Sitting at his desk at the Warner Brothers Records office on Burbank Boulevard in Burbank, California, Stan Cornyn glanced over the list of the label's upcoming releases. As vice president of creative services,
Cornyn was responsible for the company's clever, postmodern ad copy. (A print advertisement for a new album by the Fugs, the ragged East Village folk-rock anarchists, said, "You will find the usual Fugs quota of atonal masochism ... In spite of this, there are redeeming qualities in this album.") Physically, Cornyn embodied the new breed of music business executive. With his horn-rim glasses, Cornyn looked bookish, but he'd stopped wearing the blue suit jackets favored by Warner executives in the early '60s and had begun growing out his hair. The makeover helped him forge a bond with the younger acts on Warner and its sister label Reprise: One day, Joni Mitchell dropped by his office with a notebook of lyrics she asked Cornyn to type out for liner notes.
Of a typical batch of new albums released by Warner in any given week, two or three would be the label's big guns — Peter, Paul and Mary, Bill Cosby. As for the rest, they were nobodies — "the weirdos," Cornyn would call them. As he prepared to bang out copy for ads that would run in the music trades the first week of February, Cornyn noticed one of those oddballs on the list: James Taylor.
Cornyn knew the basics: Taylor was a twenty-one-year-old singer- songwriter, guitarist, and apparent nomad (his homes had included Martha's Vineyard, Manhattan, North Carolina, London, and currently the couch in his producer's house in town). He'd recorded an album for the Beatles' Apple label, and Joe Smith, the president of Warner, had snatched him away and was releasing Taylor's second album, Sweet Baby James. Cornyn also knew the Apple album had received good reviews but hadn't sold, and that Smith's enthusiasm alone didn't guarantee anything. His knowledge of Taylor pretty much ended there. Cornyn was accustomed to seeing musicians pop in and out, like Neil Young storming out of Reprise head Mo Ostin's office. But Cornyn had yet to meet Taylor or even glimpse him around the building.
Taylor had actually visited Smith's office a few weeks earlier, but Cornyn, along with most of the Warners staff, simply wasn't told. The scrappy, avuncular Smith had first caught sight of Taylor at the Newport Folk Festival the summer before. Taking in the sights during an after-show party at one of the plush estates near the festival grounds, Smith saw a tall, lanky kid taking long strides across the lawn. At times he seemed to be staggering, as if he were on one substance or another.
When they met, Smith instantly recognized Taylor's name from the Apple release. Taylor, who was performing at the festival, began complaining about the Beatles' shaky organization and indicated he was looking for a new record deal. Smith introduced Taylor to the Everly Brothers, who'd integrated Appalachian harmonies into rock and roll in the late '50s and were now struggling to look and sound contemporary. Right there on the lawn, the three began harmonizing together on one of Taylor's songs, "Carolina in My Mind." Smith took note: If two of rock's greatest singers could easily adapt to one of Taylor's songs, maybe plenty of other people could appreciate Taylor too. Smith wound up signing Taylor.
On a midwinter January day, Taylor and his manager, Peter Asher, visited Smith's office to play him what they had of Sweet Baby James. The two were quite the pair. Taylor was all arms and legs; his shoulder-length hair, parted in the middle, slouched down either side of his face. He had a penetrating gaze and a high forehead. Asher, though older than Taylor by four years, looked younger: With his dark-rimmed spectacles and red mop top, he could have easily passed for a polite British schoolboy.
Normally, Smith invited other label executives to sit in during listening sessions to meet the artist and get an early feel for the music they'd be marketing. But he sensed Taylor was different — that he'd be easily spooked by the presence of strangers — so Smith decided the meeting would be restricted to himself, artist, and manager.
Asher and Taylor arrived and handed Smith a tape. Smith popped it in as the two men sat on the other side of his desk. From the opening line about a young cowboy on a range, Smith was hooked. He reveled in the
easygoing lull of the songs and Taylor's upright but soothing delivery. The music was gentle, melodic, and direct. It wasn't rock and roll, nor was it imbued with even a millisecond of political consciousness. But Smith related to it in ways he didn't always with other acts he'd signed, like the Grateful Dead. Smith kept hoping and praying the Dead would record something approaching a single (when they finally did a few months later, with "Uncle John's Band," he literally whooped with joy).
Throughout the playback, Smith made appreciative comments about the songs. After a while, Smith realized Asher did all the talking; Taylor said little, if anything. He mostly nodded and, once in a while, flashed a bemused expression. Smith had amicable relationships with many artists on his label, but he sensed he wasn't going to get to know Taylor very well. Later, when Smith heard about the heroin bouts, the wards with locked doors, and Taylor's stay in a psychiatric hospital only months before, Taylor's mood that day made sense. But at the moment, Taylor simply seemed shy and fragile.
Long after Taylor left the Warner compound, Stan Cornyn sat behind his typewriter and banged out copy for the ad touting the label's forthcoming releases. "Last year, James Taylor's first album, on friendly competitor Apple, was dearly loved and glowingly reviewed," he wrote. "This year the same will happen to James Taylor's second album, Sweet Baby James. Only much more so." Like all commercials, it was noticeably optimistic. Since the album cover wasn't finished, Cornyn opted for an in-joke: a photo of an Apple with a bite chomped out of it. Even if the record tanked, like those by so many other unknowns, he hoped everyone would at least remember the ad.
Excerpted from Fire And Rain: The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY, And The Lost Story Of 1970 by David Browne. Copyright 2011 by David Browne. Excerpted by permission of Da Capo Press.