Inside Summer Concerts

He's got a friend (four, actually) singing on tour

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By Sarah Rodman
Globe Staff / June 26, 2011

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Third in an occasional series that takes a look at what happens around, behind, and off the stage.

ATLANTA — “You’re in the living room, but if you take two steps this way, you’re in the kitchen,’’ says Andrea Zonn with a smile.

Zonn is gamely giving a visitor the nickel tour of the cozy confines of the tour bus that she’s been living on for the past few months as part of James Taylor’s backup band.

Along with the singer-songwriter himself and a couple of folks on his support staff, Zonn, 42, shares the coach with fellow backup vocalists Kate Markowitz, 55, and David Lasley, 63. The fourth member of Taylor’s long-serving vocal quartet, Arnold McCuller, 60, normally rides a different bus with others from the merry band of eleven, but today he’s running a bit late, so he hops aboard with Taylor and the singers for the 40-minute ride to tonight’s venue, the Chastain Park Amphitheatre. (The boss could opt to fly between gigs but chooses to ride with the band, some of whom he’s been harmonizing with for more than 30 years, because, he says, “it’s good that everyone gets the same experience.’’)

It’s 2:45 p.m. on a sunny Friday and the musicians are clocking in for their day at the office.

As such, coffee is being made (Taylor is working the grinder), news of the day is getting exchanged (Zonn informs everyone that Marmite has been banned in Denmark), and their version of office rumors are being floated (Taylor’s heard that former president Jimmy Carter is going to be in the house tonight).

Favorite stories are being retold — Lasley is explaining how Bonnie Raitt came to record his song “I Ain’t Gonna Let You Break My Heart Again’’ on her Grammy-winning “Nick of Time’’ album after a cassette he persuaded a security guard to give her literally fell on her head from a box in her closet — and the gang is teasing one another, with the garrulous and animated McCuller being the favorite target.

McCuller, who like Lasley joined forces with Taylor in 1977, is the confessed diva of the group. When asked how this manifests itself, Zonn, a salty, funny single mom from Nashville who signed on in 2003 asks, “How doesn’t it?’’ And Markowitz, an earthy California beauty who has worked with Taylor since 1990, adds, “in every way.’’ Lasley sits quietly, resting his hands atop his blond-gray mane with a bemused smile.

Between them, the four vocalists have performed on hundreds of records and worked with a wide array of musicians including Raitt, Phil Collins, Lyle Lovett, Vince Gill, Todd Rundgren, George Jones, Luther Vandross, Billy Joel, and Cher. Taylor feels lucky to have the quartet help give voice to his songs every night, year after year.

In addition to their estimable musical gifts, Taylor says “these are as close friends as I have. And aside from my immediate family, they’re the people that I spend the most amount of time with in my life, and to me feels like the community that I live in, like my family.’’

(It is worth noting that Taylor rhapsodizes with equal zeal about his other, likewise accomplished, band members, which, for this tour, include keyboardist Larry Goldings, guitarist Michael Landau, trumpeter Walt Fowler, bassist Jimmy Johnson, drummer Chad Wackerman, saxophonist Lou Marini, and percussionist Michito Sanchez.)

The bus pulls up to the venue and everyone disperses to their various dressing rooms — Taylor shows off the huge, award-worthy looking potted magnolia in his — before convening onstage with the rest of the band for soundcheck.

A few Taylor staples are given the once over, but it’s a mostly covers affair, including a somewhat comic run at several regionally appropriate songs. “Midnight Train to Georgia’’ doesn’t get out of the station, but a sultry “Georgia on My Mind’’ is worked out well enough for McCuller to take it for a solo spin later in the show.

In the downtime between soundcheck and dinner the singers ruminate on what it’s meant to work with Taylor.

Lasley appreciates that “he doesn’t really ask you to change, he uses you to the best of your strengths.’’ And he has been impressed with Taylor’s loyalty to his supporting players. “He was one of the first people to take two singers out on the road’’ — himself and McCuller — “and say ‘these are my guys’ and stick with that for so many years. It’s unheard of.’’

“Most gigs are transient but this gig has stayed,’’ agrees McCuller, who also credits Taylor with changing up the arrangements of familiar songs to “keep things fresh.’’

He has also looked out for their well-being, says Markowitz. “James has been, I believe, the first royalty artist to allow touring singers to run enough of their salary through the union [AFTRA] so they can qualify for medical benefits.’’

Although each is a singer-songwriter in their own right with solo albums to their credit, all enjoy the background role.

“For me there’s a really spiritual component to help someone realize their vision,’’ says Zonn. “I love the privilege of being part of James’s process. And to get to do it with people of this caliber,’’ she says gesturing at her compadres, “and the band, it just does not get better than this.’’

Lasley in particular says he always dreamed of being a background singer, inspired by legendary studio vocalists like Cissy Houston and Darlene Love.

“When I was younger I had my own dreams about being a solo artist, but as I got older and really wanted to make a living, I really started to love the part of being backup singer where you get a lot of the glory but you don’t have all the pressure on your shoulders,’’ says Markowitz. “You’re part of a team. And it is the best of both worlds because you can pursue some of your other things at the same time but still be making a living with someone with integrity like James.’’

McCuller has found that he’s been able to build an audience for his own work through Taylor’s audience. Indeed, he may be the best known of the four among the fans, as later in the show audience members will shout for him by name. “Yeah, it’s surprising. I’ll be walking through a mall in a smaller town that we’re going to play that night and I’ll get stopped and thanked,’’ he says, endearingly trying to hide his pleasure.

Following vocal warm-ups (for which Zonn, Markowitz, and McCuller all use a custom mobile app created by McCuller) and makeup and getting dressed (“This is the worst part of the day,’’ groans Zonn, surveying a wardrobe full of black, black and more black), the troupe is ready for showtime.

If there are any jitters in this veteran ensemble, none are evident as they gather in the wings and file out onto the stage in the glare of both the stage lights and the waning sunlight and the vocal embrace of 5,000 eager James Taylor fans.

President Carter is, in fact, in the house, seated in the front row beaming alongside wife Rosalynn, daughter Amy, and other family members. Like the rest of the crowd, he sways along with everything from the jaunty “Mexico’’ to the meditative “Fire and Rain.’’

The singers do their thing: McCuller performs his trademark solo run on “Shower the People,’’ taking the hopeful ballad to church; Lasley and Markowitz balance the harmonies of the prayerful “Shed a Little Light’’ with rasp and sugar; Zonn offers an exquisite fiddle solo to “Copperline’’; and all exude easy charm when exhorting the crowd to clap and sing along during “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You).’’

At 10:45, the show is over and the gang heads off to grab a photo op with Carter before heading back to the hotel, another successful day at work.

“It changed my life,’’ says Markowitz of the day she decided to grab one of the microphone stands to the back and right of Taylor. “Knowing that someone like him believed in me enough to hire me really just helped me believe in myself, and I think he’s done that for a lot of people. As long as I live that’s what I’ll take away from this.’’

Sarah Rodman can be reached at