James Taylor, modern day hero of the Hammond organ, began recording in 1982 with Kent go-go punk ground breakers The Prisoners. After four albums they spilt in 1986 and Taylor formed the James Taylor Quartet, initially playing Booker T-in-the-garage versions of TV and film soundtracks. With a frequently changing line-up the JTQ have swung to soul, jazz, funk, rock and more through a career which continues to this day.
I recently caught up with James to talk through his career. An edited version of this interview first appeared in Nutsmag but below is the full chat.
What was it like growing up in Medway? What did your parents do?
I was interested in the musical tastes of my older brothers and my uncle. I got a close up view of the sixties musical boom through their eyes and despite the fact that I was born in 1964 and so missed most of that period and kind of surfaced musically in the early 70s. I had a piano and I was very interested in trying to work out tunes that I had heard on the radio and TV, so no change there really. Apart from music, Medway was fun because we all played out on the streets, football, cricket etc. The usual stuff. Looking back it feels like a bit of a golden age, I’m guessing in reality it was completely normal and slightly if not ever so dull. My dad worked in an office and my mum was a housewife. It was all baby boomer classic stuff really.
When did you first start taking an interest in music?
As early as I can recall, I remember seeing the Beatles on Top of the Pops in 1968 playing ‘Hey Jude’. I was into all sorts of music from an early age; eclecticism was always my thing and still is now.
Were there any musicians in your family?
My mother and grandmother were piano players and they gave me my earliest musical education. I had my first piano lesson when I was four years old. My uncle had his own band playing sixties soul. My brothers and I formed a band playing Stevie Wonder covers. We have recordings of this done onto a ¼ inch reel-to-reel.
Around the time of recording the first Prisoners LP Better In Black you briefly went to university in Newcastle. What were you going to study?
Mining engineering. I left after a few days when I realised there was no way I could take the whole thing seriously. I wanted to play with the Prisoners.
What route do you think your musical path would’ve taken if you’d not made that decision?
Hard to say, I was not interested in engineering, I had been for a while previously, and I am again now curiously, but I was bored of education. If I had tried to see it through despite not being engaged by it I guess my musical thing would have remained a hobby as it had been until that point. It was a scary decision to say to my professor “I want to be a musician” and to turn my back on serious education but I felt gigging was the most exciting thing in my life, so there was not much of a choice really. I still feel the same way.
Am I right in thinking on those first Prisoners records you were playing a Casio keyboard?
On the first two [Better In Black and Thewisermiserdemelza], yes.
You still got a great sound out of it.
Thank you. I found the Casio in a keyboard shop and noticed it had a setting called “electric organ”. I played along with my 7” vinyl of ‘Green Onions’ and I was able to get a sound not too dissimilar to Booker T. Jones so that’s how I whiled away the evenings. As a sixteen year old before joining a band, I was hooked on all things Hammond-ish.
Where/when did you get your Hammond?
My first one was an M100 bought from a lady in Rochester. We got that in 1983 I think. I moved to a C3 in 1988.
What was the Hammond like to play after piano and the Casio?
A real Hammond was big game changer. It’s possible to make a stronger impact with this huge dynamic sound. The digital equivalent is non-starter in comparison. I am still very into piano though.
A big part of The Prisoners sound and The Last Fourfathers in particular were the instrumentals and a dominant use of organ. What things were influencing you at that time?
The Nice, Small Faces, Deep Purple, early Pink Floyd, the usual stuff really.
After the Prisoners, how did the James Taylor Quartet take shape and what was your original ambition for the band?
I was pissed off when the Prisoners spilt up because I just wanted to gig, so I put my own band together and just carried on really. You know when things fall apart sometimes it forces you into a new position or way or operating that was unforeseen but that in some way brings you forward unexpectedly. It was fortuitous that Eddie Piller liked our sound and started putting out our records.
That period doing theme tunes and spoof spy film soundtrack sounds, even now, a lot of fun and the JTQ took off quickly. Did that initial success take you by surprise?
I was very surprised that other people liked our stuff; I thought I was the only Hammond nut around, turned out there were others.
Wait A Minute was a highpoint of the original JTQ line-up and included “Theme From Starsky and Hutch” which is still what many people best know you for. What are your recollections of recording that LP and of Pee Wee Ellis and Fred Wesley from the JB’s who played on it?
We were at a rather posh studio with a very expensive producer. We had a great laugh actually, didn’t want to come home. Pee Wee and Fred were really amazing. They complimented our sound and it felt odd to hear your heroes playing on your own record. I knew “Starsky” would be popular but I didn’t think it would still be doing the rounds now, it’s aged well.
With Get Organized came changes to the quartet line-up and included a who’s who of young British jazz players – Steve Williamson, Steve White, Cleveland Watkiss, Guy Barker etc. After working with the same musicians you’d known from your home, how was it suddenly working with new musicians known in their own right?
Yes, that was a period where I felt a lot of pressure from Polydor to be at the centre of this new emerging musical scene, but at the same time I really enjoyed working with all these great new players. I found a way to use the Hammond alongside all sorts; it was a kind of stretching experience.
Was it daunting at all?
I guess so, I felt that the early line-up had sort of extinguished itself and I had to decide how best to go forward so really I was checking out a lot of players to see who could do good gigs with.
Was that liberating?
Of course, very liberating but when you separate from the people who share and understand your musical development closely it’s a shock to discover other people don’t see things quite the same, I had to be flexible. So it was a steep learning curve, it took a while until I found my feet again after the first band finished.
The James Taylor Quartet, from the beginning, became the focal point for the acid jazz scene; almost the catalyst for it. How did your interest in jazz begin and develop?
Listening to Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Jimmy Smith. I loved the Julian Cannonball Adderley Something Else album. We were listening to that album a lot when we wrote The Money Spyder.
That period from the late 80s to early 90s encompassed rare groove, jazz, and hip-hop/modern soul. It moved very fast and the JTQ were right in amongst all that; making albums at a rapid rate. That was an exciting time, with people open to different styles but it’s a period not given much coverage these days. How do you view those times?
We gigged and recorded flat out so it was tiring but yes, very exciting. I could have taken more time out to examine things a bit I guess, but when you’re moving so fast you kind of don’t want to stop. We make hay while the sun shines. The band was regularly selling out large venues like the Brixton Academy and Barrowlands in Glasgow, and all around the world. We were considered a very bankable act by the UK music scene and promoters, so we just lived on a bus basically, marriages fell apart, people got stressed out a bit, but it was a non-stop party for the first eight to ten years at least!
You had/have a strong reputation as a live act but was there pressure from record companies – when the acid jazz period was at its height - to have bigger chart success?
Was that something you were personally striving for?
Everyone in the business wanted us to be a vocal act, I was okay with this but instrumentals were always my passion, so it was good to make soul records as long as we could gig Hammond instrumentals as well. We had hits with a label called Big Life, a lot of commercial success was fun for a while but I soon felt the need to rebalance things and get back into our more core sound.
You’ve made sporadically made albums as New Jersey Kings. What gives those albums their own identity? Why the separation from the JTQ?
Just to be able to function free from big labels for a while, incognito as it were.
Outside of your own music you’ve become the go-to person in the industry the Hammond. What’s that like?
All big stars are very interesting to see working in the studio. They’re usually popular for a reason, they’re usually very talented, not always though. I thought Tom Jones was the most astonishing recording artist I’ve ever worked with. I thought U2 were very painstaking in the studio and moved so slowly that it felt slightly uncreative. However in retrospect I feel that a high level of attention to detail in the studio is a good thing. I’ve just got a short attention span, I get easily bored and so I want to record records quickly.
The Template celebrated 25 years of the JTQ in 2011. It’s a great album but you operate more under-the-radar these days. Soul-Jazz isn’t an easy sell I guess.
Thanks, but I wonder why you feel that to be the case? We still work flat out. In the last three months we’ve played a week of sold out shows at Ronnie Scott’s, we sold out the Queen Elizabeth Hall a few days again, and Hall One at the Sage in Newcastle. These are big gigs, as well as entertaining the world economic forum up in Davos, headlining Liverpool Jazz Festival ad selling out the Band On The Wall in Manchester. We’ve been played on all the national BBC radio stations. That’s all in the last few months, as well as this we’ve recorded an album for TV/film and advertising for Audio Network, another live album for Ronnie’s, and I’ve written and am about to record a huge choral/Hammond piece for Cherry Red Records. I think you maybe feel we are under the radar because you’re not personally aware of these things. In fact we are still one of the biggest jazz acts in the country and we are permanently in demand worldwide, the problem is I’m running out of energy, I’m fifty now! Also I’m inclined to say that whilst we love playing jazz clubs and festivals, we also headline rock festivals, classical music festivals as well as playing your mod/soul gigs like the New Untouchables Margate one and the one down in Gijon [Ye-Ye Weekend]. I feel that the reality is that all music is one. As I say, I was always into eclectic things and enjoy the variety.
People might be surprised to discover you have a separate career as a psychotherapist. I’m always interested in successful musicians who juggle dual careers. Is this something you’d always wanted to do or did you feel a need to find something away from the music industry?
Absolutely, I need to create a bit of space that wasn’t about music. I wanted to study a bit. It’s been a very enjoyable diversion. It allows me to re-approach music from a fresh perspective.
Your most recent album, Closer To The Moon, contains elements of classical music. For many people “classical music” still seems like something impenetrable and intimating, as well as outside their own taste. What’s your interest in it?
Closer isn’t a classical record though, it’s just got some of those sounds on it. I’m interested in music which connects directly with me, this could be Stevie Wonder or J S Bach, I don’t really make a distinction. The Hammond works well in a variety of musical genres so I’ll make a record with Billy Childish or with a cathedral choir of with Nitin Sawnhey or with Tina Turner, it’s all good. I recognise that classical music is a turn off to loads of people but what can I do? I’m just into it just like I’m into the Small Faces, so I’m excited to represent myself using aspects of the classical idiom. Have you heard those string arrangements of Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake? Classical music.
The JTQ have been in existence for nearly 30 years. How do you keep motivated?
Right now I’m massively into the piano, I play eight hours a day, I write lots of piano stuff and I’m also into choral stuff, combining it with the JTQ sound is the latest challenge. I written a 45 minute long choral mass which will be recorded soon up at Air Studios. Can’t wait to see what people make of that.
If you had to pick three of your records to best provide an overall of the JTQ what would they be and why?
“South To Perpignan”, “Tough Chicken”, “Blow Up”. Could be any but these have got a fair cross section of filmic, moody, excitement and danceability.
What period of your career so far do you look back on most fondly and why?
I don’t really see things in that way. I like things as they are now because I have complete freedom musically, so I guess now is the best period for me, it still feels very exciting to play the Hammond on stage, just as it did my first gig with the Prisoners. Being a musician is a privilege and it’s not a thing that I take for granted or shy away from. I’ve enjoyed my career in music and I’m very grateful for your scene for being so supportive to us for so long. The mod scene got us started really and it’s always great to see mods in the crowd showing the others how to dance and dress. I’ve really enjoyed answering your questions, it’s given me a chance to reflect on many things.