February 1970: James Taylor Breaks Big with 'Sweet Baby James'

James Taylor's 'Sweet Baby James'
Photo Credit
Warner Records

There’s little question about James Taylor’s status as one of the greatest singer-songwriters of the 1970s, but it took a little while for him to find the fame he so richly deserved. Call it coincidence, but it’s hard to believe that it didn’t at least help a little bit that his first blockbuster featured his first name in the title: 1970’s Sweet Baby James.

Come to think of it, maybe it was just coincidental, since his first album was actually self-titled, and despite having the additional benefit of being released on The Beatles' Apple Records, it still failed to make much in the way of commercial headway.

In truth, Sweet Baby James had way more going for it than just a “James” in its title. For one thing, it was on Warner Brothers, whose marketing power was considerably more on both sides of the pond than Apple’s was. More importantly, though, it had a song - the one that kicked off Side Two, to be specific - that successfully won over pretty much the whole damned world.

Of course, we’re talking about “Fire and Rain.”

Penned by Taylor himself, the song was about three big events in the singer-songwriter’s life. In an interview with NPR’s Scott Simon, Taylor explained that it was partly about the suicide of his friend Suzanne, whose death was kept from him by other friends back home because they didn’t want him to be distracted while he was busy recording his debut. It was also about Taylor’s battle with depression and his attempt to kick a drug habit. Lastly, it was about his efforts to deal with fame and fortune.

That’s a lot of material to cover in a single song, and some pretty damned heavy material, too, but it wasn’t so heavy that the masses couldn’t appreciate it: “Fire and Rain” hit No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, taking Taylor’s fair-to-middling success up to that point and cementing it in a big way. Beyond that, though, it’s still a much-revered piece of music: it’s on Rolling Stone’s list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, it was voted onto the National Endowment for the Arts and Recording Industry Association of America’s Songs of the Century list, and it’s No. 82 on BMI’s list of the Top 100 Songs of the 20th Century.

Mind you, that’s not to say that there aren’t other outstanding songs on the album. For instance, there’s the title track, which kicks off Side One of the album. There’s also his cover of Stephen Foster’s “Oh, Susannah,” of course, but most people think of songs like “Steamroller Blues” and “Country Road,” both of which have become staples of Taylor’s live set over the years. Hell, this album has sold so many copies over the years that if you grew up in the ‘70s, there’s probably not a song on here that you wouldn’t be able to identify as a James Taylor tune within the first few seconds of hearing it.
 
As S. Victor Aaron wrote in his appreciation of the album on Something Else Reviews, “In hindsight and put in the context of its turbulent era, Sweet Baby James is a marvel to listen to - this quiet defiance of trends that catapulted Taylor from obscurity to superstardom - and the album transcends the time it was made in.”

Mr. Aaron, you said a mouthful.

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