Every once in a while, we are all lucky enough to see a glimpse of the way things are supposed to work. That happened to me tonight when I caught part of a PBS special: a live concert at the Troubadour (great name!) in LA, where songwriters Carole King and James Taylor were performing. Their admiration for each other’s gifts just lit up the stage. You could feel the loving energy between them. They’ve collaborated on and off for more than 40 years and are still going strong.
Taylor sang some of his classics “Fire and Rain” and “Sweet Baby James” and I was struck again by how complete and beautifully crafted his songs are; they seem to contain whole worlds. As Stephen Sondheim says, “lyrics are a very concise form” — it takes a truly gifted writer to know what to put in and what to leave out in order to tell a story in song.
During an interview, James Taylor told a wonderful anecdote. Early in his career, he was in a studio recording an album. He finished two cuts quickly and had some extra time and lots of energy, so he did a version of a new song that Carole King had written called, “You’ve Got a Friend.” Carole was in the middle of putting together an album of her own. When she heard the version James had just cut, she said, “that track has got to go out!” — and let him release his version first, which went on to become a classic. Forty years later, James was still musing about how extraordinarily generous a gift that was.
On her end, Carole talked about a time when she was playing backup to James and he brought her on stage and cajoled her into singing one of her own wonderful songs in front of an audience. That moment gave her the confidence to move out of the shadows and become an onstage performer in her own right.
All of which goes to show that while artistic collaboration can be tricky, it can also be incredibly enriching — and that being generous with our gifts enlarges us.