MusiCares Person of the Year honored for his accomplishments at star-studded event
"It's strange to be at an event like this and still be alive," James Taylor joked Monday night at the 2006 MusiCares Person of the Year gala in Los Angeles honoring his life and career.
Anyone expecting a performance from an overly earnest singer/songwriter got the shock of their life as the beloved "JT" revealed the comic side of his nature. Clowning with paparazzi on the red carpet, the lanky singer affected a weightlifter's grimace as he hoisted his Person of the Year trophy. Upon officially receiving the award hours later, Taylor spoofed a remark he made in the '70s about nuclear weapons. "My only hope is that one of these things never falls into the hands of someone desperate enough to use it."
Having launched his distinguished hit-making career with the 1971 hit "You've Got A Friend," it seemed appropriate that more than 2,000 of Taylor's closest friends and fans would gather to fete the folk-pop legend. Among those paying tribute or in attendance were Jackson Browne, David Crosby, Sheryl Crow, Nicole Kidman, Bonnie Raitt, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, John Tesh and dozens more.
It was a night of transcendent performances, both musical and oratorical. Comic actor Cheech Marin recalled how Taylor inspired him to play guitar, but after years of practice all he could manage was the opening chords of "Fire And Rain" and the coda of "Carolina InMy Mind." GRAMMY winner Sting recounted seeing Taylor perform in England in the '70s. Taylor's talent was so devastating, Sting claimed he abandoned his sensitive folkie aspirations to become "a bass player in a punk band." Another GRAMMY winner, Sheryl Crow, said the first concert she ever attended was a Taylor show in Missouri. "It was the first time I'd ever heard 60,000 people sing in this glorious harmony," she said.
Though the mood was lighthearted, the cause was serious. Proceeds from the tribute go to the MusiCares Financial Assistance Program, which ensures that music people have a place to turn in times of financial, medical and personal need. In three weeks following Hurricane Katrina, MusiCares distributed $1 million to musicians affected by the storm. That assistance has since risen to more than $2 million.
"I'm excited about [the Person of the Year honor] and there's a great deal of anticipation," Taylor said before the show. "I've learned over the past couple of days what great work MusiCares does, and how important that organization is to us musicians…they deliver immediate service to people [in need], and I'm really glad to be asked to be the focus of this benefit."
Monday's bash was in honor of Taylor's extraordinary musical achievements, as well as his philanthropic commitment to arts, environmental and humanitarian causes. A five-time GRAMMY winner, he has amassed 12 platinum albums while maintaining his status as one of the world's top live performers. Taylor's Greatest Hits album remains one of the top catalog titles of all time. He has contributed to a variety of causes, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Vote for Change, No Nukes and others.
Demonstrating the scope of Taylor's artistry, the event featured some of the world's finest musicians performing songs from the Taylor songbook. Paul Simon launched the festivities with an exquisitely lonesome version of the sagebrush ballad, "Sweet Baby James." Bluesman Taj Mahal teamed with Dr. John for a roiling, New Orleans-styled interpretation of "Everybody Has The Blues." India.Arie gave "Secret Of Life" an R&B injection, while the Dixie Chicks served up a gospel-influenced "Shower The People."
David Crosby, Jackson Browne and Sheryl Crow joined forces for a sultry version of "Mexico," their rich harmonies offset by a brassy Mariachi break. In the capable hands of Bonnie Raitt, Taylor's "Rainy Day Man" was transformed into a simmering soul jam. Displaying the talent that has made him a country music superstar, Keith Urban punctuated "Country Road" with twangy guitar solos brimming with Nashville authority.
Alison Krauss delivered an angelic reading of "Carolina In My Mind," her gossamer voice complemented by the bluegrass guitar of Jerry Douglas. Sting paid tribute to his British roots on "You Can Close Your Eyes," singing in a low, hushed voice that complemented his Victorian-style lute playing.
Just when it seemed the musical bar couldn't rise any higher, Bruce Springsteen ambled from the wings unannounced. Describing Taylor as "the authentic Southern voice," Springsteen rendered Taylor's blue collar lament "Millworker" with an Appalachian-style howl that dramatized the tune's working-class lyrics.
When the man of the hour finally took the stage, he didn't disappoint. First performing a duet with Carole King on "You've Got A Friend," Taylor then took center stage for solo performances of "Copperline" and the Martin Luther King tribute, "Shed A Little Light." He capped his set by devoting a song to the fans in attendance — the Holland-Dozier-Holland classic, "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)." As Taylor and his band rocked the house, Taylor's twin sons Henry and Rufus danced on stage.
With his fans shouting for more, Taylor offered an encore in the form of his heartbreaking 1971 hit, "Fire And Rain."
The benefit began with a cocktail reception and silent auction sponsored by AEG featuring items like an Ebony Gibson JR-200 Acoustic Electric Guitar signed by Paul Simon, a Peter Max personal portrait, a VIP meet-and-greet at Max's New York studio and other items.
Attendees included MusiCares Foundation and Recording Academy President Neil Portnow, and MusiCares Foundation Board Chairman Les Bider. GRAMMY-winning producer Phil Ramone is executive producer for the event.