A Six-Pack of Sweet Baby James

Now the first of December was covered with snow
And so was the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston
Though the Berkshires seemed dreamlike on account of that frosting

With ten miles behind me and ten thousand more to go

Encyclopedia.com: Veteran performer James Taylor ushered in the singer/songwriter movement in the early 1970s and refined his style over the course of three decades, all the while maintaining the distinct musical craftsmanship that had led to his early success. Taylor appeared on the cover of Time in 1971 and was touted by the magazine as the originator of the singer/songwriter era.

James Taylor was born in Boston but did at least part of his growing up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He was originally a cellist but later switched to guitar. “My style was a finger-picking style that was meant to be like a piano as if my thumb were my left hand, and my first, second, and third fingers were my right hand.”

His father was a prosperous doctor who spent two of James’ formative years in the Antarctic on the first Operation Deep Freeze. Taylor’s family would summer in Martha’s Vineyard where he met songwriter/guitarist Danny Kortchmar. Together they played folk and blues around the Vineyard as Jamie and Kootch. It was around this time that James started writing his own songs.

Prone to depression, by 1965 he had himself committed for a nine-month stay in Belmont, Massachusetts’ McLean Hospital. Upon his release, he made his way where he “learned a lot about music and too much about drugs.”* In fact, he became a heroin addict and I recall years ago reading an article about him in Rolling Stone where he confessed (bragged?) about knocking off cases of beer.

In New York, he formed a band called Flying Machine, later immortalized in the song “Fire and Rain.” But the drugs overcame him and so back to North Carolina he went to detox.

This next bit comes from Wikipedia and I can’t improve on it. “In late 1967, funded by a small family inheritance, he moved to London. His friend Kortchmar gave him his next big break. Kortchmar used his association with his band the King Bees (who once opened for Peter and Gordon), to connect Taylor to Peter Asher. Asher was A&R head for the Beatles’ newly formed label Apple Records.

Taylor gave a demo tape of songs, who then played the demo for Beatles Paul McCartney and George Harrison. McCartney remembers his first impression: “I just heard his voice and his guitar and I thought he was great … and he came and played live, so it was just like, ‘Wow, he’s great.'”Taylor became the first non-British act signed to Apple. 

JT’s eponymous debut album was released in December 1968 but didn’t sell well. James couldn’t promote it due to his hospitalization for drug addiction. In looking back, some of these tunes have heavy strings that seem to weigh the songs down. Notably, he did a song called “Knockin’ Round the Zoo” about his time at McLean.

Here’s the first version of “Carolina in my Mind” written by the homesick Sweet Baby James. Paul McCartney is on bass and an uncredited George Harrison is one of the backing vocalists. The “”holy host of others standing around me” is a reference to the Beatles who were recording their White Album around the same time.

A large part of James’s appeal is that voice. It’s like honey, it’s soothing somehow. As a perceptive commenter said on YouTube about one of his tunes: “If you distilled bourbon or scotch the day James Taylor was born, kegged it in charred, oak barrels, filtered it through a mile of charcoal made from the best sugar maple and opened it today….. it still wouldn’t be this smooth.”

Spotify link

James wasn’t to release another album for two more years, an eternity in the pop world. But Apple by then had gone rotten to its core and among other things, he needed to find another label. (The story of Apple records is an interesting one that I’ll tackle one day and Taylor is one of the few good stories to tell.)

In February of 1970, James released the album Sweet Baby James which put him fully, firmly and forever on the musical map. (Elton John’s eponymous album was to be released/ later that year, further putting a nail in the psychedelic ’60s.)

Per Wikipedia, “The album itself reached #3 on the Billboard Album Charts. Sweet Baby James made Taylor one of the main forces of the ascendant singer-songwriter movement. The album was nominated to a Grammy Award for Album of the Year, in 1971. The album was listed at #104 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.” This album included the mega-popular “Fire and Rain” about a girlfriend’s suicide. 

But I will instead go here with what may be my favorite JT song, “Sweet Baby James.” Taylor considers it his best song. So do I, Danny Kortchmar, Randy Meisner and Carole King are all on this album:

Spotify link

Somewhere in there, James married rock goddess Carly Simon, whose father was a co-founder of the Simon and Schuster publishing house. They were worldwide pop idols for a while. But in an interview, JT said the marriage was “doomed” and that in his twenties he was “unfit to be a father and husband.” By some miracle, they lasted for 11 years but despite having a couple of kids together, by both accounts no longer have any sort of relationship.

I’m gonna skip the songs they did together as I didn’t think they were that great. Truth be told, I like a lot of James’ stuff but he is by no means a rocker and when he tries, well, it doesn’t work for me. Not does stuff like “Shower the People” or “Up on the Roof.” Just not happening for me.

You wanna hear a great song, though? Man, “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” is a blues without blues changes. It’s become somewhat of a standard recorded by everyone from Liza Minelli to Garth Brooks. The sax solo is by Michael Brecker who later recorded a jazzier version of the song on an album of his own with James again singing.

This is James’ original version:

Spotify link

Speaking of blues, here’s a straight-up blues number from Sweet Baby James. It’s actually a parody as James had heard one too many white-boy blues bands. But it’s actually a pretty good song and Elvis apparently never get the memo as he used to do it live all the time. My friend Bill and I like to jam on this one:

Spotify link

Songfacts: “Copperline is an area near Chapel Hill in North Carolina where James Taylor grew up, and the song is a nostalgic look back at his childhood, complete with a mention of his dog, Hercules. Taylor visited Copperline before he wrote the song, and discovered that pre-fabricated homes had popped up in the area, destroying its charm. He sings about this in the lyrics, “I tried to go back, as if I could, all spec houses and plywood, tore up and tore up good.”

“Copperline” was co-written with the late Duke University professor Reynolds Price who became good friends with JT. This song came out in 1991 when one would think that James was well past his sale date. But he still had some good tunes in him:

Spotify link

In the same sense that Paul Simon isn’t all melancholy, neither is Mr. Taylor. I dig his fun song ‘Mexico” with Kortchmar on electric guitar, and the inimitable David Crosby and Graham Nash on harmony vocals:

Spotify link

*James’ brother Alex died of alcoholism in 1993 at 46 years old.

 

 

19 thoughts on “A Six-Pack of Sweet Baby James

  1. I like/dislike how he made an album called Daddy Loves His Work after Simon gave him an ultimatum to choose between marriage and career.

    My big four Taylor songs are the 1976 version of ‘Carolina in my Mind’, ‘Fire and Rain’, ‘Your Smiling Face’, and ‘Copperline’. The studio version of ‘Steamroller ‘ rules, but the live version on Greatest Hits misses the point.

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    1. Is that how that came about? Why was Simon giving him an ultimatum? Who the hell is he?

      I like those tunes, of course. But the downside of James is that his mellow can list over to laconic. So while I dig him on the radio I wouldn’t be too keen on seeing him live I think. I don’t do mellow too well at shows.

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  2. I’ve been a fan of James Taylor since I was 14 (1970). Of course his early work is his best known. But for me he reached the pinnacle of his songwriting in the ’90s with Copperline and Hourglass. Both are just loaded with gems and the production value is pristine, the arrangements innovative.

    I think he can hold his own as a rocker. And he can pull off gospel as well (Shed a Little Light).

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  3. Never listened to him. But here’s something funny. In line with you hearing the Cash song at the same time as the ‘Country Music’ post. I was listening to a Mark Knopfler album yesterday and JT popped up on guest vocals.

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      1. Just not my style Doc. I was listening to so much music back then and it just didn’t grab me (I was blowing my ears out with some nasty stuff). I’m sure I missed out on some good stuff but I do have quite a few singer/songwriters I like.

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        1. I have quite a few I really like. John Prine at the top of the list. Steve Forbert up there with him. Townes….I’ll stop now. Guys like Lightfoot I like but never really dug in. He has tunes that get stuck in the old head. Being a Canuck I heard a lot of him. Not a bad thing.

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        2. I can respect those guys’ artistry. But like you and JT, never really got on their train. I get restless with the acoustic guys and then I have to go listen to Lou Reed and “Rock ‘n Roll Animal.” That rock ‘n roll monkey stays on my back.

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