Kate Taylor: Sister Kate, And A Holy Host Of Others
Interview by Daniel Coston
With the recent release of James Taylor’s audio memoir, Break Shot, we are starting to learn more about the influence that growing up in North Carolina had on both James and his family. James, his brothers and sister- Alex, Kate, Livingston and Hugh- all went on to play music to places all over the world, on stages both big and small. The music of North Carolina is not the same without the Taylor family, but the family’s music isn’t the same without their time in North Carolina.
In 2013, I interviewed Kate, Livingston and Hugh about their time growing up in North Carolina. The original intention was to have quotes from James to round out the story, but the timing never seemed to work out. The release of Break Shot now makes the chance to get pieces of the story from all of the Taylor. I will publish my interviews with Livingston and Hugh soon, but let’s start with Kate Taylor, who talks about the effect that music had on my family, and her own life.
Daniel Coston: How did you get involved with music? Through your family?
Kate Taylor: When we were coming up in the 50's and 60's music was how we communicated as a generation. The radio was an important music delivery system. Living
in Chapel Hill provided an especially rich musical landscape on the radio
and with live music. We were surrounded by country music, the blues,
rhythm and blues, gospel, rockabilly, Appalachian folk, bluegrass, rock n
roll, pop. At the house we had Woody Guthrie on the box, The Dixie
Hummingbirds, The Staple Singers, Dylan Thomas, Tom Lehrer, Ike and Tina
Turner, Broadway show tunes and much more.
We were encouraged to take music lessons. We had an excellent music
program in the public school. We'd all learn songs on tonettes, and then
once or twice a year all the schools in the county would gather in Memorial
Hall with the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra and we'd all play
together. What a sound! I wish I could hear a recording of that.
Meantime, the brothers and I were taking all this music in through every
pore. Alex, the oldest, would make us listen to artists he found and
loved. We were all fascinated by and drawn to the rhythms and the blues
from our beautiful, soulful, mournful, joyful black brethren. These people
saved America then and are now and will later. We were drawn to the
storytelling songs of the white country boys, and to the music that the
white country boys made trying to do what the black musicians did. I
wanted in! We learned to dance to Jerry Lee and Little Richard. We sang
along. We sang Pops Staples around the dining table. James started on
cello, Alex on violin, Liv and I on piano. James and Livingston gravitated
to guitar, Alex to his voice, I played a dulcimer and a banjo and I sang
sang sang. Hugh too would sing.
We made pilgrimages to Union Grove. In the summers we would go to what had been our mother's home turf, New England. We settled into easy summer times on an island off the coast of Massachusetts called Martha's Vineyard. There were community sings, square dances, coffee houses, bonfires on the beach and protest songs. We heard
Josh White, Jim Kweskin's Jug Band with Geoff and Maria Muldaur, Tom Rush.
Looking back on it, I see we were in total music immersion. Winter, spring,
summer and fall. How lucky we were!
Daniel Coston: What was your first show? What was your brothers' first shows?
When Alex, James and I were at Chapel Hill High, I remember that there was
a school sponsored "Junior Follies" program that we were a part of. Alex
worked on the production, James performed a couple of things, including a
recitation of the Lord Buckley bit about Mark Anthony and Julius Caesar. I
sang two numbers; one Dylan tune with my 2 pals in our group we called
"Peter, Paul and Mounds" and one with a combo with whom I sang "Do you Want
to Dance". I still have the program, a mimeographed little treasure,
somewhere. I'm not sure if this was James' or Alex's first show. It was mine.
Coston: What was the Chapel Hill music scene like during the 1960s?
Taylor: What I remember most about the music in Chapel Hill in the '60's is the
variety of it, the community of it and that we were all hard wired into it.
There was the radio playing Top 40, there was country music on the tv and
on the radio, there was folk music in the coffee houses, there was rhythm
and blues at the frat parties, there were all sorts of diverse musical
performance choices presented at the University...James Brown! Ray
Charles! There were the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show. How lucky we
Coston: Talk about the bands that your brothers were in? I know that Alex
and James were both in the Fabulous Corsairs, Livingston was a quasi-
member of the Sands Of Time, and Hugh was in more than one band. Any
and all info and names would be wonderful.
Taylor: I remember mostly the Fabulous Corsairs. Their motto was:
"The Sounds That Abound With Musical Style"! They rocked!
They played at the teen center in town and they played across the state at
high school and college functions. They were writing songs, and there were some that they recorded and that got played on WKIX. They were hot! Hearing their songs on the radio was very very exciting and made it seem like anything was possible. I did not have the good fortune of hearing Liv's band in Chapel Hill. I did get to sing with one of Hugh's bands. That was fun.
Coston: Did you play with any groups during this time? Did you start out as
a solo artist?
Taylor: I went to two schools in New England for the last two years of high school,
and I had a band at each of those places. We played for school dances and
plays, and at an outdoor concert or two in Harvard Square. I wrote my
Coston: How did you get in contact with Peter Asher, and eventually make
your first album (Sister Kate, eventually released in 1972)?
Taylor: The tie in with the Martha's Vineyard piece of the musical story seems to
fall into place here. James, at about 15, had been playing guitar and
performing on the Vineyard with his pal Danny Kortchmar in some of those
coffee houses. A few years later they put together a band they called The
Flying Machine. They had a residency gig at the Night Owl in New York
City. Danny also had a band called the King Bees. The King Bees had
backed up Peter Asher's duo, Peter and Gordon, when Peter and Gordon toured
The Flying Machine broke up and James decided to go to London. Danny gave
him Peter's address with encouragement to look Peter up, which James did.
James played some of his songs for Peter, who was at this time the head of
the Beatle's Apple Records A&R department, and Peter brought James to the
I went to London in that summer of '69 to see James, and was introduced to Peter there. It was so cool! I visited the Apple offices and James and I were going up the stairwell and lo and behold there was Ringo! And I went to the basement at one point and I watched the Rolling Stones rehearse from about 8 feet away. For an excitable 18 year old gal this was heady stuff!
James and I went with Peter and other friends to a party at Peter's summer
cottage in the country. It was June. There was an empty ancient swimming
pool in the yard. James and I went down to the bottom of that pool and did
some singing. We did several songs, like Charlie and Inez Foxx's
"Mockingbird" which we had sung together for a long while. A month later,
I was back home and got a call from Peter. He was moving to Los Angeles
and wanted to know if I wanted to make a record. Umm, let me think about it,
Coston: What were some of the best-known, or favorite venues in Chapel Hill?
Taylor: I spent my last couple of years of high school in New England, so I am not
totally aware of all the venues that were in Chapel Hill in those days.
Where I did get to hear music in Chapel Hill was in Memorial Hall, at frat
parties I'd crash and at various venues large and small in Raleigh.
Coston: When you think back on that time of your life, and the music of
that time, what comes to mind?
Taylor: The richness of the music, the accessibility of it and the overwhelming joy of it. Also, the limitless possibilities and the potential for communication.