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Teaming of Taylor, King a natural for summer tour

| Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Blues singer Shari Richards looks at James Taylor and Carole King as the performers who created "the template for the singer-songwriter phenomenon."

Nationally touring guitarist Jason Reeves says Taylor and Bob Dylan are the two forces who shaped him when he began "getting into writing as a form of art. I saw them turning writing into music. Their songs had very real meaning and that's what made me want to try to do it."

Educator/composer/performer Amanda Ford says there are few performers who present such "sincerity" in what she calls "songs for the common man."

These musicians all are shaping careers in different ways, but all share similar opinions on the lasting worth of Taylor and King, who will perform the last concert at Mellon Arena on Saturday. They credit the two with musical skills, songwriting craftsmanship and an ability to present everyday philosophy in singable songs.

Richards sees Taylor and King as setting a high bar current musicians don't have a chance of hopping over.

"It will be interesting to see if any of the youngsters out there right now will still be around and still drawing a crowd 30 years from now," she said.

It is actually more like 40 years ago that Taylor and King captured radio play charts and a lifetime of fans with their albums, "Sweet Baby James" and "Tapestry," respectively. Both had been around before that, of course. Taylor had led a band, the Flying Machine, whose collapse is part of the gripping lyrics of his "Fire and Rain."

King had been a songwriter, creating such hits as the Shirelles' "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" and Aretha Franklin's "Natural Woman."

She gave her own versions of those songs on "Tapestry," but that album also premiered "So Far Away" and "I Feel the Earth Move." On "Sweet Baby James," Taylor turned "Steamroller" and "Country Road" into trademark hits.

It was a near-parallel step for two performers who had met performing in a club once in the late '60s. Taylor was impressed with her work as a musician and a songwriter. She joined his band before "Tapestry" went into production and has suggested that move played a major role in the album's genesis.

That also led to Taylor hearing a song King had written. She suggested he should record it, and King's "You've Got a Friend" became a Taylor hit. "Up on the Roof," written by King and then-husband Gerry Goffin and originally recorded by the Drifters, also became a hit for Taylor.

That might suggest why a tour featuring the two of them would be a natural. Ford, director of music career services and assistant professor of eurhythmics at Duquesne University, says that song is "just sooooo James Taylor." When a song written by one person fits another so well, it would seem to say quite a bit about shared thinking.

"Their music is just so authentic," she says. "They both write music the way it was, the way it is,"

Sometimes, that can make a song impossible for others present. Lisa Ferraro, a jazz singer who grew up in Pittsburgh, but recently took her career to California, says she has never sung "Fire and Rain" because "I just don't like the way it makes me feel."

That song deals with the death of Taylor's friend in shock treatments for drug addition, the dissolution of his band Flying Machine, and his own substance abuse problems. It has emotions Ferraro would rather avoid.

It presents the honesty that is a steady part of Taylor's work.

"If you buy a James Taylor album, you know what you are going to get," she says.

It is the structure of King's work that appeals to Ferraro, who recorded a version of "Up on the Roof" for an album.

"Her songs are really warm and really well crafted," says singer Heather Kropf, who has lived in the Pittsburgh area since 1995.

But there is a difference in their musicality, the performers say. Richards sees King's voice as having "more colors and pallettes" than Taylor's, while Kropf and Ford thinks Taylor's singing fits his material about perfectly.

"When I hear him, it just goes down easy," Kropf says.

Ford says Taylor's voice has a simplicity that is "just great with the honesty of his songs."

But don't overlook his instrumental ability, insists Reeves, who talked about Taylor prior to performing in the South Side in May.

"One of the main things about James is the finger-picking." he said. "He's so incredibly good on the guitar, and it's kind of flawless and amazing. He has his own style. That's what I love about him, and what I wanted to take away from that: Being able to make the guitar sound like it's just you playing. That's something he definitely does."

All of those elements put together make the music of James Taylor and Carole King something of a "new classical music," Ford says, that can cross over genres. For instance, Ferraro says "How Sweet It is (To Be Loved By You)" grabbed a jazz audience with its classic sax solo by David Sanborn and still has that crossover appeal.

Taylor and King's lasting success "continues to give me hope" about life as a songwriter, Ford says with a laugh.

Rege Behe contributed to this report.

Get up close

Performer and Duquesne University educator Amanda Ford says listening to the music of James Taylor is like "having a conversation" with him.

For that reason, she and others in the music business think Saturday's concert of Taylor and Carole King would be better in a setting smaller than Mellon Arena.

A charitable organization is providing that up-close setting -- at a price.

Tickets-for-Charity, a Boston-based group founded by Charity Partners, is selling seats that will put a listener in a club-like circle around the performers at all of the North America sites of the pair's tour. Tickets here started at $367.50 and went up to $750, which includes donations to groups like Habitat for Humanity, the United Way and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

The tickets, which are sold out here, included early admission to sound checks, parking and private merchandise offerings.

The charity group is doing this sort of seating at other sports, theatrical and music events, such as the concerts by the Eagles, the Dixie Chicks and Keith Urban.

Additional Information:

James Taylor and Carole King

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Admission: $99.75 and $68.25

Where: Mellon Arena, Uptown

Details: 800-745-3000 or website

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