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PBS 'Troubadours' Is a Scenic Tour Through a Magical Musical Era
March 1, 2011  | By Tom Brinkmoeller  | 1 comment

Troubadours: Carole King/James Taylor and the Rise of the Singer-Songwriter , the newest American Masters masterwork, premieres Wednesday on PBS (8 p.m. ET -- check local listings). Consuming its contents, for many fans of that music, will be as revelatory as they are enjoyable...

Imagine a neighborhood in which many of the residents were the creators and performers of some of the most memorable music of a generation. Or Elton John, an unknown singer-pianist in 1970, playing to an almost-empty club.

Try to hear in your mind James Taylor's Carolina in My Mind backed by a big orchestral sound. Or the Shirelles' version of Will You Love Me Tomorrow having the same effect as when its writer, Carole King, later made it a classic on her Tapestry album.

The neighborhood is L.A.'s Laurel Canyon, and residents at one time included King, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Glenn Frey and other significant artists of the late '60s and early '70s.


And Sir Elton, making his first American performing appearance in 1970, played to a mostly empty house at the kingmaker club of the time, Doug Weston's Troubadour on Santa Monica Boulevard.

James Taylor's initial solo album was recorded by Apple Records when the Beatles were still very involved in its operation. That version of Carolina has the kind of orchestral sound reminiscent of A Day in the Life.

And when Carole King made her Troubadour debut, it took a bomb threat and evacuation of the building to help her overcome her nervousness.

These are just some of the fascinating contents neatly packed inside this new, surprisingly informative American Masters documentary.

A lot of us showed up for that remarkable time in American music, the so-called troubadour era, but took few notes. There were a lot of '40s- and '50s-born who greedily adopted almost everything performed by Carole King and James Taylor but, it can be argued, didn't know at the time they composed the songs they performed. These ever-aging boomers loved the singer-songwriter music without defining it as a "breather" era in popular music, post-Beatles, and that its growth was as geographic as it was societal.

Director Morgan Neville's American Masters special, about that pivotal time, details and explains what happened, and how it happened, within a beautifully researched and constructed 90-minute package -- one it would be nearly impossible for anyone who lived through that time to dislike.

Neville has put together what he calls a scrapbook of an era, one that roughly began about the time the Beatles and Stones retreated and ebbed when a radically different late-'70s disco era elevated dance steps to a plane far above the music that accompanied them.


King and Taylor first played together at the Troubadour in 1970. In a recent phone interview with me for TV WORTH WATCHING, Neville told how the two artists arranged to have their 2007 reunion concert at Troubadour recorded on video, but weren't certain what they wanted to do with the footage afterward. Neville had worked with King before, when he shot a documentary about the New York-based writers of '50s and '60s pop music, a group that included the 18-year-old King and her creative partner and then-husband, Gerry Goffin. He approached King-Taylor in late 2009 with the idea of documenting the era by telling the story of them and their contemporaries.

"We'd like to help and cooperate," Neville said they told him. "You figure out what it is."

They were on their 2010 reunion tour and helped as much as possible. He took just a bit more than a year to put it together.


The result is a collection of contemporary interviews and performances intermixed with amazing archival footage: King as little girl, practicing at the piano; film from her wedding celebration; of her and Goffin working together on a song, and of the young family of three in their West Orange, N.J., home.

There is footage of Taylor performing Fire and Rain at the July 1969 Newport Folk Festival (below). Of a very young Joni Mitchell in one of her first concerts. And more. How did he find all of that fascinating footage?


"We did an intensive archive search," Neville explained. "We hit usual suspects and then we kept digging. The artists also gave us some nuggets, others we found from former club employees. A few clips, like James at Newport playing Fire and Rain, were revelatory. James had just written the song and it was the first time he'd ever played anything larger than a club. You can see an artist at the moment he's finding his voice. It's discoveries like that that you live for as a documentarian."

Neville's love and understanding of the music, more than anything else, makes the idea work so well. The artful mixing of the new material with the old, in telling the story, results in a fast-moving program that will leave many viewers wishing for more.

Neville said he had enough good material to produce a longer version -- in fact, the version shown at the recent Sundance Film Festival was 10 minutes longer. He fell in love with material he had to take out for time, and said it was like "killing your babies." But it played to capacity audiences at each of its Sundance screenings, he said, "and with time, and when you see it with an audience, you get over it."

This probably is the best 90 minutes of television available all month. Savor it.




JG said:

Sorry. Never could understand most music lyrics so I'll pass.

Comment posted on March 3, 2011 4:40 AM

Mac said:

Well,the comment about not understanding music lyrics is a starting point.A major reason why the singer/songwriter gained traction is that these lyrics could be understood.Recording techniques,with multi tracking,were pretty sophisticated. The ideas were simple;not only just love songs,but "You've Got a Friend", subjects like a platonic relationship;songs about wandering the country,songs about coming of age and experiencing the life of a young adult,at a time when the Baby Boomers were experiencing just that.Other fators:FM stereo coming into it's own both in the house and in the car;more stations with more varied playlists;the demise of the Beatles.Heck,even Elvis was changing,while not writing his own material,he used some of these very performers new sounding material in songs like "In the Ghetto" and "Kentucky Rain".As Peter Asher recalled,he wan't going to fill up James Taylor's second album,on Warner,with the heavy orchestration used on the Apple LP. These songs sounded organic,like they were invented on the spot,and played with skilled but unassuming musicians.Lots of them hold up pretty well,today,and still have something to say to new ears.
One interesting moment was the mention of how big music was to the entertainment industry,outsizing movies and sporting events. Look at how the situation has changed today.Professional football comsumes most men and many of woman from August to Feb.Movies,with the ability of high conceptsspecial effects,big budgets and ability for repeated viewings,score grosses in the $100 millions on a regular basis.Music is stolen or shared with computer files and there is not one sound today that America can call the dominant sound in 2011.Warner and EMI hang by a thread,while Sony struggles and Universal owns the rest.
I enjoyed much of the show,but do have a few problems with it. Amazed that no mention was made of Tom Rush,who,in one album in 1968,virtually at the time of Taylor's Apple disc,recorded songs by Joni MItchell and Jackson Browne before those singer/songwriters did them,as well as two Taylor songs.At 70,Tom still tours and sounds virtually the same after 50 years on the road.He sings these songs as if the ink just dried on the sheet music.Tom was usually asscoiated with the East Coast folkie coffee house circuit,though he recorded on Elekra as they were branching out by signing the Doors.
Also,the brief mention of David Geffen looking for talent(he got Jackson Browne, and eventually,Joni Mitchell)is interesting as David was managing one of the greatest singer/songwriters of the era in Laura Nyro. But it was the cover versions of Nyro's songs that got her the fame.Odd that besides Laura's own material,she probably did the definitive version of Carol King's "Up On The Roof".She also did credible interpretations of Motown and Phil Spector songs in her fifth album,"It's Gonna Take a Miracle". Laura was able to combine all kinds of pop from the decade before,as well as giving it a Philly sound with production by Gamble & Huff.Carole King never did something like this,and Nyro's album,for many, is her finest recorded effort.
Overall,this looked like what it was:a promo piece for the money behind the project:Concord Music.

Comment posted on March 3, 2011 4:21 PM
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Stumbled upon this doing a Google Search on Glenn Frey. wow Mac. You nailed it. Great comment!
Apr 7, 2015   |  Reply
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