James Taylor: Sweet Baby James Page 2

There was therefore an urgency about the sessions for Sweet Baby James. Using musicians including Kootch, drummer Russ Kunkel, Carole King on piano and future member of The Eagles Randy Meisner (among three bassists used), they cut nine songs in less than a week, for a mere $7600. The actual budget was $20k, but as it turned out, Taylor never planned to spend all of it at this stage.

Make It Quick

'The material was all ready when we went in to do it, and we just nailed it really fast', he said later. 'It really went well and went fast. I had no idea if it was any good or not.'


The singer is suited and booted in this publicity shot taken in the early '70s

But while the playing on the record, and the stripped down production values employed, would prove crucial to the album's appeal, it was the richly evocative and emotionally gut-punching songs that would be key – and they had gestated in contrasting ways and from diverse points of inspiration.

Uncle James
For example, while 'Fire And Rain' was the product of tough experiences and different forms of mourning, the title track was a sweetly comforting affair, a lullaby to his recently born nephew and namesake, written on the long drive Taylor took to meet his brother Alex's first child. 'I was very excited that they had a kid, and very moved that they named it after me', he told music journalist Paul Zollo in 2010. 'I was behind the wheel for maybe 15 hours. That song just assembled itself as I was driving… As soon as I got home, I wrote it down.'


Press shot used to promote Taylor's 1981 single 'Her Town Too'

Taylor also delved back into his days in treatment on the upbeat but darkly tinged 'Sunny Skies' ('Sunny Skies sleeps in the morning/He doesn't know when to rise'), while elsewhere yearning for happier headspaces to inhabit in 'Blossom' and 'Anywhere Like Heaven'. Meanwhile, 'Steamroller Blues' wryly mocks some of his white bohemian contemporaries' attempts to sing the blues, replete with clunking double-entendres. Not so clunking, though, that it didn't appeal to the King himself – Elvis Presley covered the song and had a Top 20 hit with it in 1973.


With Carole King, who played piano on Sweet Baby James

Gaining Favour
By the end of the recording session, it was decided that the ten songs they had in the can needed to be bumped up to a round 11 to meet the demands of the label – only then would it release his promised $20,000 advance. So Taylor wove together elements from three more unfinished songs and called it 'Suite for 20G'. Boom-tish!


Taylor caught on camera in early 2012

Albums are often seen in hindsight to have had some sort of semi-universal effect on the mood of whole nations. The Beatles, we are told, helped America heal from the Kennedy assassination. Disco and punk, in their own contrasting ways, were meant to be reactions to the global recession that began in the US in the mid-1970s and spread across the Atlantic. Robbie Williams helped us cheer up after Princess Diana died. Or something.


Taylor pictured in 2020 by photographer Norman Seeff

As shaky and wildly generalistic as these theories are, Sweet Baby James, and the singer-songwriter movement that gained favour around the same time, can also be seen as the kids of the '60s growing up and feeling able to reflect ruefully on the dreams that soured, and the youthful relationships that had gone south, in the preceding years. Or maybe they just had some top tunes.

'I suppose "intimately autobiographical singer-songwriter" – that probably suits me pretty well', Taylor told The Richmond Times-Dispatch in 2014. 'I've been credited with initiating it in the '70s, but I just felt as though I was on a continuum with other people, that other people had been in these shoes before me. I think the thing about me is that my music was unusually sort of personally autobiographical. It was a very subjective kind of work that I was originally known for.'


in a Billboard trade ad from 1971 for his album Mud Slide Slim

Simple But Beautiful
It seems curious to imagine that songwriters pouring their heart out in unashamedly autobiographical fashion was ever unusual. And Taylor, it has to be said, was by no means unique. But to do that and strike a chord with so many in such a simple but beautiful way was a bold and original approach. Through that door, many thousands of others have since walked, but few with such era-defining grace.