“Sweet Baby James” by James Taylor

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“Sweet Baby James” by James Taylor

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Listen To Sweet Baby James by James Taylor and more……

Sweet Baby James

2:59

Lo and Behold

3:25

Sunny Skies

2:01

Steamroller

2:59

Country Road

3:25

Oh, Susannah

2:01

Fire and Rain

3:22

Blossom

2:14

Anywhere Like Heaven

3:28

Oh Baby, Don’t Let Your Lips Loose On Me

1:50

Suite For 20 G

4:46

Sweet Baby James is the second studio album, by American singer-songwriter James Taylor, and his first release on Warner Bros. Records. Released in February 1970, it showcased Taylor’s talents and showed the direction he would take in the early 1970s with the expansion of his career. The album featured one of Taylor’s earliest single successes: “Fire and Rain (song)”, which reached #3 on the Billboard Hot 100. The album itself also managed to reach #3 on the Billboard Album Charts. Sweet Baby James made Taylor one of the main forces of the ascendent folk movement. The album was nominated to a Grammy Award for Album of the Year, in 1971. The album was listed at #103 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
The album, produced by Peter Asher, was recorded between 8 and 17 December 1969 at a cost of only $7,600 out of a budget of $20,000. Taylor was “essentially homeless” at the time the album was recorded, either staying in Asher’s home or crashing on a couch at the house of guitarist Danny Kortchmar or anyone else who would have him.
The song “Suite for 20 G” was so named because Taylor was promised $20,000 once the album was delivered. With one more song needed, he strung together three unfinished songs into a “suite”, and completed the album.

How James Taylor Made ‘Sweet Baby James’

After his debut flopped, Taylor stripped down and defined the sound of an era

James Taylor
James Taylor

In 1970, a country still reeling from Vietnam, the Kennedy and King assassinations and the Manson murders was ready for something calm and introspective. Into that void appeared James Taylor’s second album, Sweet Baby James, one of the landmarks of the burgeoning singer-songwriter movement. Released in March of that year, it included one of Taylor’s signature songs, “Fire and Rain,” and both that song and the album were Top Five hits by year’s end; in early 1971, Taylor even landed on the cover of Time magazine as embodying “The New Rock – Bittersweet and Low.”
But when the album was recorded, a big question loomed: Was Taylor himself ready? A few months before, Taylor – then a 21-year-old raised in the Carolinas and New England, with a history of mental breakdowns and drug addiction – had broken several bones in a motorcycle accident near his home on Martha’s Vineyard. He had also just checked out of Austin Riggs, a mental hospital in Massachusetts. “He was a brilliant, somewhat eccentric, close-to-genius musician, and he was clearly one of those people who sometimes thought a bit too much for his own good,” recalled his manager and producer Peter Asher.
As it turned out, though, Taylor was more than prepared. In the fall of 1969, he’d moved to Los Angeles and rehearsed in the living room of Asher’s house there, with a small band that included Carole King on piano. He’d written a batch of new material that included “Fire and Rain,” which chronicled his own struggles and the suicide of a female friend, along with a darkly jaunty ode to his troubles, “Sunny Skies,” and a mockery of white blues, “Steamroller,” that displayed his sly sense of humor. While rehearsing, drummer Russ Kunkel used brushes instead of sticks on “Fire and Rain” so as not to play too loud, and the part became a signature moment in the song.
In December, 1969, the musicians – along with a rotating group of bass players, including Randy Meisner, later of the Eagles – cut the songs in three days, sometimes three a day, for a mere $7,600. “The material was all ready when we went in to do it, and we just nailed it really fast,” Taylor said. “We were in Los Angeles in a professional recording studio doing professional work. It really went well and went fast. I had no idea if it was any good or not.”
Taylor’s first album, 1968’s James Taylor, had been overly ornate, and he and Asher learned from their mistakes (that album, released on the Beatles’ Apple label, was a flop). As heard on “Country Road” and “Blossom,” two songs that went on to become a part of Taylor’s live repertoire, the new record was centered around Taylor’s unthreatening voice and surprisingly intricate acoustic guitar parts, with spare, sympathetic accompaniment.
Guitarist Danny Kortchmar, an old friend of Taylor’s who played on the album, recalls that they’d tried to cut a more electric version of “Fire and Rain” almost a year before and learned the hard way that that approach wasn’t right. “We were playing it like a rock band,” said Kortchmar. “Peter figured out after that version that it had to be scaled back. That bigger version diminished the power of the song. When Peter took everything out, the song came to life.”
By the end, they had only nine songs and needed one more to finish the album – and then collect the $20,000 advance from Taylor’s new label, Warner Brothers. Taylor stitched together parts of three unfinished songs, naming it “Suite for 20G” in honor of the money he’d collect when the album was turned in.
Upon its arrival, Sweet Baby James – named after its title song, a lullaby to Taylor’s nephew, also named James – received positive reviews and sold modestly. Only when “Fire and Rain” was finally released as a single that fall did the album take off, and Taylor became the left-field poster boy for a new, gentler sound with a new, post-Sixties sensibility to match. Taylor’s tales of inner turmoil – and his desire to retreat onto that country road – spoke to a generation that, by 1970, felt battered by the tumult and unfulfilled promises of the decade before. “It’s one of those things where somebody writes very personal songs about their own experience, and what they’re feeling about that experience turns out to be something shared by many people,” said Asher. “Everyone would listen to those lyrics and hear their own lives in there.”

Upon its arrival, Sweet Baby James – named after its title song, a lullaby to Taylor’s nephew, also named James – received positive reviews and sold modestly. Only when “Fire and Rain” was finally released as a single that fall did the album take off, and Taylor became the left-field poster boy for a new, gentler sound with a new, post-Sixties sensibility to match. Taylor’s tales of inner turmoil – and his desire to retreat onto that country road – spoke to a generation that, by 1970, felt battered by the tumult and unfulfilled promises of the decade before. “It’s one of those things where somebody writes very personal songs about their own experience, and what they’re feeling about that experience turns out to be something shared by many people,” said Asher. “Everyone would listen to those lyrics and hear their own lives in there.”

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Graded on a Curve: James Taylor, Sweet Baby James

James Taylor
James Taylor


Before I attack James Taylor like a rabid dog, I should say that I like him—or at least I like a couple of his songs, which is more than I can say about such contemporaries of his like Seals & Crofts, Joni Mitchell, Loggins & Messina, and all the other folkie singer-songwriters who sought inspiration not from the world at large, but from their own navels. The sixties left everybody burnt out, creepy-eyed, or dead, and everybody made for high ground as the flood of psychic casualties hit the counterculture like a tsunami of bad vibes, looking for soothing and gentle consolation from singer-songwriters like Taylor.

I suppose I should feel bad about hating a guy who seems so likeable, but I’m far from alone. He’s the fella who inspired the great Lester Bangs to write a long essay entitled, “James Taylor Marked for Death,” and Robert Christgau to close his brief and negative review of Mudslide Slim and the Blue Horizon with the immortal words, “Interesting, intricate, unlistenable.” And that was after Christgau critiqued “the conniving, self-pitying voice that is [Taylor’s] curse.”

1970’s Sweet Baby James made Taylor an overnight star, in large part because his voice was so damnably soothing. It’s going to be alright, his every vocal inflection seemed to say, and the only problem was that his voice was the personification of utter wussification. His attempts at funk and soul (see “Lo and Behold”) are risible, and he’s nobody’s idea of a blues man (see “Steamroller”), not with that voice that is too white for words. And along with the album’s good tunes, you get outright monstrosities like “Sunny Skies,” which is too vapid by miles.

And his take on Stephen Foster’s “Oh Susannah,” which makes me want to tear my ears off and toss them into the sink’s garbage disposal unit. And when it comes to the blues, as I mentioned previously, forget it. One would expect “Oh Baby, Don’t You Loose Your Lip on Me” to be a misogynistic tough guy number, but sweet baby James comes across as pleading and craven, and a pathetic creature and “good boy” in general. Good boys don’t sing the blues, they play treacly folk songs, which is why I don’t believe the organ- and horns-dominated blues “Steamroller” for a minute. “A hefty heap of steaming junk” he calls himself, and all I can say is he’s a hefty heap of steaming something.

Taylor reached his apotheosis on the too-friendly “You’ve Got a Friend” off 1971’s Mud Slide Slim. It’s the song that established him for good as the penultimate nice if ineffectual fellow, one who is too sweet for words, and who made Cat Stevens look downright macho. But Sweet Baby James mines the same vein, as Taylor demonstrates in “Blossom,” which has a nice melody but is a perfect example of wimp rock. And on “Anywhere Like Heaven” he tries to sell himself as a country boy, complete with his own pasture, who finds the city too much. Elton John could pull such a move off because you knew he was playing a character; Taylor comes across as too sincere to play roles, and sounds like an affluent urban fake.

He goes the same country route on “Sweet Baby James,” and it works if you don’t listen to the words because the melody is both lovely and memorable. As for “Lo and Behold,” it’s unfortunately not the Dylan and the Band song off The Basement Tapes but a failed attempt at soul about a “well on the hill” whose only asset is its brevity. I’ve always liked “Country Road” despite myself, because it’s perky and has what could pass for a rock beat. Taylor was a junkie at the time, not a walker of country roads, but like Elton John he manages to pull this one off by play-acting, his odious sincerity for once on hold.

“Suite for 20 G” is the album’s big surprise, a pop song that sounds like nothing else on the LP. “Let it rain/Sweet Mary Jane” he sings, while actual drums and instruments and shit knock out the pretty melody. Sure, it’s too precious for words, but for once he stops pretending to be the rustified guy in the blue flannel shirt on the cover of his album, especially when the horns and funky rhythm kick in. Good God, he’s suddenly Mr. Excitement! With electric guitars, blaring horns, and the whole nine yards!

More songs like this may have saved Taylor from his reputation as the King of Wimpy Introspection, kicking the asses of the likes of Jackson Browne and John Denver, but no more were forthcoming, which leaves us with the lovely “Fire and Rain,” a song I’ve always loved. It’s bona fide touching, rather than saccharine, and for once that voice of his is appropriate for the material. Trials, tribulations, who knew Taylor, junkie or no, had it in him? I especially like the drums in the middle, and the lines “sweet dreams and flying machines/In pieces on the ground,” to say nothing of the lines, “I always thought I’d see you once again.”

James Taylor is the poster boy for the early seventies retreat from engagement with the world, an escapist whose songs resonated with so many people because they were soft, soothing—like the toilet paper preferred by the bears in that television commercial—and guaranteed to save you from all the dark shit going down out there on the streets. Forget the Manson Family; James Taylor was the tonic for all those bad vibes that threatened to harsh an entire generation’s buzz. You can condemn him for that, or you can congratulate him for performing a necessary public service. I know where I stand. Where do you?

By Michael H. Little | October 23, 2015

http://www.thevinyldistrict.com

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