By Glenn Rifkin
“I see myself as I’ve always seen myself, as a pop musician in a folk genre.”
Livingston Taylor at the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport, MA, on December 6 at 7:30 p.m.
Livingston Taylor, now 68, spent the early days of his 50-year career being compared to his legendary older brother James. For the first few heady years, which began with his first record at age 18, Livingston flew in a similar if not quite as altitudinous orbit. He had several top-40 hits including “I Will Be in Love with You,” “I’ll Come Running,” “Carolina Day,” “Lost in the Love of You,” and “In My Reply” and built his own worshipful audience. His coffeehouse days included gigs in which he shared the stage with the likes of Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt, Fleetwood Mac, and Jimmy Buffett. Fame and fortune seemed assured.
But while James soared and continued to define the singer/songwriter genre, Liv Taylor’s career softly swerved in a different direction. He has never stopped performing and recording — he still performs more than 75 shows each year — but he began a second, equally satisfying career as a professor of stage performance at Berklee College of Music, where he has taught since 1989. He has long been considered a Boston treasure, a native who grew up in North Carolina but returned decades ago to the Bay State as his home-base. In 2017, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and Governor Charlie Baker honored Taylor’s long career by declaring January 18 as “Livingston Taylor Day” in the Commonwealth.
Taylor, whose enthusiasm is contagious, will be playing at the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport on Thursday, December 6th. He talked to The Arts Fuse about his career as a troubadour and teacher.
Arts Fuse: Early in your career, you played at some large venues and seemed to be on a star track. Has it been hard to shift to smaller venues and audiences?
Livingston Taylor: Let me be clear as a bell. The idea that even one person would come and see me play is such a total honor to me. How amazing is it, to go to a club, a theater, and have an audience who is willing to spend time and treasure on my visualizations, my performance. It doesn’t get any better than that. I’ve played to as many as 150,000 people (on the Washington Mall at a Vietnam Protest at 3 a.m. in 1972). What an amazing honor to be in the presence of an audience. The size is not the issue. I guess there would be ego gratification someplace, but I’ve done well. What I need is to be in touch with my audience.
AF: How would you characterize yourself today?
Taylor: I see myself as I’ve always seen myself, as a pop musician in a folk genre. I love pop music, whether it’s “Sweet Blindness” by Laura Nyro, or “Pick Yourself Up, Dust Yourself Off” by Jerome Kern, or “It Might as Well be Spring” by Rodgers and Hammerstein.
AF: I’d place you in that category of Famous to a Few, some truly talented musicians who have a dedicated and passionate but limited following. Having soared early in your career, was that a tough transition?
Taylor: I had a conscious hand in that. You find the career where you are most comfortable. I am absolutely delighted to let my brother James play Fenway Park. I love seeing James playing in the ball park and I’m honored and delighted to be his brother. But that’s a huge responsibility. At my level, I have unbelievable freedom. I can move around without being observed. I can leave my celebrity in my wallet and use that anonymity to explore, to learn. I can tell you, large fame warps reality….and it is highly restrictive. There are certain levels of celebrity where it’s difficult to be out in public, to eat in a restaurant. You have to hide yourself and be worried. It doesn’t sound like fun to me.
AF: Has James suggested that fame is a problem for him?
Taylor: I don’t think James complains per se. He is as filled with gratitude for his career as I am. But make no mistake, if you are on an airline flight and somebody discovers you are there, you are going to be busy all flight long.
AF: I discovered a wonderful video on YouTube of you and your siblings (James, Alex, Hugh and Kate) performing together. Do you ever get together to sing these days?
Taylor: Our oldest brother Alex has passed. He died in the early ’90s. We’ve lost our parents by now as well. But we’re a very close family. The four of us are very close. The last time we sang together was when my mother was in the hospital. We threw together a few tunes, which we like to do. It sounded great. And she enjoyed that.
AF: How did you get into teaching?
Taylor: I’ve always loved to teach, to observe. I think my teaching method is rather Socratic. I gather with students and explore. I teach stage performance. Why is something good, why isn’t it good? What could make it better? Nothing happens for no reason. What is the reason? What is talent? What does that mean? We go from the very pragmatic to the very philosophical.
AF: Any students who have gone on to become notable?
Taylor: Susan Tedeschi was a student of mine. John Mayer spent a lot of time in my classes. Charlie Puth is a recent student who is now a huge star.
AF: You’ve played at the Shalin Liu several times. It seems to be among your favorite venues.
Taylor: The Shalin Liu is one of the exceptional performance spaces out there. The sound is perfect, the seats are comfortable, the view over the harbor is amazing. It is arguably the perfect place for me to play.
AF: What can the audience expect at the Rockport show?
Taylor: I don’t know what I’m going to play. At this age, with my experience level, I’ve got a lot of colors on my palette. I can assure you it will be bright and gaudy, many beautiful colors and hues we can go after.
Glenn Rifkin is a veteran journalist and author who has covered business for many publications including The New York Times for nearly 30 years. He has written about music, film, theater, food and books for The Arts Fuse. His new book Future Forward: Leadership Lessons from Patrick McGovern, the Visionary Who Circled the Globe and Built a Technology Media Empire was recently published by McGraw-Hill