Now into his sixth decade, James Taylor carved out his best work from 1970-1977, represented on six albums for Warner Bros. and one for Columbia.
After his first album failed to excite many, James Taylor left England and returned to America where he signed a recording contract with Warner Bros. Records. His lone album for the Beatles’ Apple Records introduced the Taylor sound, although it was dressed up with fancy string interludes, and the marketing/promotion of the album was rather poor.
Peter Asher, who served in a top position with Apple Records, would guide Taylor’s career (and Linda Ronstadt’s) and produce Taylor’s first three records with Warner Bros. Asher, was half of the 1960s pop duo, Peter and Gordon, and the brother of actress Jane Asher, who had been Paul McCartney’s girlfriend.
Asher described Taylor visiting his home in London, in 1968, to play him a demo tape of his songs. “The astonishing music I then heard changed not only my musical landscape forever but eventually that of the world. He finger-picked the guitar with almost classical precision, and his voice and the warm tonality and intimacy of a ‘folk singer.’ But he was throwing in chords that had more in common with the Manhattans than Woody Guthrie, and in his soulful singing one could hear more Sam Cooke and Ray Charles than Pete Seeger. And the songs I heard on that tape were compositions of extraordinary beauty and subtlety.”
Fifty years ago, Taylor began his musical journey with the release of Sweet Baby James, a ground-breaking album of mainly ballads rich in the textures of life experiences.
Sweet Baby James (1970)
“I hope my next album will be simpler. It has to be, because the music is simple and a big production job just buries all my intentions,” Taylor told Rolling Stone. He was talking about wanting his first album for Warners to be less ornate than his Apple album. Sweet Baby James is leaner and more direct, the melodies drift into the air like a just-opened bottle of wine. The arrangements are not complicated, his voice and guitar are front and center.
“Sweet Baby James” served as a worthy introduction to the next fifty years. “Fire and Rain” was an instant hit, a reflective and warm song. The string accompaniment turns this folk song into a pop masterpiece. “Country Roads” is a strong, uptempo song done with acoustic instruments. “Steamroller” is bluesy, rocking song that would be a Taylor staple for years to come. “Blossom” is an overlooked gem.
Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon (1971)
While the album had an unusual name, it climbed the chart to the number two position on Billboard. The number one position was held by his friend Carole King’s Tapestry, which Taylor had played on. Although King kept him from the top of the album chart, Taylor’s version of her song, “You’ve Got a Friend,” did top the singles chart. King also plays on this album.
The easy going songs continued with “You Can Close Your Eyes,” “Long Ago and Far Away” and “Hey Mister, That’s Me Up On the Jukebox” songs that would have a long shelf life. Finely crafted, these songs would have had vastly different arrangements, if recorded a few years later. “Places in My Past” is a rare piano performance by Taylor and it reminds me of the style of Todd Rundgren. “Mud Slide Slim” has an R&B groove laid on top of a gentle pop backbone.
Taylor dabbles in rock and roll, country, folk-pop, R&B, blues and other styles adventurously in a tasty musical pop stew. It’s no wonder why this album was so popular.
One Man Dog (1972)
Taylor changed it up a little with this album. Half of the album replicated his past formula, while the other half tried something new. Sales were strong as the album rose to number four on the chart. The lead single, “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight,” a tender, beautiful song, reached number 14 on the chart.
The album has 18 songs, many of them short, with a few instrumentals thrown in. I’m not sure this is a concept album, but it reminds me of his very first album with the musical linkages, spinets of songs. Individually, the songs might sound weaker, but together, they form a song-cycle, a statement about wandering the emotional margins of America. The songs on what was side two fit together like pieces of a puzzle.
“One Man Parade” starts the album and establishes the breezy, jazzy drift of the album, which was recorded in Taylor’s rustic home. “Nobody But You” is another fine song, loose and rousing, the musicianship is top-notch. His band balances, blues, folk, R&B, jazz and a slice of rock and roll in the song’s arrangements. This might be Taylor’s most diverse album of styles. “Back on the Street Again” is one of several songs that feel unfinished, but it have the blueprint of fine songs. John McLaughlin’s “Someone” is a good fit with Taylor’s songs, his warm voice blends with the acoustic instruments on the song.
Walking Man (1974)
Taylor decided to really change things, so enlisted a producer, David Spinozza and recorded in New York City, with a different group of musicians. Different, was not necessarily better, but the album had fewer song sketches and more complete songs. These songs are not dissimilar to those on past albums, but the arrangements are more complex and tight, not the looseness of the other albums. The experimentation of the last album was gone. The arrangements are very professionally done, with lots of horn and string accents. The acoustic familiar guitar sound is dialed down in the mix. The album feels like a suit designed for someone else to wear.
“Walking Man” was the single and it cracked the top thirty, a hit, but was not a huge commercial hit. The song has the Taylor warmth and easy going flavor of his best work. “Let it All Fall Down” is clever and nicely arranged. The main problem with this album is the lack of warmth and slickness. Prime example is “Daddy’s Baby” a fine song, just a bit synthetic for what should be a lullaby. “Ain’t No Song” is written by Spinozza, not a bad song, but there is something missing from Taylor’s performance.
Taylor returned to Los Angeles to record, and hired Warner staff producers Russ Titelman and Lenny Waronker. His old group of musicians are back, and this time includes Crosby and Nash on background vocals. The album has a relaxed, L.A. pop sound, tight but not over-polished.
“How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)” the Motown song written by Holland-Dozier-Holland, hit number five on the chart. “Mexico” opens the album and broke the top fifty, but is a song worthy of a higher ranking. With Crosby and Nash on harmony vocals, the song really takes flight. “Music” is one of those songs you think you’ve heard before, but Taylor keeps from falling into the too familiar. “Wandering” is slow, gentle song about a man who will never stop exploring and learning the hard way in life. “You Make it Easy” is a slow burning, jazzy tale of the inevitable. A passionate vocal performance by Taylor.
“I Was a Fool to Care” is a delicate love song about love gone wrong, with a strong musical arrangement and is one of Taylor’s best-written love songs. “Lighthouse” with Crosby/Nash harmony vocals is another of high quality material her. “Angry Blues” is a tough, funky-blues song. For my money, the best Taylor album of the period. Taylor seems to write the same style of song over and over, the challenge is in keep it fresh and varying the style and production, which he does superbly here. Titleman and Waronker do a marvelous job directing the arrangements.
In the Pocket (1976)
In the Pocket felt a bit like a retread; good, but not great. The album reached only 16 on Billboard, his lowest ranked album of the period. Titleman and Waronker again produced. “Shower the People” is one of his best, but reaching only number 22 on the charts. It is one of Taylor’s signature songs.
Taylor embraces an uptempo, energetic style on several times, a concession to the times. “Money Machine” which has a funky arrangement and “Woman’s Got to Have It,” an R&B cover song that Taylor’s soulful voice was made to sing. “Family Man” has a funky bass line and horns to give it a contemporary sound.
“Slow Burning Love” is a sultry, dreamy, slow ballad. “Daddy’s All Gone” trades acoustic guitars for electric ones, in a nice shift of styles. On this album, more than his previous ones, he varies the arrangements and styles, even though the song quality was a notch below his past efforts.
Warner released a Greatest Hits collection that included re-recorded versions of two of his Apple Records songs. The collection omitted a few really good songs, but was a staple for the Taylor fans, the big hits were there. It felt like a snapshot of the early part of the decade, the singer-songwriter era, gentle, airy melodies.
Taylor signed a huge contract with Columbia records and returned in 1977 with JT, a hugely popular album (more than three million copies), a retooled version of the singer-songwriter for the next phase of his career. Peter Asher returned to produce and the album, which made it to number four on Billboard, rocked a little harder and the slick arrangements fit radio programming. Nominated for Best Album of the Year, and winner for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, Taylor had regained his swagger.