James Taylor on a career in jazz, soul, groove and funk

BY Rob Crossan

9th Jan 2024 Music

1 min read

James Taylor on a career in jazz, soul, groove and funk
James Taylor is one of Britain's most cherished jazz, soul, groove and funk musicians, from the garage and mod-influenced The Prisoners to his eponymous Quartet group. He's still playing live shows with both

Childhood and school struggles

James Taylor as a young kid with friends
I grew up in the Medway towns in Kent in the 1960s and my earliest memory is of sitting on a red counter top in my parent’s kitchen. I must have been about three and I recall just feeling so happy, being in a family where there was so much love and laughter. I suppose that’s what I’ve been searching for ever since; to regain that feeling I had when I used to sit on that red counter.
I was sent to a shack on a mountain somewhere in the Lake District when I was 11 by my grammar school on a trip organised by the Christian Union. It was utter and absolute hell. I remember being told I was evil for not going along with the wailing and singing and praying that was going on. I just sat outside and refused to be part of it. The whole experience was incredibly traumatic and a lot of boys who were with me were deeply scarred by the experience. From that day on I was a changed person and I definitely went off the rails for quite a few years.
A young James Taylor with his family
I became a bit of a bad boy but I was sent to Coventry by the gang of lads I fell in with at school. They refused to speak to me and I got a really savage beating one day. I didn’t have a friend in the universe so I guess I really retreated to my bedroom for a while. I would listen to Billy Childish’s first group The Pop Rivets and then to Bach. Two very, very different types of music but both were equally important. I’d lost my gang and music took over.
"I’d lost my gang and music took over"
The preludes and fugues of Bach was such an incredible solace for me at that time. It’s been such a backbone of joy and beauty for me ever since that day until now. Both those artists, Billy and Bach, say the same thing to me, which is, basically, "live life".

The Prisoners

James Taylor as a young man in The Prisoners
My mate Johnny was on that awful Christian mountain trip with me but we had drifted apart. He got back in touch to ask if I’d come for a rehearsal with his band The Prisoners. Playing organ with them for the first time felt like my life turning from black and white into colour. It was just glorious. 
"I had three brothers and both of the bands I've been in have had three others"
I was back in a gang again with the group and there’s something about being in a quartet that really works for me. I had three brothers and both of the bands I’ve been in have had three others. It’s just a shape and dynamic that really works for me. Being one of four is a nice place to be.
James Taylor playing the Hammond organ. Credit: James Taylor
We were 18 years old when we got brutally searched for drugs by Italian immigration officers while The Prisoners were on tour. It made me think about boundaries and it gave me a shaky feeling near border crossings that lasted for years. We even had the Stasi search us when we played a gig in East Germany!
Brexit has broken my heart in its desire to ramp up borders again. A country is just someone’s idea. It’s something that’s always been in a state of flux. Europe’s beauty and togetherness has been smashed to bits by Brexit and it’s made life incredibly difficult again for jobbing musicians wanting to tour.

James Taylor Quartet

James Taylor Quartet
The Prisoners broke up because, to be honest, we weren’t really getting anywhere. Not long after, I went into a studio and recorded a little seven inch single called "Blow Up", which is a Herbie Hancock tune that was featured in the 1960s film with David Hemmings. It only cost £30 to make but John Peel picked it up and played the hell out of it every night for months during 1987. He was the man who made it possible for me, and lots of other people, to make a living out of being a full time musician. He never played any other tracks that I made subsequently but playing that one track was enough. I’m forever grateful to him and, to me; he was such a huge force for good.
I remember doing a gig in Rome in 1990 and a friend of mine told me that he wanted me to see something. We went in a cab to St Peter’s Square at about 1am. I couldn’t believe the majesty and scale of this space that held so many people. I’m not a born again Christian but I do pray and seeing the square really had an impact on me. It was a moment that, for me, was the culmination of my understanding that God is good but man can be bad, which I witnessed on that awful camping trip. Life is a struggle between good and evil. Morality is real and this moment in Rome now feels, for me, like one of the great civilising influences in my life.

Losing his father and the power of music

My father had Alzheimer’s for ten years before he died in 2013 and, ridiculous as it sounds, I never, for a second, considered the fact that he would die. I always had this belief that he could get through it somehow. So when he did die, it was an intensely difficult time. I took my grieving very seriously and it resulted in a huge creative push. I ended up writing a piece of music which was recorded with the Rochester Cathedral Choir called "The Rochester Mass". That was my tribute to my father and, for me, it shows the power of music to take a set of terrible feelings and turn them into beautiful ones.
"I wrote a piece of music recorded with the Rochester Cathedral Choir which was a tribute to my father and shows the power of music"
Recording in Studio Two of Abbey Road for the Electric Black album that the James Taylor Quartet made was one of my biggest thrills. I was literally jumping up and down with joy while we worked and played in there. It’s where the Beatles recorded almost every record they ever made and the history of the place is almost literally dripping from the walls. The ghosts of the past feel very present there.

Pride in his daughter

James Taylor today
My daughter Isabella was an actress for a time and I remember seeing her in a production of Vincent In Brixton, the play about Van Gogh’s time living in South London. Her role required a lot of anger and I loved the way she used her stage presence in the same way I attack my Hammond organ on stage; both of us let our demons fly in that way! I was so proud of her that night.

Wife's health and realisation about love

My wife Margarita fell down in the kitchen one morning in 2020 and it turned out she had suffered a massive brain haemorrhage. It was in the middle of the COVID pandemic and I remember her lying on this tiny, narrow bed in this hospital ward that was really only set up for people who had Covid. I was told by the doctors that I should tell her anything important I wanted to say as she might not survive. I remember Margarita telling me how scared she was.
But incredibly, she survived and she’s doing ever so well. That experience was my version of being Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Her survival felt like both of us were being given a second chance. I realised then that, for the rest of my life, all I want to do is to give all the love I have away to those that I care about. And to always, always be grateful for what I have.
James Taylor Quartet perform with a full orchestra at The Barbican, London on April 2, 2024. His band The Prisoners are reforming for a special one-off show at London’s Camden Roundhouse on May 24.
Banner photo: James Taylor

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