This year marks the 50th anniversary of Kate Taylor’s album “Sister Kate.” Those were heady times for Kate back in the early ’70s. Virtually overnight she was thrust into the limelight, on a first-name basis with the Beatles, and performing on a bill with the Beach Boys in Central Park. And you might say it all began in a swimming pool.
Kate’s brother James had just signed with Apple Records. His manager and producer, Peter Asher, half of the duo Peter and Gordon, was also an executive at Apple, and Kate decided to go to London to be with her big brother “to make sure they were treating him right.”
“James introduced me to Peter, who invited us to a little tea party at his country home,” Kate told me on the phone from her home in Chilmark. “There was an ancient, empty pool made out of stones in the yard, and James and I went down into the bottom of it and sang some songs we had sung since we were kids — the acoustics were amazing! Peter heard us, and when I got back home he called and said he was moving to LA, and did I want to come out and make a record?”
“She was just so soulful and energetic,” Asher said in a phone call from his house in Malibu, Calif.
When you see Kate’s early performances, you have to remind yourself that she is a Taylor. There’s certainly a familial resemblance, but it was as if someone turned Kate’s energy level up to 11.
Kate explained to me that growing up in North Carolina, she was surrounded by all kinds of American music — Appalachian folk, bluegrass, country, R&B, pop, rock ’n’ roll. “It was all a part of our environment,” she said. “We grew up in Chapel Hill, N.C., a university town, and saw all kinds of amazing acts coming through there, acts like James Brown and Ray Charles, and we were deeply influenced by all of them.”
Needless to say, Taylor was floored by Asher’s offer, and off she went to LA. “It was a totally exciting and a fun time to be in LA,” Taylor said, “Right at the time when all these amazing musicians and songwriters were gathering there who would go on to be our musical heroes. Folks including the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Brown, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, among others.”
Kate recounts going to the Troubadour and seeing Elton John perform his first concert in America. She heard him sing his song, “Country Comfort,” which resonated with her, and she wanted to cover it for her album. “Peter was friendly with Elton’s manager,” Kate said, and invited him, Elton, and the band to his house the next day, where Kate asked John if she could record the song for her album. John said he would be delighted, and it became the first single released from “Sister Kate.”
But the song would have a bittersweet effect on Taylor. “As much as I loved being in LA at the time,” she said, “the song spoke to me so deeply because it reminded me of home. I missed my friends and the Vineyard.” But for the time being, she was totally immersed in making the album.
“Sister Kate” was getting song contributions from James and Livingston Taylor, Carole King, and Elton John and Bernie Taupin, among others. And Asher was surrounding Taylor with his crew of Los Angeles musicians, including bassist Lee Sklar, drummer Russ Kunkel, and the Taylors’ old friend from the Vineyard, guitarist Danny Kortchmar. “Sister Kate” was released to good reviews, and Taylor would take to the road, traveling around the country in support of the album. Ultimately the tour would take Kate to a concert in Central Park headlined by the Beach Boys, Boz Skaggs, Ike and Tina Turner, and her future sister-in-law, Carly Simon.
“She was great,” Asher said; “she was such a ball of fire.” Even George Harrison, whom Taylor said she met on a plane, said that he had seen a video of her performance, and he loved it.
But Kate saw it another way. The process of recording the album and the rigors of touring had taken their toll, and upon seeing a video of her Central Park performance, she felt she needed grounding, and she headed back to the Vineyard. Back to the “Country Comfort” she knew as home. She asked Asher to postpone her next plans, and she concentrated on re-establishing her home base on the Island.
Kate lived in a teepee, worked on shell jewelry, and started her family with her husband, Charlie Witham. As she states, “You can’t get more grounded than that.”
“I was aware Kate was not terribly comfortable with what show business was imposing on her at that time,” Asher said. “I was surprised that Kate dropped out, but I was in no way shocked.”
Taylor’s hiatus from performing would come to an end about six years later, when her brother James came into her teepee and told her that he was changing record labels, from Warner Brothers to Columbia, and they had told him that he could produce another artist. He asked Kate if she would like to be that artist. “Yes!” Kate replied and she was off to New York to record “Kate Taylor,” with James at the helm.
Over the years Kate would produce several more albums, including “It’s In There and It’s Got to Come Out,” “Beautiful Road” with her late husband Charlie Witham, and “Fair Time!”
More recently Kate has been doing some shows with Peter, and the idea to go back into the studio with him came from Asher’s agent and manager, Keith Putney.
“Keith said to me,” Asher said, “Do you realize it’s coming up on the 50th anniversary of Kate Taylor’s first album? You know, she still has a lot of fans.”
Taylor loved the idea of collaborating with Asher again. They began brainstorming about song ideas for the new record, and who might be the most appropriate accompanying musicians. Russ Kunkel, Lee Sklar, and Danny Kortchmar, who had all played on “Sister Kate,” were all in LA, and eager to play on the new album.
In addition, guitar wonders Albert Lee and Waddy Wachtel, violinist Scarlet Rivera from Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review, and Kate’s daughters Liz Witham and Aretha Brown were brought into the fold. Taylor even found a place for her friends, the Vineyard’s own Ukeladies, to record her nephew Isaac Taylor’s Vineyard anthem ”Beams of the Queen,” a song about the Gay Head Lighthouse.
Asher and Taylor collaborated on the selection of songs for the album.
“We’ve got tunes from Etta James, the Staple Singers, Taj Mahal, Nancy Wilson, Ed Sheeran, and brother James,” Kate said; “we do ‘Long Distance Love’ by Little Feat.” If there’s a song that may come as a surprise to some Kate Taylor fans, it’s “Crystal Blue Persuasion” by Tommy James. “I love that song,” Taylor said. “In fact, I had a chance to perform it with him a couple of times in New York a few years ago.”
“Kate has two songs that she wrote for the album, ‘Why Wait!’ and ‘I’ve Got a Message,’” Asher said. “She’s a very good songwriter.”
The name of the album is ‘Why Wait!’” Taylor says. I told Kate that my initial reaction to the name was, Why did you wait so long to reunite with Asher for another album? But Taylor explained to me that the significance of the title was more metaphysical. “Why wait for heaven?” she says. “If you take a moment to dream up what you might want to see in heaven, and then look around at where you’re at, you might just see that where you are is what you’d hope heaven would be. Why wait!”
For the most part, Asher produced “Why Wait!” in Los Angeles, although Kate’s daughters Liz Witham and Aretha Taylor and the Ukeladies were recorded at Phil DaRosa’s TPS studio in Oak Bluffs. Dan Dugmore’s pedal steel parts were recorded in Nashville.
The release date for “Why Wait!” is August 6, but according to Asher, it’s already getting some good reviews. “I played the first track, ‘Good Day Sunshine’ on my show on the Sirius Radio Beatles Channel and asked listeners for their feedback, and it was overwhelmingly positive,” Asher said.
Kate Taylor, live at the Tabernacle
Kate, and Peter, Albert Lee, Leland Sklar, and other folks who played on the album, are doing gigs in Connecticut, NYC, upstate New York, and on the Cape, culminating on Tuesday, August 3, when they will be playing live on the Vineyard at the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs.
“It feels wonderful, and I’m very much looking forward to getting this new music out,” Taylor said. “We have signed with a fabulous Nashville-based record label, Red House Records of the Compass Records Group. I am excited for folks to hear ‘Why Wait!’ and to be back on the road to sing for live audiences.”
Looking back on the journey that’s led to this point, Kate says, “I’ve had this beautiful path in this adventure of life. I feel extremely lucky to have been in the places I’ve been, with my family, my friends, and the fans of music, and I’m thrilled that it continues.”
For tickets to the “Kate Taylor Show featuring Peter Asher and Company” at the Tabernacle on Tuesday, August 3, go to katetaylorconcert.eventbrite.com.