on the radio that it’d be me on the radio.’ He leaned over and turned on the radio and it was me on the radio. That was fun. That was a mind-blower. I think my father was kind of blown away.”

It would be another seven years before Kate’s second album hit the record stores. In that time, she came back to the Vineyard, fell in love with tepees and Native American culture, fell in love with her future husband, and had her first child.

“Grounding is really the best way to describe it. I had been a very excitable youngster and I needed to sort of collect myself a little bit and get some grounding. So that’s what I did,” she said. “I really needed to settle down a little bit.”

It would be the same individual who got her to open her mouth and sing in the first place that came around again. Having made the jump to Columbia from Warner Brothers, James offered to produce Kate. The result would be the eponymous Kate Taylor. Her third album, It’s in There and It’s Gotta Come Out, recorded at the famed Muscle Shoals, would be her last effort for 20 years.

While time will tell if Kate releases a new album of music (it’s now been 10 years and counting since her last one), her first remains a cornerstone of talent in my mind. Where James is wistful and somber on his earliest efforts, and younger brother Livingston is more whimsical and extroverted on his first trio of albums, Kate is just a sure-fire dynamo of interpretation and straight-from-the-heart soul.

As she says: “To harness that for Peter and James who showed a great deal of faith in me and support at the time — that they wanted to reign this little free spirit in and get her started doing some singing, I’m just so grateful for that.”

At this point, I’ll settle for her serenading me again this August 9, when I turn 35.

Ira Kantor & Kate Taylor

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Share your feedback and suggestions for future columns with Ira at vinylconfessions84@gmail.com.


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