Over six years at Warner Bros. Records, James Taylor laid the groundwork for a career that is now in its sixth decade. The Massachusetts native’s records were key exponents of the early Laurel Canyon sound, not to mention the entire confessional “singer-songwriter” movement that today is synonymous with the 1970s. The six albums he released at Warner Bros. were collected over the summer in one essential CD or vinyl LP box set, The Warner Bros. Albums 1970-1976, that’s perfect for the impending holiday gift-giving season.
In the documentary film Troubadours, Carole King comments that due to the “generational and cultural turbulence…there was a hunger for the intimacy of what we did.” And as 1970 began, listeners certainly did hunger for James Taylor. After the commercial failure of his 1968 Apple Records debut, Taylor and his producer Peter Asher decamped for the singer’s native America, where Sweet Baby James was recorded. Taylor assembled loyal friends, including guitarist Danny “Kootch” Kortchmar, drummer Russ Kunkel, a pre-Tapestry Carole King, and future Eagle Randy Meisner, to support his often-gentle vocals and distinct guitar style. Indeed, it was if Sweet Baby James was speaking directly to its audience in conversational and intimate fashion. Fusing folk, country, pop, gospel, and blues idioms and matching them to intensely personal lyrics, Sweet Baby James remains a high point in the artist’s considerable discography.
Only James Taylor could have written “Fire and Rain,” a painfully honest account of losing a friend to suicide during a period of mental hospitalization. His innately sweet, soft voice made the composition all the more affecting, the sadness all the more poignant. A song of stunning depth even with its initial impact long dulled by familiarity, “Fire” was plain-spoken poetry. Its opening lines were shocking and sad (“Just yesterday morning, they let me know you were gone/Suzanne, the plans they made put an end to you…”). Angst and awareness of the finality of it all permeated the lyric (“But I always thought I would see you again…”). Many of the words were starkly autobiographical, as with the reference to “sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground.” (Taylor’s first band, with Danny Kortchmar, was The Flying Machine – not the “Smile a Little Smile for Me” group of the same name.) But Taylor had a dramatist’s gift of understanding, that the most specific writing is usually also the most universal. “Fire and Rain” struck an emotional chord. It still does.
Over twelve songs, Taylor sung from the heart, inviting listeners into what seemed like his private world with references to family, friends, and his own search for meaning. The title track is a lullaby in waltz time for the singer’s namesake nephew, chockablock with memorable imagery taking the listener from the snow-covered Massachusetts Turnpike to the old west. The uptempo yet wounded “Country Road” demonstrated his gift to create accessible pop without sacrificing authenticity. “Lo and Behold” offered a hint of gospel style while Taylor emphasized his connection with troubadours of the past in reinterpreting Stephen Foster’s “Oh, Susannah.” Sweet Baby James. And lest the album became too dark, Taylor included a couple of blues riffs, “Baby Don’t Loose Your Lip on Me” and “Steamroller,” a satire of a jam which is still a favorite in concert today (and was covered by no less than Elvis Presley). Sweet Baby James earned a 1971 Grammy nomination for Album of the Year.
After the breakthrough success of Taylor’s Sweet Baby James and its single “Fire and Rain,” the artist scored another major success with the April 1971 release of Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon. Containing his only Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 hit to date, “You’ve Got a Friend,” the album itself made it all the way up the chart to No. 2…and was held off from the top spot, ironically, by Carole King’s Tapestry. That album not only featured her own version of “You’ve Got a Friend,” but prominently featured Taylor.
Though he didn’t write it, “You’ve Got a Friend” best sums up the Taylor ethos; with no condescension whatsoever, he becomes that friend we all wish we had, delivering perhaps the definitive version of his friend King’s anthem. But there’s much more to Mud Slide Slim than just “You’ve Got a Friend,” beginning with the joyous declaration that “Love Has Brought Me Around.” The album, produced like its predecessor by Peter Asher, also introduced another Top 40 hit, “Long Ago and Far Away.” The title was previously used by Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin – tough acts to follow, no? – but Taylor’s haunting, pretty ballad was another deeply personal one. As on “Fire and Rain,” Taylor sang of the song itself: “Where do your golden rainbows end? Why is the song I sing so sad?” Joni Mitchell accompanied him on prominent harmony, and she was also among the tight background singers on “You’ve Got a Friend.” Mud Slide Slim introduced another standard in Taylor’s much-covered, liltingly romantic lullaby “You Can Close Your Eyes.” Danny Kortchmar supplied the tale of gangster “Machine Gun Kelly,” and joined Russ Kunkel, Leland Sklar, Joni Mitchell, Kate Taylor and Carole King among the album’s key personnel. Images of the open road and the vast highway again peppered Mud Slide Slim. Taylor, fighting depression and addiction, was searching for meaning, for companionship, for love, for peace, for home. Once again, he turned the twin pulls of darkness and light into powerful, empathetic art. The eclectic nature of Mud Slide Slim would be taken one step further on his next release.
21 months elapsed between Mud Slide Slim and Taylor’s fourth LP, One Man Dog. When it finally arrived in November 1972, fans were surprised to find that it was as freeform as the previous two albums had been studiously crafted. One Man Dog was a rough-hewn collection of songs, instrumentals, and fragments – 18 in roughly 38 minutes, with titles like “Instrumental I,” “New Tune,” “Instrumental II,” “Hymn,” and “Dance.” The album featured songs from Danny Kortchmar (“Back on the Street Again”) and John McLaughlin (“Someone”) and even the traditional “One Morning in May.” Tracks were recorded with Asher at Taylor’s home studio, at Clover Recorders with Robert Appere, and at New York’s A&R Studios with Phil Ramone.
Of Taylor’s own, fresh material “New Tune” was undeniably pretty but felt unfinished. “Woh, Don’t You Know,” co-written with Kortchmar and Leland Sklar, referenced “Mud Slide Slim” and the upcoming “Walking Man” within its loose framework. The humorous “Chili Dog” was a trifle (but one Taylor would have fun with in concert, even decades later). Best of all, though not immediately accessible, was the final, continuous song suite from “Hymn” through “Jig,” in which the ever-searching artist traverses an impressionistic landscape of love, nature, religion, drugs, and music itself.
The playing throughout was as impeccable as ever, with Taylor leading The Section (Kortchmar, Sklar, and Russ Kunkel) and guest players like Craig Doerge, Red Rhodes, John McLaughlin, John Hartford, and The Brecker Brothers; singers included Linda Ronstadt, Carole King, and Carly Simon. But these consummate talents couldn’t completely make up for a seemingly under-developed if intermittently attractive batch of songs that veered in style and content from the artist’s previous introspective musings. The exception was the ravishing, jazz-influenced “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight,” proving that Taylor’s gift for sincere balladry was most definitely undiminished. Despite its unusual feel, One Man Dog charted within the top five of the Billboard Top LPs chart. It remains a singular album in the Taylor canon, an experiment for which one’s mileage will vary.
Another year and a half passed before 1974’s Walking Man arrived under a stark, black-and-white cover photograph. Produced by guitarist David Spinozza rather than by Peter Asher, this underrated and overlooked LP found Taylor again experimenting, this time with more sophisticated horn and string arrangements as well as excursions into jazz, folk and edgier rock. Reflecting this shift, the album even featured a prominent “Arranged By” credit for Spinozza and Taylor. His songwriting was more focused than on One Man Dog, and the laid-back West Coast vibe was replaced by a sleek New York style. The cream of the Big Apple’s session musicians, like Spinozza, keyboardists Kenny Ascher and Don Grolnick, guitarist Hugh McCracken, and percussionist Ralph MacDonald, added their trademark shimmer. The sublime opener, “Walking Man,” recalled the best of Taylor, an impressionistic but touching study of the artist’s absentee father. Drawing again on his own family, the beautiful “Daddy’s Baby” was inspired by his daughter Sally; her mother and his wife Carly Simon appeared on the track, as well. The lovely paean to home “Hello Old Friend” and near-mystical “Migration” confirmed the sharpness of Taylor’s current crop of songs. Walking Man deftly moved from the personal to the political on the sadly relevant “Let It All Fall Down.” On that track as well as the biting “Rock ‘n’ Roll is Music Now,” JT and Carly were joined by Paul and Linda McCartney. In addition to his own material, Taylor covered Chuck Berry’s “The Promised Land” as well as Joey Levine and Spinozza’s “Ain’t No Song.” A confident, convivial set, Walking Man nonetheless didn’t yield any hit singles and was, until 2008, Taylor’s only album not to receive a Gold certification from the RIAA. The artist would find his commercial groove again with the following year’s Gorilla.
Gorilla (1976) saw the singer-songwriter return to form after Walking Man failed to peak within the U.S. Top 10, as his previous three albums for Warner Bros. had done. Gorilla, produced by the team of Russ Titelman and Lenny Waronker, once again turned to “The Section” of Danny Kortchmar, Leland Sklar, and Danny Kortchmar as Taylor’s band. Gorilla reflected a happier, more contented artist, from the effervescent Latin rhythm of “Mexico” (featuring David Crosby and Graham Nash on backing vocals) to the purely joyful cover of the Motown favorite “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)” (with Carly offering close harmony). Five years after his friend Carole King wrote her song entitled, simply, “Music,” Taylor wrote his own, imploring a friend that “there’s a symphony inside you/There’s a thousand things for you to do/So come on…”
The many sides of the artist were explored on Gorilla. The temptation fantasy of “You Make It Easy” was balanced by the domestic happiness of “I Was a Fool to Care,” both featuring lush string charts by Nick DeCaro. The blissful “Love Songs” and “Sarah Maria” (like “Daddy’s Baby,” written for daughter Sally) exude tenderness and tranquility. Taylor showcased his dry wit on “Gorilla” and took on a character other than his own in the traditional folk ballad “Wandering,” adding additional lyrics and pointing toward his later work as one of the songwriters for the Broadway musical Working.
The phrase “in the pocket” refers to the magic that happens when musicians play together as one, never missing a beat or going off tempo. For his seventh and final Warner Bros. album, Taylor was indeed In the Pocket with The Section and a variety of friends, family, and colleagues including Carly Simon, Art Garfunkel, Stevie Wonder, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Nick DeCaro, Valerie Carter, and David Lindley. The album was unmistakably Taylor, but the artist and producers Titelman and Waronker emphasized a funky, jazz-soul “in the pocket” feel alongside the expected pop and rock.
The feeling of joy and contentedness that characterized much of Gorilla spilled over to In the Pocket which opened with one of the most big-hearted pop hits ever. The sweet, un-ironic sentiment of “Shower the People” might have seemed treacly coming from another artist, but from Taylor it felt refreshingly honest and truthful. It became an Adult Contemporary chart-topper, auguring for the next phase of his career. Not that In the Pocket was all sunshine; the funky, theatrical “Money Machine” offered acerbic social commentary; the aching “Daddy’s All Home” ruefully painted the artist as an absentee father; and “Junkie’s Lament” was, in the singer-songwriter’s own words, a “warning not to think of a junkie as a complete, functioning human being.” It would still be some years before Taylor conquered his own demons, but rather than come off as a piece of hypocrisy, it’s a revealing look within and a step on his path to sobriety. Art Garfunkel lent his ethereal tenor to the low-key, moving performance. The ironically bouncy “Everybody Has the Blues” joined a sprightly cover of a Bobby Womack tune (“Woman’s Gotta Have It”) and a reassuring ballad co-written with, and featuring, Stevie Wonder, “Don’t Be Sad ‘Cause Your Sun Is Down,” among the LP’s diverse material. In the Pocket entered the top 20 of the Billboard Top LPs chart, eventually earning a Gold certification.
In the Pocket would have concluded Taylor’s Warner Bros. period if not for the release later in 1976 of Greatest Hits. His first compilation album, it drew on selections from all of his Warner albums and premiered three new tracks: remakes of his Apple-era songs “Carolina in My Mind” and “Something in the Way She Moves,” and a previously unreleased live recording of “Steamroller.” A Diamond-certified album (with sales of over 10 million units) which peaked in the Billboard 200’s top 20 in 2012 (!), it’s a major part of Taylor’s discography. While the entire album would have been a welcome inclusion here, it’s particularly disappointing that the three exclusive tracks aren’t present to offer a complete survey of the artist’s released material for the label. No singles or rarities collections have ever been issued for Taylor; he’s certainly deserving of a companion disc rounding up unique single versions (like the edit of “Shower the People” or the re-recorded “Country Road,” to name two) and possibly even unreleased material.
For the CD iteration in a clamshell case, all of the albums have been housed in simple replica paper sleeves with the exception of Mud Slide Slim which is in a gatefold jacket. In a nice touch, inserts with lyrics, etc. have been included to replicate the original album packaging, though at CD size, they’re much too small to read. A separate foldout insert has also been included with liner notes from Peter Asher and the box’s credits. The mastering by Bernie Grundman under the supervision of Asher and Bill Inglot is expectedly superb, warm, and nuanced throughout.
Unbelievably Taylor’s first box set of any kind, The Warner Bros. Albums 1970-1976 is a moving and resonant retrospective from one of America’s greatest and most enduring singer-songwriters in his purple patch.
The Warner Bros. Albums 1970-1976 is available at: