When James was three years old, the family moved to Carrboro, North Carolina, when his father Isaac took a job as Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. Isaac Taylor later rose to become Dean of the UNC School of Medicine from 1964 to 1971.
James Taylor first learned to play the cello as a child in North Carolina, and switched to the guitar in 1960.
On Martha's Vineyard in summer 1961, he met Danny Kortchmar, an aspiring teenage guitarist from Larchmont, New York. The two began listening to and playing blues and folk music together. Taylor wrote his first song on guitar at age 14, and by the summer of 1963, he and Kortchmar were playing coffeehouses around the Vineyard, billed as "Jamie & Kootch."
Back in North Carolina he joined a band his brother Alex had formed called The Corsayers (later The Fabulous Corsairs), playing electric guitar. In 1964 they cut a single in Raleigh that featured James's song "Cha Cha Blues" on the B-side. Taylor started applying to colleges, but descended into depression.
In late 1965 he committed himself to the renowned McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts. As the Vietnam War built up, Taylor received a psychological rejection from Selective Service System.
Taylor checked himself out of McLean and, at Kortchmar's urging, moved to New York City to form a band calling themselves The Flying Machine. By summer 1966 they were performing regularly at the high-visibility Night Owl Cafe in Greenwich Village alongside acts such as The Turtles.
Taylor began using heroin, to Kortchmar's dismay, and wrote the "Paint It, Black"-influenced "Rainy Day Man" to depict his drug experience. Soon after, The Flying Machine broke up. (A UK band with the same name emerged in 1969 with the hit song "Smile a Little Smile for Me." The New York band's recordings were later released in 1971 as James Taylor and the Original Flying Machine.)
In late 1967, funded by a small family inheritance, he moved to London. Peter Asher, who was A&R head for The Beatles' newly-formed label Apple Records showed demos of Taylor to Paul McCartney. James became the first non-British act signed to Apple.
Taylor wrote new material, including "Carolina in My Mind," and rehearsed with a new backing band. He recorded the album from July to October 1968 at Trident Studios, at the same time The Beatles were recording The White Album.
Apple released his debut album, James Taylor, in December 1968 in the UK and February 1969 in the U.S. The record's commercial potential suffered from Taylor's inability to promote it due to his hospitalization and it sold poorly; "Carolina in My Mind" was released as a single, but failed to chart in the UK and only made #118 in the U.S.
Taylor moved to California, and in December 1969, he recorded his second album there entitled Sweet Baby James, with the participation of Carole King. The album was released in February 1970 and was Taylor's critical and popular triumph, buoyed by the single "Fire and Rain," a song about Taylor's experience in psychiatric institutions and the suicide of his friend, Suzanne Schnerr.
Both the album and the single reached #3 in the Billboard charts, with Sweet Baby James selling more than 3 million copies in the United States alone. This success piqued tremendous interest in Taylor and the single, "Carolina in My Mind," put him back into the charts.
Sweet Baby James earned several Grammy Award nominations including one for Album of the Year, and would be listed at #103 on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time in 2003. "Fire and Rain" was also listed #227 on Rolling Stone's list of the Greatest Songs of All Time.
- 1971 — Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male, "You've Got a Friend"
- 1977 — Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male, "Handy Man"
- 1998 — Best Pop Album, Hourglass
- 2001 — Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male, "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight"
- 2003 — Best Country Collaboration With Vocals, "How's the World Treating You" with Alison Krauss
- 2006 — Grammy Award-sponsored MusiCares Person of the Year. At a black tie ceremony held in Los Angeles, musicians from several eras paid tribute to Taylor by performing his songs, often prefacing them with remarks on his influence on their decisions to become musicians. These artists included Carole King, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Taj Mahal, Dr. John, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, David Crosby, Sheryl Crow, India.Arie, the Dixie Chicks, Jerry Douglas, Alison Krauss, and Keith Urban and Paul Simon.
- 1995 — Honorary doctorate of music from the Berklee College of Music, Boston, 1995.
- 2000 — Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 2000.
- 2000 — Inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, 2000.
- 2003 — The Chapel Hill Museum in Chapel Hill, North Carolina opened a permanent exhibit dedicated to Taylor. At the same occasion the US-15-501 highway bridge over Morgan Creek, near the site of the Taylor family home and mentioned in Taylor's song "Copperline," was named in honor of Taylor.
- 2004 — George and Ira Gershwin Award for Lifetime Musical Achievement, UCLA Spring Sing.
- 2004 — Ranked 84th in Rolling Stone's list of "The Immortals: 100 Greatest Artists of All Time."
- 2009 — Honorary Doctorate of Music from Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts.
- 2010 inducted into the Hit Parade Hall of Fame.