When James Taylor’s breakthrough second album, “Sweet Baby James,” came out in 1970, a friend put it on the turntable and half way through the first side, somewhere after “Steamroller,” I shouted, “Take that off! That guy doesn’t know the first thing about the blues. And he sounds like José Feliciano!”
We never got as far as “Fire and Rain,” the first classic hit by Taylor, who performs Saturday, May 31 at KeyArena. Too bad, because it might have changed that first impression.
That song was followed by many more, including “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight,” “Carolina In My Mind” and Taylor’s stone ownership of Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend,” all of which he will certainly perform Saturday.
Back when Taylor hit the airwaves, the whole concept of the sensitive, pop singer-songwriter was pretty new. Bob Dylan — and the individual Beatles, to some extent — had opened the territory, but that only meant the bar was that much higher.
But writers rose to the challenge. Indeed, looking back, it’s clear that Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, Carole King, Willie Nelson, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young and Paul Simon, to name a few, ushered in a golden era of songwriting, penning a body of work that infused gravity into the music of the baby boomer generation.
One of Taylor’s strengths is the stripped-down simplicity of his lyrics. In the first six lines of “Fire and Rain,” he moves from a stark statement of loss through a zoned-out reaction (“I just can’t remember who to send it to”), a poetic objectification of manic depression — fire and rain — then lands on a heartbreaking refiguring of grief — “but I always thought that I’d see you again.”
Because Taylor also has a great ear, his payoff lyrics come with musical punches. That last line, for example, lands on a surprise major chord that reinforces the feeling of suspension and disorientation.
Songs like this aren’t written by accident.
Indeed, precision is Taylor’s hallmark, even as he’s laying behind the beat, a combination that recalls Taylor’s minimalist, swing era predecessor, Count Basie. That balance of care and calm gives his music a cool, elegant, yet focused and emotional sound that was quite new at the time.
Taylor has gone on to win five Grammy Awards and in 2000 was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His “Greatest Hits” album has sold an astonishing 12 million copes in the U.S.
Though his career took a dip in the ’80s, he came back after the turn of the century with strong albums, such as “Hourglass” and “October Road.”
The serrated edge of his slightly mournful voice and the carefully calibrated emotion of his trim lyrics continue to be a huge pleasure.
But you know what? “Steamroller” is still a terrible blues. And though everyone has forgotten who José Feliciano is, Taylor still sounds like him.
8 p.m. Saturday, May 31, at KeyArena, 305 Harrison St., Seattle; $59.50-$79.50 (800-745-3000 or ticketmaster.com).
Paul de Barros (206-464-3247 or firstname.lastname@example.org) covers music at blogs.seattletimes.com/soundposts/ or follow him on Twitter @pdebarros