The “Listen Again” series went over well enough here in the Los Angeles area that your favorite rockin’ record reviewer decided to follow the lead of some L.A. TV execs and do a spin-off. In this series we once more examine previously-released albums but the platters we shall peruse in this particular series will be (Rolling Stone magazine) five-star albums. In this edition we discuss James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James.
For those not on their music history, American singer-songwriter/guitarist James (Vernon) Taylor was born on March 12, 1948. The now five-time Grammy winner’s breakthrough record was his 1970 hit single “Fire and Rain” which rose to number three on the on the Billboard Hot 100. The song was off of his second album Sweet Baby James which was his premiere platter for Warner Brothers.
The album was the work of a relatively small group of musicians and recorded entirely within the month of December of 1969. Taylor, of course, took the lead on guitar and lead vocals. Also assisting on the album are: Carole King (piano and vocals), Bobby West (double bass), Jack Bielan (brass), Chris Darrow (fiddle/violin), Danny Kortchmar (guitar), Russ Kunkel (drums), Red Rhodes (steel guitar) and John London, Randy Meisner and Leland Sklar on bass. Additional horn players on this 11-track album are uncredited.
Side one opens on “Sweet Baby James”. The titular track was never released as a single. Oddly enough it still went on to become one of his most famous songs. In fact, this fan favorite could also be considered his signature song.The second selection is “Lo and Behold”. While not nearly as popular as the previous piece it—and the following song—“Sunny Skies” provide further evidence of his early writing skills. They are both flattened by “Steamroller” which was a humorous parody of a multi-sectioned blues walking tune. It featured both Taylor and Kortchmar on electric guitar.The next number is “Country Road”. This is his last original tune on this side. The song is about the road next to McLean Hospital where Taylor once committed himself in order to get treated for depression. The side closes with a quick cover of Stephen Foster’s hit song “Oh! Susanna” which was first popular around Civil War times. The flip side leads off with his early hit song “Fire and Rain”. This moody piece would inspire the singer-songwriter genre to follow. Interestingly, Taylor himself was never totally sure of the song’s origins. At one point in the recent past he stated it has to do with his earlier commitment, a friend’s suicide, drug addiction and the failure of his early band The Flying Machine all rolled up into one track.Also included here are “Blossom”, “Anywhere Like Heaven” and “Oh Baby, Don’t You Loose Your Lip on Me”. These, too, are all original songs that help to showcase Taylor’s talents as well as foreshadow the direction in which his expanding career was taking. The latter being the shortest cut on the album with a running time of only a minute and three quarters. “Suite for 20 G” is the album’s end-note. Its unique title was taken from the fact that Taylor was told he would receive $20,000 once the LP was in the can. Despite the cover of the Foster classic, he still found himself short a tune. So he took three unfinished songs and threw them together into a suite for the closing cut.
Released in February, 1970 with a running time of almost 32 minutes, Sweet Baby James climbed to number 3 on the Billboard Album Charts. The LP was also nominated to a Grammy Award for Album of the Year, in 1971. The second single, “Country Road”, reached number 37 on the Billboard pop singles chart early the next year.
The platter also made Taylor one of the driving forces of the ascendant folk movement. He was later praised as the prototypical 1970s singer-songwriter because of the way he blended folk, jazz, R&B and traditional music into an acoustically-based pop song style. The music was both expressive and yet understated.
In 2003, the work was slotted in at number 103 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. More recently, it was also given a five-star rating by Allmusic. Taylor’s Sweet Baby James/War. 1843 has stood the test of time as a compelling, comparatively lean musical statement.
My name is Phoenix and . . . that’s the bottom line.