NEW YORK — If James Taylor ever offers to bring a few pals over for your birthday, say yes.
Taylor didn’t just bring his guitar when he helped Carnegie Hall mark its 120th anniversary with a gala concert Tuesday. He called in favors from Sting, Bette Midler, Steve Martin, Barbara Cook, and oh, a former president just to top things off: Bill Clinton.
Many think of Carnegie Hall purely as a home for classical music, but there has been much, much more over the decades, as Taylor was quick to point out, opening with his own rendition of “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” Behind the folk rock icon all evening, projections displayed some famous faces who have graced the stage, from Ethel Merman to the Beatles to Bob Hope to Billi e Holiday to Judy Garland and many more.
The evening, a benefit for Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute, was organized along the lines of famous Carnegie debuts — Merman in 1935, the Beatles in 1964, for example. It celebrated jazz, folk, Broadway, pop, blues and comedy. There was even an expert lassoist (Vince Bruce, in undoubtedly another Carnegie debut, working his rope as Taylor sang “Western Plains” by Lead Belly).
Taylor showed an obvious reverence for the hallowed venue, though he joked self-deprecatingly about his less stable youth when recalling his own first appearance some 40 years ago.
“Here’s another one of those James Taylor songs,” said the singer, now 63, introducing “Carolina in My Mind.” But he couldn’t recall if he’d played it at Carnegie Hall: “The ‘70s are kind of a blur for me,” he confessed.
Midler, in great voice, recalled her own 1972 debut with the song “My Yiddishe Momme.” She later sang “Pirate Jenny” from Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya’s 1959 debuts, and “Sweet Blindness,” from Laura Nyro’s 1969 performance.
Jazz was beautifully represented by singer Dianne Reeves, who sang Holiday’s “Don’t Explain” with hardly any amplification or accompaniment, drawing a standing ovation from none other than Harry Belafonte in the audience.
Cook, representing Broadway, marked her own 1975 debut with “Here’s to Life.” She also teamed with Taylor in a Stephen Sondheim duet, “Not While I’m Around” from “Sweeney Todd.” The combination of vocal styles was unusual, but nicely in keeping with the broad musical sweep of the night.
Speaking of a broad musical sweep, Martin wasn’t just there to represent comedy — he brought his banjo, reprising “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” from his 1971 appearance. He also introduced fellow comic Kevin Pollak, who performed a dated but faithful excerpt from Lenny Bruce’s 1961 show there.
For years, Taylor has been appearing at Carnegie Hall benefits for the Rainforest Foundation, put on by Sting and his wife, Trudie. And so, he said recently, it was payback time when he asked Sting to appear at Tuesday’s gala.
Sting obliged, singing “Penny Lane” to mark the Beatles’ 1964 invasion into American popular culture (and yes, their Carnegie debut), before joining Taylor in a rousing “How Sweet it is (To Be Loved By You”), along with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (and Martin on banjo.)
Taylor had one more favor to call in — from Clinton, who came to remind the crowd of the importance of musical education, the beneficiary of the evening.
He also quipped, though, that he was there to represent “every musician in the last 120 years who wanted to play here but wasn’t good enough.” (He refrained from playing the saxophone.)
The evening ended on an intimate note: Taylor without guitar, singing a song he considers the anthem of Carnegie Hall, sung by Judy Garland at her storied 1961 concert there — “Over the Rainbow,” of course.