James Taylor has won just about every public accolade one can win in the music industry, everything from induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to having a bridge on U.S. 15/501 named after him. But Taylor received one of the more unusual honors of his career a few weeks ago, in quiet circumstances.
It happened backstage at Greensboro Coliseum, a few hours before showtime for his July 31 concert there. A saxophonist could be heard riffing away down the hall as Taylor came out to greet some visitors from UNC-Chapel Hill – and become the latest recipient of a certificate of appreciation in “The Music Department of the UNC College of Arts and Sciences Proclamation Program.”
The presenter was Ken Weiss, “Entrepreneur in Residence” for UNC’s music department. He handed over a framed parchment that bore the names of various university officials (including Chancellor Carol Folt and Karen Gil, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences) and extolled Taylor’s virtues:
We honor Mr. Taylor, a truly great American musician, for his inspirational and creative vision of songwriting as both art and craft and the development of the singer-songwriter genre; for his warm, engaging voice that resonates with audiences throughout the world; and for his decades of dedication and commitment to positive political and social change, demonstrating that music can truly make a difference in the world … James Taylor is an artist with deep ties to Carolina whose music will forever remain in our minds and in our hearts.
Visibly touched, Taylor took the document and gazed at its photo of the iconic on-campus Old Well rotunda.
“Look at that; it’s the Old Well,” Taylor said. “This is so excellent, thank you so much ... This is a great picture. There’s the Old Well, and there’s the dorm my dad stayed in when he first came to UNC.”
Asked where he’ll hang it, Taylor said he’d probably put it up in his studio back home.
“We have a barn by the house where we do a lot of recording and guitar lessons and things,” he said. “I have a couple of awards from over the years that are out there. But nothing like this.”
Turning back to Weiss, Taylor shook his hand again.
“Thank you so much; this is just beautiful. Fantastic.”
“It’s a very select group,” Weiss said.
Dylan with asterisk
Weiss, 67, has co-taught a class in arts entrepreneurship at UNC since 2010. Before moving to Chapel Hill in 2007, he worked for four decades in the music industry, most notably handling the publishing affairs of Stephen Stills – the middle name and heartbeat of the Hall of Fame folk-rock trio Crosby, Stills & Nash.
The proclamation program started two years ago. Inspired by the urge to “honor people while they’re still around,” Weiss came up with the idea of presenting these certificates to Hall of Fame-caliber acts passing through the area. So far, it’s the work of a selection committee of one.
“It’s been Ken completely up to this point, and I’m happy with that,” said Louise Toppin, chair of UNC’s music department. “It’s his brainchild.”
The first recipient was Crosby Stills & Nash, which was easy enough for Weiss to arrange when they played the Durham Performing Arts Center. Chris Hillman, a founding member of folk-rock icons the Byrds, also wasn’t uncomplicated to set up. But the other recipients have been a bit more difficult to pull off: Taylor, the Beatles and Bob Dylan.
Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr each received proclamations before their shows at Greensboro Coliseum and DPAC, respectively. Weiss will present the late George Harrison’s to his widow, Olivia Harrison, and he’s already gone to New York to cover John Lennon with Yoko Ono (while the idea is to focus on the living, Weiss decided to make an exception for the deceased Beatles).
As for Dylan, he had agreed to accept his award while in the area to play DPAC this past April. But he bowed out at the last minute.
“The day before, his manager called from New York to say he wanted to focus on the show,” Weiss said. “‘He loves the idea, we just can’t have the distraction.’ So I consider that one done, with an asterisk, except for the photograph.”
Taylor took time
Although these presentations take all of five minutes, getting even that much face-time with stars of this magnitude can involve the sort of delicate negotiations you might expect for an audience with the president. Every platinum-level star has an army of gatekeepers whose job is to say no to pretty much everything.
Fortuitously, Weiss has connections he can work. He didn’t know McCartney but did know people in business with him. Setting up that proclamation ceremony took about three months.
Given Taylor’s ties to Chapel Hill from having grown up there, you might expect that to be another simple one. But Taylor actually took the longest of all to arrange, about a year.
“I feel like if I can do this with Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan, there’s nobody I can’t get to,” Weiss said. “But, yeah, with James Taylor, at first they were telling me, ‘He’s so busy, has so many things on the table.’ They turned us down until I got with his manager, Michael Gorfaine, who I’ve known for 30 years. The timing has to work for various reasons, but it takes five minutes – presentation, pictures, talk a bit. Then they’re acknowledged for the next 200 years, or more.”
These are proclamations rather than honorary degrees, and Mark Katz (who was head of the music department when Weiss started the program) admits he was skeptical at first. But Weiss persuaded Katz to go along with it, and what finally brought him around was seeing the artists’ reactions to receiving something with the cachet of academia.
“My thought was that Paul McCartney and musicians of his caliber probably have warehouses full of awards and wouldn’t get very excited about a framed proclamation from UNC’s music department,” Katz said. “But I came around when we worked with Ringo Starr. He seemed genuinely touched and even requested a ‘graduation hat’ from UNC, which he insisted on wearing for the photographer. It means more to these artists to be recognized by a university than to receive yet another industry award.”
For Weiss, it’s about the photograph of the presentation as much as the award itself. Eventually, the photographs and proclamations will go on display in UNC’s Hill Hall after it reopens next year. Weiss envisions it as a Wall of Fame, with scores of artists.
“Think about what that will look like in 100 years, how inspiring that might be to students in the music department,” Weiss said. “Like, if there was a picture now of us giving a proclamation to Mozart 200-some years ago, that would be cool, right? The main criteria is worthiness, the greatest contributions and the most influence. That’s obviously subjective, but you can’t argue that the people in so far don’t qualify.”
True, but the ones in so far do represent a pretty narrow demographic of mainstream older-white-guy rock – very much like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Might someone like, say, Kanye West qualify someday?
“Maybe,” Weiss said. “Not today, not yet. I mean, in 1957, it was not clear that Elvis (Presley) would be influential enough that his influence might endure and stand the test of time, either. There are so many people I have this feeling about, but I don’t know because they could fade out quickly. If she were still alive, Amy Winehouse would have that potential. But after I’m gone, I hope the university will carry it along. I’m confident someone will. I’m more concerned with losing more people before we can get them proclamations.”