Livingston Taylor

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How meeting Livingston Taylor at a concert affected the career of John Flynn

A representative of Livingston Taylor contacted me to let me know about Livingston’s upcoming concert at Delaware Valley University. It will be a celebration of 51 years of making music. In an instant, fond memories about Livingston’s songs, recordings, and performances arose. (Yes, thought of his brother James Taylor also.) This was followed by recollection of a 2011 radio interview I did with John Flynn, a singer, songwriter, performer and recording artist. (John has previously been an interviewee for the Entertainment, Culture and More column.) In that radio interview, John spoke about Livingston Taylor.

I asked John Flynn to revisit with our readers.

John, where and when did you first meet Livingston Taylor and how old were you at the time?

Gene Shay introduced me to Livingston back in the ’80s. It was prior to one of his appearances at the old Bijou Café in Philadelphia. I was in my early twenties and just starting out. I was a big fan of Livingston’s and I had just appeared on Gene’s radio show on WMMR. I heard Gene mention that he was going to host Livingston’s show, so I asked for an intro. Gene was just too nice to say no.

What was going on in your life?

I was playing some bar gigs, writing songs and mailing demos to Nashville. This was a few years before I got signed to my first publishing deal down there.

Describe what took place. What did Livingston tell you?

To begin with, Livingston was incredibly gracious. As a performer, I really see that now in hindsight, because usually the last thing I want to do before a show is to meet new people and have them sing their songs to me. Actually, I don’t think I’ve met anyone before or since who would have extended themselves in this way to a stranger. But that’s exactly what happened. Gene apparently bragged about me enough to get Livingston to hand me his guitar and sit down directly in front of me. He asked me to play him a song and listened with an almost unnerving, totally focused attention. When I was done he asked if I had any more. I did a second song and he asked for another. I was only too happy to oblige, figuring that if he’d listen to three songs he must be hearing something he liked. When I finished singing, Livingston kind of scrunched up his face and got real thoughtful. There was a long pause. Then he said, “John, there are so many wonderful ways to spend your time in this life. Take a walk, read a good book, spend some time with someone you love. Please do ANY of these things rather than write any more mediocre songs”. The rest was a little bit of a blur. He talked about Cole Porter and Yip Harburg, writers I didn’t really know much about at that point. He really challenged me to study the greats. He spent like ten minutes talking about song structure, and he played me these long-forgotten but really beautiful introductions to popular old standards. – Unknown (at least to me) musical salutations from bygone eras, that had been intended by their composers to set the mood and put the listener in the proper frame of mind to receive the coming song. He even explained that he would be doing relatively few of his own songs in his show that evening because great songs are rare, and a song should be great if you’re gonna sing it. That was the bottom line. If you weren’t going to try to write a great song, then why write one at all?

How did you respond to this at the time?

I guess I was disappointed. But disappointment wasn’t all I took away from the encounter, because Livingston could have easily tossed me a few compliments. He was probably never gonna have to see me again so that would have been the easy thing to do. But I sensed that he respected songs and songwriters too much for that. He chose the harder path and told the truth. He threw down the gauntlet. And, in my way, I accepted the challenge that night. I determined to work much harder at my craft. To really try to write great songs. I’m not saying that’s what I’ve always accomplished. But he got me to aim there. I’ve always been grateful for that.

How did the encounter impact your life?

I’m here forty years later answering questions about music.