JTO Feature: John Sheldon


John Sheldon

John Sheldon remembers first hearing Something in The Way She Moves sitting at his family’s kitchen table. Many fans of James Taylor’s music might be able to say the same, but for this fact: Sheldon wasn’t listening to a recording.

Taylor, then a teenager, was sitting in the Sheldon family’s Boston-area kitchen, playing the song he had written for Sheldon’s older sister, Phoebe, who was Taylor’s steady at the time.

“September Grass”
Performed by John Sheldon


Decades later — this March in fact — Taylor invited Sheldon to a Boston studio to listen to another song. This time it was one Sheldon had written, September Grass, and Taylor had recorded it for his upcoming album, October Road. He and producer Russ Titelman wanted Sheldon’s thoughts on Taylor’s rendition of the song.

The drive to Boston from Sheldon’s home in western Massachusetts takes about 90 minutes. On that day in March, that was 90 minutes of prime fretting time.

“I’m thinking: ‘What if I don’t like it?’ ” Sheldon, 51, recalled in a recent interview after the release of October Road. “That would be hard.”

Taylor, meanwhile, was nervous too.

“He was very apologetic when he played it for me. ‘It’s a lot mellower than yours, John. I hope you like it.’ ”

John Sheldon and James Taylor

Both men could have spared themselves the worry.

“I love the way he does it. I absolutely love it,” Sheldon says.

“When they played it, it was overwhelming. It sounded great, but it was an overwhelming experience,” he says, admitting he was close to tears by the time the song ended. “It was a very emotional thing for me.”

“I especially like the vocals on it. He’s just with every word. It’s just amazing to hear your own song painted that way.”

When Taylor and Titelman asked Sheldon’s opinion, he did raise one small point. His own version of September Grass featured a background guitar melody that answers the vocals; Taylor hadn’t incorporated it in his rendition. The backing melody is subtle and sparingly used – “a very transparent sound,” Sheldon explains. Listen for the occasional guitar chords that add a chime-like quality to the song after Taylor sings “blade of grass,” “winter to come” and answering “September grass” in the second chorus.

“I wanted it there, and Russ, JT, and I decided on doing it with the harmonics,” says Sheldon, who ended up adding those chords to the final track. “I think it helps the mood of the song.”

Contributing a song and some guitar work to his old friend’s latest record is something Sheldon describes as “a completion of a circle” — one that was a long time in the making.

After all, Taylor bought his first guitar, a Gibson acoustic, from Sheldon’s father, Stanley. Taylor was in boarding school at the time, at Milton Academy in suburban Boston. Nearly every weekend, he’d leave the school to stay with the Sheldon family in nearby Cambridge. Taylor was taking guitar lessons, and his rapid progress impressed young John Sheldon.

Sheldon, in 1964, playing the guitarĀ he bought from James Taylor.

“He got really, really good, really fast.” Sheldon recalls being enthralled by Taylor’s unusual style of playing and insisting: “You’ve got to show me that!” Taylor did. “It’s one of the ways I learned to play.”

Later, Taylor sold John Sheldon his first electric guitar, the candy apple red Fender Duo Sonic that Taylor played in his older brother Alex’s band, the Fabulous Corsairs. “I loved that red guitar,” Sheldon says, recalling he spent an entire summer mowing lawns on Martha’s Vineyard to raise the $100 asking price.

So many ties, so many twists of fate. Sheldon marvels at them. After all, who could have guessed that decades after that kitchen-table concert, after the weekend visits and the guitar sales, “the kid he taught to play the guitar would write a song he would do?”

Truth to tell, the threads tying the Taylor and Sheldon families together are long ones. Trudy Taylor, James’s mother, and Sheldon’s mother, Sayre, were best friends from college. Both had big broods — “They had more boys and we had more girls.” When the children were young, the two families would vacation together, eventually hitting on Martha’s Vineyard as the site for their annual gathering.

The Vineyard is where Taylor started to make his name as a musician, where he and friend and future collaborator Danny Kortchmar first started to hone their craft together, playing wherever they could. Sheldon, who is three years Taylor’s junior, was too young to be part of the action. In the age-old tradition of younger children, he trailed after the older boys, going to see Taylor and Kortchmar wherever they’d perform, hoping for a chance to play a famous electric guitar – Taylor’s first non-acoustic – that Alex Taylor had spray-painted blue.

Sheldon with James Taylor

Taylor and Kortchmar’s budding success spurred Sheldon on. “It was kind of like I was chasing these guys, so it made me work harder.” For some of their contemporaries, Taylor’s rocket ride to fame had the opposite effect. “A lot of us who were doing music around James were blown out of the water. He was so far ahead of all of us.”

But Sheldon was a quick study too. By the time he was in his mid-teens, he was getting regular work in music clubs around Boston. When he was 17, he was hired as lead guitarist for Van Morrison, who was making waves with his latest release, Brown Eyed Girl.

For a time, Morrison hung out at the Sheldon home in Cambridge. Morrison’s band was rehearsing in the basement, in a “band room” Stanley Sheldon had built for his son years before. Sheldon recalls fooling around one day on a chord progression he liked, while Morrison was behind the drum kit. “He started bashing away to my chords, then swung a microphone around and started singing nonsense into it, something about ‘domino,’ ” Sheldon says. “I thought it was because of the Domino brand sugar which was by the hot plate where we made coffee.” Morrison liked what he was hearing and they played the future classic at their next gig.

“He was doing a lot of writing, and I remember him sitting in our backyard and playing through songs that would later come out on Astral Weeks,” Sheldon adds, referring to one of Morrison’s seminal early albums.

“I think the thing I took away from that experience was that Van actually believed in me. He didn’t care that I was an upper middle-class kid living in a big house in Cambridge, that I was only 17 and weighed a hundred pounds, that I myself was shy and moody. He listened to me play, and that was it.”

Amazing stuff – especially considering Sheldon was still in high school. (“I quit Van Morrison so I could finish high school,” he recalls.) But by that time, Sheldon was used to being “the whiz kid guitar player.”

“I became a player who could always get a job.”

All the while Sheldon played in bands of his own. After high school there was Bead Game, an acid jazz/rock band that snagged a record contract and earned a cult following in the Boston area. “It would do really well now,” he says of its sound. But Bead Game, like the other groups he was in, eventually drifted apart.

By the time he was 21, he was in Los Angeles, trying to break in as a studio musician. Work came his way and his connections multiplied. By 1980, an old one paid off.

Kortchmar, who had recorded a solo project, Innuendo, was hired to open for Linda Ronstadt on her spring tour. He was putting together a band. Taylor recommended Sheldon. Maybe Kortchmar was remembering a kid who trailed him around, but Taylor’s say-so wasn’t quite good enough. Kortchmar made Sheldon audition. He ended up hiring Shelton, who then lined up the bass player and the drummer.

When the tour passed through New York City, Sheldon visited Taylor in the studio, where he was doing some recording. Taylor was looking for some musicians to back him in a half-dozen or so concerts he had planned to raise funds for independent presidential candidate John Anderson’s campaign and he invited Sheldon to be part of it.

Sheldon says it felt great to get that invitation, “to know that he thought I could do it. I knew he thought of me as a guitar player.”

By the time the Ronstadt tour was over, Sheldon — who was by then living in San Francisco – figured he could probably finally make a go of it as a session player in Los Angeles. He also realized it wasn’t what he wanted to do. He wanted to write.

Sheldon circa 1995

“It always seemed that the people who made the stuff were always the ones I wanted to be like,” he says. “I got tired of: ‘OK, Johnny, do your stuff.’ I felt like my potential wasn’t being realized.

“I wanted to write a classic. I wanted to write a really great song. Little did I know that it would take 20 years of my life to do it.”

Sheldon and his wife, Susan, moved back to Boston. They had a couple of daughters: Spring, now 21 and Elisabeth, 15. And he went back to school, studying music at the New England Conservatory.

“I thought I’d like to know the nuts and bolts of how these things are done, so I’m not relying completely on intuition,” he says of the decision.

With babies and school and gigs and carpentry work to help pay the bills, it was a busy time.
He was making a living, playing weddings and dances and “hotels where people drank tea,” but the work left him little energy for song writing.

“I was playing a lot and making some money but I wasn’t playing my own music enough.”

By 1990, he was ready to call it quits. He was about to turn 40 and was seriously thinking of taking early retirement from music. He recalls thinking: “This didn’t work out the way I thought it would. I’m not making enough money playing guitar to make a go of it.”

So he and his wife sold their Boston home and moved to the country, west of Boston but east of the Berkshires. The farmhouse they bought came with a horse boarding operation, which they took over. Sheldon found he was writing again, with a vengeance.

“Sometimes I’ve thought that cleaning horse stalls is good for song writing,” he says, explaining that a couple of hours of manual labor seemed to turn on his creative tap.

“When I was working all these music jobs, I didn’t have any energy left for my music.”

Sheldon describes writing music in much the same way as Taylor does – as hearing something that already exists as opposed to deliberately crafting combinations of chords and lyrics. “It’s like I hear something and I follow it and turns into a song.” For him, the process is fairly constant. Sometimes he’s working on several songs at a time, other times will be quiet and he’ll be just working on one.

He estimates he’s written hundreds, but says the keepers probably whittle down to about 100. (Case in point: Sheldon wrote several entirely different songs to the music of September Grass, but none seemed right until he arrived at the current union of lyrics and music.)

John Sheldon and Blue Streak playing a roadhouse bar in Western Massachusetts circa 1996.

Sheldon put together a band — John Sheldon and Blue Streak – and started playing dates in a corridor through western Massachusetts, Vermont and Connecticut. Playing original material in bars can be a pretty tough task, but his music has been well received. He says he has a small “but rabid” following. “I’m a small cult figure at this point.”

The group, which has since disbanded, recorded three CDs. Taylor produced the second, Boneyard, which was released in 1994. Over the years, Phoebe Sheldon had been giving Taylor tapes of her brother’s songs and making sure he listened to them. Taylor liked the collection of songs destined to be Boneyard, so he helped out with time and money and sang on one track, a duet with Sheldon called Little Things.

But Sheldon wanted to get his music out to a wider audience than he and Blue Streak could reach. He knew that required persuading a bigger name to record some of his songs. But that was proving to be no easy task.

“There’s just so much unsolicited work out there. You don’t get anywhere unless you have a relationship with someone. People would say: `Why don’t you get James to do one of your songs? Get James to do a song and then we can talk.’ ”

Sheldon would point out Taylor makes an album every five years or so at this point in his career and each only features one or two songs by other writers. “It’s great that I know him but….”

In fact, Taylor had been talking about recording one of Sheldon’s songs, a tune called Georgia’s Valley, on his 1991 release, New Moon Shine. “He told me that he’d worked it up,” Sheldon says. But the song didn’t make the final cut.

Still, Sheldon had the sense that Taylor was interested in his work. “He always would ask for more,” Sheldon says.

For his part, Taylor has high praise for Sheldon’s music. “This is a song of his, out of dozens of songs, really wonderful songs, that I resonated with, ” he said recently when asked about September Grass.

The song may have resonated for Taylor, but he sat with it for quite awhile, “reconstituting it,” as he puts it, into his own guitar and voice style. Sheldon got the song to Taylor shortly after Hourglass was released in May of 1997. Sometime later, Taylor sent Sheldon a cryptic message through his sister: “It would be nice if John didn’t record September Grass.”

It was a positive sign, but nothing Sheldon could take to the bank — especially after the disappointment of Georgia’s Valley. “How could I?”

Two years ago this month, Sheldon finally heard Taylor was planning on recording September Grass. Again, the route the news took was circuitous. “This is how I get communication: He called Phoebe’s house and talked to my niece, Meredith,” Sheldon says with a laugh. Taylor’s message: “Tell John that the song sounds great.”

Sheldon was incredulous. “They’re working on it in the studio?”

A little while later, he and Phoebe travelled to Great Barrington, Ma. to hear Taylor’s daughter, Sally, play a gig. Taylor was there and the three old friends met for supper. Taylor filled them in on his plan to use the song. “It’s like: ‘Steve Gadd played drums on my song? Unbelievable!’ ”

Still, Sheldon didn’t allow himself to get his hopes up. September Grass could have been another Georgia’s Valley. “There was a part of me that wasn’t going to know it till the record came out,” he says.

“I was sweating bullets the day before the CD came out, wondering if there was any way they could shave the outside of the disk off at the last minute. Especially when I found out that it was the first track. Wouldn’t that be easy?”

September Grass did make the final cut. In fact, it is being widely praised as one of the standout tracks on a standout album. From the sounds of it, Sheldon’s feet have barely touched the ground since mid-August when October Road was released.

“It’s still amazing to me and I think it will be for some time. That I was able to write a song that matched him so perfectly.”

To date, September Grass hasn’t been released as a single. And Taylor didn’t include the song on the set list during his recent short swing through Europe. Sheldon is quietly confident in the staying power of September Grass. “I have faith that song is going to be heard.”

In fact, Sheldon has had faith in his song-writing future all along. “I’ve always had a feeling that there’s something I’m supposed to make,” he says. “What kept me going was that I knew I had a job to do.”

That job’s not over. “I don’t think I’m finished. I definitely feel like there’s more to do. Even if September Grass becomes a classic, it’s still not finished for me.”

In the short term, more to do means giving some interviews, registering his Web site (www.johnsheldon.com) with search engines like Google and finishing up a new CD. It, like Sheldon’s other CDs, can be ordered from his Web site.

The new release will be called Sometimes You Get Lucky, after the aptly named title track he wrote about two months ago. Sheldon’s version of September Grass, which he recorded with Blue Streak, will be on the new release as well. “I can’t sing like James, so I made the track more lively,” he says. “It’s a little more raw.”

So will September Grass open doors for Sheldon as a songwriter? He can’t be sure, but he’s choosing to be optimistic. “I’m going to act like it is going to open doors.

“I know I’ve got a lot of really good songs that I’ve written and I want to get them heard. I’ve got a bunch of people to call — and of course, more songs to write.”