In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
On the chorus of “Fire And Rain,” his 1970 breakout single, James Taylor sings, “I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend.” Taylor wasn’t kidding. He’d been through some things. (“Fire And Rain,” incidentally, peaked at #3. It’s a 7.)
Taylor was only 22 when he recorded that song, and his struggles weren’t the kind of struggles that we might usually associate with folk singers. He’d had plenty of good fortune in his life: Born into a New England patrician family, he spent a childhood shuttling back and forth between North Carolina and Martha’s Vineyard. Later on, he became the first American signed to the Beatles’ Apple label. (He’d even helped inspire George Harrison’s “Something,” arguably the last great Beatles single.) But Taylor had plenty of struggles, too. He’d been hospitalized for depression. He’d battled heroin addiction more than once. He’d broken a whole lot of bones in a motorcycle crash. All of that is there in “Fire And Rain,” a pleasant song about unpleasant times.
Carole King heard that line about not being able to find a friend. And as a response, she wrote “You’ve Got A Friend,” a sweet and undemanding song about total empathy, about promising to always be around to help someone else out. So James Taylor didn’t write “You’ve Got A Friend,” but he did have something to do with it coming into being. King recorded “You’ve Got A Friend” for Tapestry, the album that would make her a colossal star. She didn’t have any plans to offer it to anyone else.
But one night, King was soundchecking before opening for Taylor at the Troubadour in LA, and she played “You’ve Got A Friend” for him. Taylor loved the song, and he wanted to record it. The song could’ve been a hit for King, but she let him record it anyway, and it turned out to be the only #1 single of Taylor’s career. He really did have a friend.
Really, it worked out for everyone. (King, after all, scored her own #1 just before Taylor did, and she did it with a song that may have been about James Taylor.) There’s something beautifully interconnected about that whole Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter community — all these artists doing whatever they could to help each other out. King and Taylor recorded their respective versions of “You’ve Got A Friend” only a few days apart. On King’s version of the song, Taylor played guitar and sang backup. Joni Mitchell sang backing vocals on both versions of the song, and Danny Kortchmar, the session musician who’d grown up playing folk with Taylor on Martha’s Vineyard, played on both of them.
There’s a nice symmetry to the way the members of a mutually supportive friend group got together to sing this song about supporting each other. And there’s a nice symmetry, too, to the way it turned out to be fantastically successful for all of them. But the two versions of the song are pretty different, with Taylor relying on floridly folky acoustic guitars and sleepy, inward-looking vocals, while King shouted hers to the heavens over delicately arranged strings. King’s version of the song is a pep talk. Taylor’s is a soft shoulder rub.
However you sing it, though, “You’ve Got A Friend” is a song about reassurance, about letting someone know that they’ve always got a human safety net. And both versions of the song sound reassuring. There’s nothing the slightest bit discordant or spiky about Taylor’s “You’ve Got A Friend” (or, for that matter, about any James Taylor song that I’ve ever heard). In his hands, it’s a sleepy twinkle of a song. And when Taylor sings that people will hurt you and desert you and take away your soul, I don’t believe that he really believes that. He seems pretty even-keeled about the whole thing.
That’s the strength of “You’ve Got A Friend,” but it’s the weakness, too. It’s a pretty song, but it’s also a boring one. It’s not an inert song, and flourishes like the melodic counterpoint of Mitchell’s backing vocals, or the soft ripple of Kortchmar’s congas, keep it from falling into a stupor. But this is still warm-milk music, music so devoid of excitement that it almost seems to shy away from the concept. I understand how this music can mean a lot to a whole lot of people — people who might have seen lonely times where they couldn’t find a friend. Maybe I’ve been lucky there. Maybe I’ve never been flattened out by that kind of depression or isolation. But I need music to kick me in the gut a whole lot harder than a song like this would ever deign to attempt.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the exuberant take on “You’ve Got A Friend” that a 13-year-old Michael Jackson included on Got To Be There, his 1972 debut solo album:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: The best version of “You’ve Got A Friend” that I’ve heard is the one from Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway, who turned it into a tender and sophisticated but quietly gritty soul duet. Here’s that version:
(This column will get to Roberta Flack, but it sadly won’t get to Donny Hathaway, who never had a #1 single. Hathaway’s highest-charting single was another Flack duet, “The Closer I Get To You.” It peaked at #2 in 1978, the year before the 33-year-old Hathaway took his own life. It’s a 6.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the obligatory snot-punk cover of “You’ve Got A Friend,” which Me First And The Gimme Gimmes released in 2001: