BESTCLASSICBANDS.COM — The Making of the ‘Sweet Baby James’ Album Cover
By Greg Brodsky
Although James Taylor released his debut album for the Beatles’ Apple Records in 1968, it wasn’t until his second LP, 1970’s Sweet Baby James for Warner Bros. Records, that most audiences were introduced to the singer-songwriter. The album, featuring such Taylor songs as “Fire and Rain,” “Country Road,” “Blossom,” and the title cut, was a significant success, commercially–it reached #3 on the U.S. sales chart–and critically–it received a Grammy Award nomination for Album of the Year from his peers.
By late 1969, folk musician Henry Diltz had been photographing many of the biggest recording artists in Southern California, in Los Angeles’ burgeoning Laurel Canyon music scene for several years, and had become a top choice for publicity pictures and album cover photos.
Best Classic Bands has previously written about some of Diltz’s famed work in the ’60s and ’70s. We talked to him about shooting the cover for Sweet Baby James, which remains one of his very favorites.
“Peter Asher called me one day and asked if I could come to his house and photograph this guy that he was producing,” he says. After experiencing success as one-half of the British pop vocal duo Peter and Gordon, Asher had become an executive for Apple Records and signed Taylor. He ultimately resigned his position with the label to become Taylor’s manager.
“I went over and as I walked into the living room,” says Diltz, “James was sitting on the far side, sort of behind the piano with his back to the window, finger-picking ‘Oh, Susannah’ on his guitar. And being a musician, it just absolutely blew me away to hear this music box version of the song.”
Taylor was still just 21 years old on this December 1969 day.
“I couldn’t even believe it. It was angelic,” recalls Diltz. “I kind of sunk down in front of him and asked if he would play it again. The first pictures I took of him, he was sitting there.”
The photographer then suggested that they “go outside somewhere” and they went over to a friend of Diltz’s who had a place called “The Farm.”
“It was kind of a musical commune,” he says. “There were little sheds, little outhouses and things. So we took pictures there. It was very quiet. We weren’t talking much. And at one point James leaned on this big post. He’s a tall guy and he leaned on it and it filled my frame… my horizontal frame… in a perfect way. I thought, ‘Holy cow… I’m taking black-and-white, because they wanted publicity pictures.’ “So I said, ‘Wait a minute, James, don’t move.’
James Taylor at “The Farm,” Dec. 1969 (Photo: © Henry Diltz; used with permission)
“And I picked up my color camera because in my mind I was thinking I want to show this in my slide shows for my hippie friends and I wanted to show this picture that was blowing my mind.”
“And when Peter saw those, he showed them to Warner Bros. and it became the cover. The art director blew it up, it was kind of grainy, and he cropped it into a square. Inside that was a pullout, black-and-white, that had the lyrics on one side and it was like 12×24 when you opened it up and on the other side was that black-and-white picture of him from elbow to elbow, leaning on that post as a horizontal shot the way it ought to be. And that’s one of my absolute favorite portraits.”
[Taylor’s tour with Jackson Browne has been moved to 2021. Tickets are available here.]
Sweet Baby James was released just two months after the photo shoot, in February 1970.
“Years later, when I see that photo on the wall, I love seeing that picture of James. The song, ‘Sweet Baby James,’ was such a haunting melody to me… I love it so much. My two children were born nine years apart, but for both of them when I would sing them to sleep, I would sing ‘Sweet Baby James.’ It was the perfect lullaby.
“That song is so beautiful and I’m so proud to have done the cover.”
Diltz’s iconic works are available for purchase at the Morrison Hotel Gallery, which he co-founded.