Top Fifty 7: James Taylor – Sweet Baby James, 1970

[Originally posted April 2012]

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James Taylor

Two interesting factors bear on this posting – firstly, it is my 26th in this selection of a top fifty which is hardly random yet can never be complete as it is impossible to definitively make such a selection, but I’m half-way through the effort and delighted to be arriving at this wonderful choice; and secondly, when my youngest daughter visited recently and I was playing a live recording of early Taylor she complained that it reminded her of Sundays when she lived here and I was working as a teacher: hopefully not entirely hating all Sundays at home, but somehow, perhaps, equating listening to Taylor being played with my probably marking and not being attentive enough – it will always be a regret as a family man but a consequence of teaching – whilst also her having a natural disinclination for Taylor’s softrock material and often laconic singing style.

As a huge fan – clearly to this day – my continual playing in the house always soothed and pleased me! Sweet Baby James, Taylor’s second solo album [his first James Taylor was recorded and produced by Apple Records, with JT the first non-British artist signed to the label] represents everything that is special about him as a singer/songwriter: superb vocal and phrasing, distinctive finger-picking guitar style [he trained on the cello], and his songcraft. Songs like Sweet Baby James, Sunny Skies, Country Road, the clever cover of Oh Susannah, and the hit Fire and Rain are recordings that resonate as folk classics today as much as they were fresh and stand-out when first heard. Some of the brilliant musicians involved in the recording of these songs are: pianist and gifted contemporary songwriter Carol King; guitarist and close friend Danny Kortchmar; the great long-haired and long-bearded bassist Leland Sklar, and Randy Meisner.

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The folk road is what the acoustic guitarist mostly treads, but Taylor is in my view also a great blues/R&B singer, revealed in the other great track from this album, Steamroller. Performed and sung live, Taylor plays a mean electric guitar, but his vocal is what excels as it exploits his full range and revels in the blues inflections on great lines like churning urn of burning funk. In early live performances of this Taylor mocks the heavy machinery of the lyrical allusions, but it seems today an unnecessary self-effacement because it can be such a stonking live number [and Taylor’s soulful singing range can be heard on his fine version of Marvin Gaye’s How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)].

Although that unique vocal is just showing the occasional signs of frailty on the most recent live examples, I do feel Taylor’s voice has matured over the many years of his career where so many other singers can lose theirs. When he is singing any of the tracks from this great album, there is always the most remarkable triggering of memory of their time – and that applies to millions of fans and listeners – both in the connection those dominant songs have to that time and in the seamless vocal transition across the years of this significant musician. Long live Sundays and all others whenever and wherever he is played [with the caveat that not when my daughter is around….].

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