Album Throwback: Sweet Baby James – James Taylor (1970)

In honour of James Taylor, a five-time Grammy Award winner and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee, announcing a return to Europe this year on tour, we look back at his first major-label release and his springboard to stardom, Sweet Baby James.

Although Sweet Baby James was James’ first major-label release, it was actually his second album. His first being the 1968/9 self-titled album on The Beatles’ own label Apple Records. He was the first non-Brit to be signed to the label thanks in part to an old connection but also due to his talent. Demos were played for Paul McCartney who instantly fell in love with James’ style and his voice. However the album is considered a flop due to the over complication and orchestration of James’ soft, folk rock style. Not to mention James’ new addiction to heroin, meaning he missed important publicity appearances.

After leaving the self-imploding Apple Records, it wasn’t long until his talents were discovered by Warner Bros. Records, who signed him in late 1969. After a motorcycle accident that broke both his hands and feet, it left James with time to write new material and recover for what has become one of the best albums of all time. The road was never straightforward on the way to this album.

Sweet Baby James learnt the mistakes of the previous effort and was a stripped down acoustic album that placed the emphasis on James, his guitar and his songwriting. It seemed James had found the perfect medium to apply his low, smooth vocal lines that would bring him mainstream adoration from both fans and critics, as well as direct him throughout the decade.

It is hard to find flaws in James Taylor’s songwriting with each and every lyric conjuring images and thoughts. Whether it is the cowboy lullaby of the title track, the feeling of the spiral of pain and loss conjured by the main single or even the slight venture into blues with a single groaning electric guitar. There are plenty of opportunities to play your own motifs and sympathise with James’ in-depth, ‘heart on your sleeve’ approach.

‘Fire and Rain’ plays as the anthem of this album and was a successful single reaching No.3 on the Billboard Hot 100. It has stood the test of time with no James Taylor concert ever finishing without this one played. There are no over-complicated guitar solos just the bare bones and an unescapable feeling of the pain of loss. The backing band is used sparingly and to good effect. The use of brushes on the drums which runs through the back of the single adds an extra layer of depth, gently supporting the lyrics and the single acoustic guitar.

The song found a new lease following the September 11th attacks in New York City. Survivors and families experiencing the same loss that James sang about, added their own imagery to the lyrical soundtrack. The following realisation to draw strength from even the worst of times. “Won’t you look down upon me, Jesus, You’ve got to help me make a stand. You’ve just got to see me through another day.”

“I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain… but I always thought that I’d see you again.”

Sweet Baby James was the perfect way to prove what was highlighted but mostly hidden away in the previous record. It helped James Taylor establish himself as one of the leading songwriters and members of the folk-rock scene, whilst also helping to usher in the rise of the singer-songwriter scene of the seventies. There are many ways to look at this album, it is part autobiographical, not just of James himself but of us all. However it can also be seen as Genesis. An album that helped launch a shift in music and the birth of the singer-songwriter. Its impact can not be exaggerated.

James Taylor will be starting the European leg of his tour this September in Plymouth, UK and will culminate with two nights at the Royal Albert Hall in October.

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