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My Evening with Joni Mitchell and James Taylor Print-ready version

by Charly Mann
Hippie Tipi Blog
August 4, 2010

James Taylor painting done by Joni Michell in Chapel Hill over Christmas 1970

On Christmas Eve of 1970 I had just turned twenty-one and was managing the Record and Tape Center at 456 West Franklin Street. It was the largest record store in Chapel Hill history, and had a basement level that included a waterbed store as well as a high-end audio store. It had been a busy day for us, and I had been in the store since about 7:30 that morning. We opened at 10 AM and usually closed at 9 PM, but that night we stayed open until the last customer had finished shopping which was about 9:30. It was several degrees below freezing outside and I was eager to get home. I let my employees leave and started adding the day's receipts so I could place them in a deposit bag to drop off at the bank's night deposit window on my way home. As I was about to leave at 10:15 when there was a knock on the front door of the store from two bundled up people. Annoyed, I approached the door to say we were closed. As I got closer I noticed that the faces looked familiar. As I opened the door I saw in front of me James Taylor and Joni Mitchell, who were at the time the two most popular singer-songwriters in America. James' new album, Sweet Baby James, had been one of the top selling albums in the world since October, and Joni Mitchell's recent album, Ladies of the Canyon, had produced the radio hit, Big Yellow Taxi and her signature song The Circle Game, as well as the song Woodstock which was currently a top hit for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

James explained that he needed to do his Christmas shopping and pleaded with me to allow him to buy some records. Of course I was excited about having James as a customer, but it was Joni Mitchell who I was most in awe of for her magnificent songwriting and incredible voice. I let them both in and James began going through our extensive racks of records and shelves of prerecorded cassettes. He said he wanted to first get some classical recordings for his Dad and I showed him where they were located. I told him to take his time, and explained how the rest of the store was organized. I then locked the front door, and it was just me, Joni, and James inside. Joni looked a bit bored and I offered to take her downstairs to see the waterbed store while James searched for gifts. Most of the lights in the store were turned off, with just a few security lights left on. I told James to come downstairs when he was finished shopping and I would then ring him up. I was excited about spending some one on one time with my idol, Joni Mitchell. As I recall we both sat on a large waterbed in our darkened basement lit only by several black lights. The long day and the surprise of getting to meet Ms. Mitchell in such an unusual way contributed to me being particularly awkward. I suggested we listen to the new Matthew's Southern Comfort album (which included a cover of her song Woodstock). She seemed delighted and holding the album noted how she had written that song. For some reason, which I have yet to understand, I assured her that she had not written than song, and it had been written by Ian Matthews, the leader of that group. For the record, I have an almost an encyclopedic knowledge of music facts going back to almost 1900, and Joni Mitchell was someone I was especially knowledgeable about, even before she released her first album, so I immediately recognized my mistake. Ms. Mitchell did not argue with my faux pax and remained polite and talkative until James came downstairs to say he had finished shopping.

I walked Joni and James back upstairs to the front of the store where the cash register was located and rang up the records and tapes James had chosen to purchase. The total was more than $110, a huge amount in those days (the average price of an album or cassette was about $3.50). As I gave James his total he began fumbling for his wallet and started to look a bit embarrassed. He said he had forgotten his wallet, and asked if he could come in the day after Christmas and pay for his merchandise. Being in the Christmas spirit and hoping to redeem myself from my embarrassing statement to Joni I said that would be fine.

Early Saturday morning Joni Mitchell came into the store and presented me a personal check for the merchandise James had bought. (I still have a copy of that check somewhere.) I did think it strange that Joni paid for the gifts James got for his family. She was all smiles and seemed to enjoy seeing me again. I asked what they did on Christmas day, and she said they went out caroling. I imagine the Taylors' neighbors on Morgan Creek Road were delighted and surprised to hear and see Joni and James singing in their yard.

The following Monday Trudy, James's mother, came into the store and asked if I would like to display a painting Joni Mitchell had done of James over Christmas. I told her I would be delighted (ecstatic was more like it). She brought it in, and I placed it in the front window of the store for at least two weeks before she came to collect it. I am not sure what that painting would be worth today, but I am guessing at least several hundred thousand dollars.

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