Doing old songs is nothing new for James Taylor.
The veteran singer-songwriter's catalog is dotted with hits covers of songs such as Marvin Gaye's "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)," the Drifters' "Up on the Roof," Jimmy Jones and Otis Blackwell's "Handy Man" and Carole King's "You've Got a Friend," among others. But his latest release, the appropriately titled "Covers" -- which comes out Tuesday -- is his first album comprised entirely of other people's songs.
"This is an album that needed to get made," explains Taylor, 60, who played at the Meadow Brook Music Festival in July -- sporting a Detroit Red Wings cap the night they won the Stanley Cup -- and celebrates the release of "Covers" with a special performance and signing on Thursday at Border's Books & Music in Ann Arbor.
Taylor, who's sold more than 40 million albums and won five Grammy Awards in a recording career that began in 1968, says that "Covers" "is something that I've had in mind for about the past 10 years or so. We had just finished the (2007 live) 'One Man Band' album...and we said, 'We should go ahead and schedule the covers album' and finally get that done, so that's what happened."
Taylor recorded 20 songs for "Covers," from which 12 were selected for the album, in January at a barn on his property in Lenox, Mass., during a 10-day session with his 12-member Band of Legends, a group of luminaries that he toured with this summer. The project was conceived as an entire set of R&B covers, but while it heads that direction with tracks such as the Temptations' "It's Growing" -- which is "Covers' " first single -- Jr. Walker & the All Stars ("I'm a) Road Runner" and the Spinners' "Sadie" -- the concept was expanded when the group decided to take on material like Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne," country singer John Anderson's "Seminole Wind," Glen Campbell's "Wichita Lineman" and the Big Mama Thornton-inspired version of "Hound Dog."
"A lot of them we just picked up on the spot," Taylor recalls. "They're 'head' arrangements, which means we didn't have (formal) charts or anything. It's an amazingly flexible group; we would do seven takes of a song like 'Wichita Lineman' or 'It's Growing' and, by God, there they were...
"I don't have any hesitation at covering anybody -- Rogers & Hammerstein or Buddy Holly, Wilson Pickett...We just throw these things out there and make a run at them. There's something about this band and the context in which we recorded it, the sort of live energy that the thing had of doing it all at once rather than as an endless series of overdubs that stretches out over a year or so.
"It was just great. It was more fun than you can have vertical, as they say."
The choice of something like "It's Growing" -- a relatively obscure tune from the Temptations' canon does display Taylor's love of R&B in general and Motown in particular. But Taylor says it's inclusion speaks to the casual nature of the "Covers" sessions.
"It was just off the top of our heads," he recalls. "It's one of those songs the singers and I used to do -- like the Spinners' tune, 'Sadie.' They're songs we used to do in sound checks because we loved them, so they moved from being sound check favorites to being on the album.
"But Motown, yeah, that's awfully fertile ground. Michael McDonald has done some great covers of Motown stuff, and I think of Michael as being a really worthy person to cover those tunes. I only hope we do them the same kind of justice."
"Covers" is Taylor's third consecutive "special" project, following "A Christmas Album" in 2006 and last year's live set "One Man Band." Now, he says, the priority is an album of new material -- his first since "October Road" in 2002. He's already "got a start" on the project, with "songs in various stages of completion (that) I need to go back and finish. This year coming up I intend to finish it."
Taylor says that the hang-up these days is that he's taken an increased role in managing his career -- in addition to being the father of seven-year-old twins. "There's a lot more work," he explains. "I basically have to book the time into my calendar to go and write. You have to book [i]everything[/i], essentially."
Taylor says that he has "one more studio album, maybe two, of my own stuff" in him. He also hopes to record an album with orchestral accompaniment, echoing live performances he's done in recent years, and he plans to create "a series of guitar lessons" to teach the rudiments of his "simple style."
"I'm just proceeding in a way of working through these things I really want to do," Taylor says. "Taylor says. "There are these things I want to get done, and I'm trying to get all of them on the calendar for some time in the future, even if you have to re-think them repeatedly."
TEN REASONS WHY JAMES TAYLOR IS A BIG SHOT
* His first record deal was with the Beatles' Apple Records label.
* He's sold more than 40 million albums.
* His 1977 "Greatest Hits" album earned a Diamond Award certification for sales of more than 10 million copies.
* He's won five Grammy Awards
* He received the Billboard Century Award in 1998.
* He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriter's Hall of Fame, both in 2000.
* He was the Recording Academy's MUSICARES Person of the Year in 2006.
* He has a permanent exhibit dedicated to him at the Chapel Hill Museum in Chapel Hill, N.C., where he spent part of his childhood. A portion of a highway bridge over Morgan Creek is dedicated to him as well.
* He was a guest start on TV's "The West Wing" and provided a guest voice for "The Simpson."
* He sang the National Anthem for the first game of this year's NBA Finals in Boston, but us Pistons fans don't really like to talk about that.
James Taylor will perform and sign copies of his "Covers" album at 7 p.m. Thursday (Oct. 2) at Border's Books & Music, 612 E. Liberty St., Ann Arbor. Space is limited; the store will begin handing out wrist bands at 9 a.m. Thursday to those who buy a copy of "Covers" or have a receipt from a purchase on a previous day. CAll (734) 668-7652 or visit www.borders.com.
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