In 1970, a country still reeling from Vietnam, the Kennedy and King assassinations and the Manson murders was ready for something calm and introspective. Into that void appeared James Taylor's second album, Sweet Baby James, one of the landmarks of the burgeoning singer-songwriter movement. Released in March of that year, it included one of Taylor's signature songs, "Fire and Rain," and both that song and the album were Top Five hits by year's end; in early 1971, Taylor even landed on the cover of Time magazine as embodying "The New Rock – Bittersweet and Low."
But when the album was recorded, a big question loomed: Was Taylor himself ready? A few months before, Taylor – then a 21-year-old raised in the Carolinas and New England, with a history of mental breakdowns and drug addiction – had broken several bones in a motorcycle accident near his home on Martha's Vineyard. He had also just checked out of Austin Riggs, a mental hospital in Massachusetts. "He was a brilliant, somewhat eccentric, close-to-genius musician, and he was clearly one of those people who sometimes thought a bit too much for his own good," recalled his manager and producer Peter Asher.
As it turned out, though, Taylor was more than prepared. In the fall of 1969, he'd moved to Los Angeles and rehearsed in the living room of Asher's house there, with a small band that included Carole King on piano. He'd written a batch of new material that included "Fire and Rain," which chronicled his own struggles and the suicide of a female friend, along with a darkly jaunty ode to his troubles, "Sunny Skies," and a mockery of white blues, "Steamroller," that displayed his sly sense of humor. While rehearsing, drummer Russ Kunkel used brushes instead of sticks on "Fire and Rain" so as not to play too loud, and the part became a signature moment in the song.
In December, 1969, the musicians – along with a rotating group of bass players, including Randy Meisner, later of the Eagles – cut the songs in three days, sometimes three a day, for a mere $7,600. "The material was all ready when we went in to do it, and we just nailed it really fast," Taylor said. "We were in Los Angeles in a professional recording studio doing professional work. It really went well and went fast. I had no idea if it was any good or not."
Taylor's first album, 1968's James Taylor, had been overly ornate, and he and Asher learned from their mistakes (that album, released on the Beatles' Apple label, was a flop). As heard on "Country Road" and "Blossom," two songs that went on to become a part of Taylor's live repertoire, the new record was centered around Taylor's unthreatening voice and surprisingly intricate acoustic guitar parts, with spare, sympathetic accompaniment.
Guitarist Danny Kortchmar, an old friend of Taylor's who played on the album, recalls that they'd tried to cut a more electric version of "Fire and Rain" almost a year before and learned the hard way that that approach wasn't right. "We were playing it like a rock band," said Kortchmar. "Peter figured out after that version that it had to be scaled back. That bigger version diminished the power of the song. When Peter took everything out, the song came to life."
By the end, they had only nine songs and needed one more to finish the album – and then collect the $20,000 advance from Taylor's new label, Warner Brothers. Taylor stitched together parts of three unfinished songs, naming it "Suite for 20G" in honor of the money he'd collect when the album was turned in.
Upon its arrival, Sweet Baby James – named after its title song, a lullaby to Taylor's nephew, also named James – received positive reviews and sold modestly. Only when "Fire and Rain" was finally released as a single that fall did the album take off, and Taylor became the left-field poster boy for a new, gentler sound with a new, post-Sixties sensibility to match. Taylor's tales of inner turmoil – and his desire to retreat onto that country road – spoke to a generation that, by 1970, felt battered by the tumult and unfulfilled promises of the decade before. "It's one of those things where somebody writes very personal songs about their own experience, and what they're feeling about that experience turns out to be something shared by many people," said Asher. "Everyone would listen to those lyrics and hear their own lives in there."