James Taylor’s self-titled 1968 debut album, which featured the gorgeous, downbeat ballads “Carolina in My Mind” and “Sweet Baby James,” earned him a small but dedicated following among the collegiate liberal-arts set. But as the 60s counterculture burned itself out and the 70s began, his second album made him a star. Sweet Baby James (1970) featured a now-classic title track as well as Taylor’s first true hits, “Country Road” and “Fire and Rain.” With fellow singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Carole King also in ascendancy, Time magazine saw fit to declare a trend, placing James Taylor on its March 1, 1971, cover under the headline “The New Rock: Bittersweet and Low.”
“Over the last year a far gentler variety of rock sound has begun to soothe the land,” the Time article said in contrasting Taylor’s music to the “walloping folk rock of Bob Dylan,” the “thunderous eloquence of the Beatles” and the “leer of the Rolling Stones.” The article declined to offer a straightforward explanation for the apparent shift in public tastes, but it offered a trenchant sociological analysis of James Taylor’s particular appeal. On the one hand, the story argued, there was the subject matter of his songs, most of which dealt with the kind of internal struggles that “a lavish quota of middle-class advantages—plenty of money, a loving family, good schools, health, charm and talent—do not seem to prevent, and may in fact exacerbate.” And then there was this: “Lean and hard (6 ft. 3 in., 155 Ibs.), often mustachioed, always with hair breaking at his shoulders, Taylor physically projects a blend of Heathcliffian inner fire with a melancholy look that can strike to the female heart—at any age.”
Whatever the explanation for James Taylor’s appeal, it was considerable. Just months after his appearance on the cover of Time, Taylor scored a #1 pop hit with the Carole King song “You’ve Got a Friend.” He continues to be an enormously popular and multigenerational concert draw, and his catalog of early-70s albums continues to sell well even decades after his hair started receding from his forehead instead of breaking at his shoulders.