The week of December 8th, 1969, James Taylor began recording his breakthrough album, Sweet Baby James, at Sunset Sound Recorders in Los Angeles. Randy played bass on two of the album’s tracks: “Country Road” and “Blossom.” He would later say that playing on Sweet Baby James was one of the highlights of his career.
The album was produced by Peter Asher, of the popular vocal duo, Peter & Gordon. Asher also produced Taylor’s self-titled debut album in 1968, which was recorded in London. He had only recorded one other album in the States and needed help finding a studio and solid musicians to back Taylor. He turned to multi-instrumentalist, Chris Darrow, formerly of The Corvettes and the psychedelic band, Kaleidoscope, who had played in a number of studios and venues around LA with multiple musicians for years. When it came time to choose a bass player for the project, Asher initially suggested John London from The Corvettes. Although Darrow thought London was a fine player, he had someone else in mind. He told Asher:
“If you want to do more rock ‘n’ roll’y kind of stuff, I would use Randy Meisner.” ¹
Darrow had known Randy since 1966 when his band, Kaleidoscope, and Randy’s band, The Poor, shared the same producer, Barry Friedman. They would also share the stage at clubs in and around LA.
“[The Poor] were a great band and I always loved his bass playing.”²
The Kaleidoscope and The Poor share the bill at The Magic Mushroom in Studio City, October 1967:
In the end, three bassists were used on Sweet Baby James: Randy, John London, and Bobby West.
The recording of the album took place over three days in early December 1969, while Randy was on a three-week hiatus from touring with Rick Nelson & the Stone Canyon Band. During this time, he thought he would try his hand at being a session musician to make extra money. The James Taylor session was his first gig. A week later, he appeared on Waylon Jennings’ album, Singer Of Sad Songs. He also played bass on one track on the debut album by Compton & Batteau called In California.
Randy (left) with Rick Nelson & The Stone Canyon Band in Houston, three weeks after the Sweet Baby James sessions, December 27, 1969:
Rehearsals for Sweet Baby James took place at Asher’s two-story house on Longwood in Los Angeles. Peter Asher’s biographer, David Jacks, describes the scene and how Randy made his fellow musicians chuckle:
“One participant has fond memories of those late fall days on Longwood: ‘I remember going over there in my little Austin-Healy Sprite,” Randy Meisner recalled, and instead of lugging over his usual stage setup, ‘I brought a tiny Champ Fender amp. They gotta kick outta that.’ The five-watt amp might have made his fellow musicians chuckle, but its low output was perfect for the low-key living room atmosphere.”³
Randy’s W-4 tax document for the James Taylor session, filled out and singed in his own handwriting.4
See the forms for Taylor, Carole King, and other musicians who worked on the session here.
In the studio at Sunset Sound, Randy’s enthusiasm sometimes got the best of him:
From The Peter Asher Story by David Jacks:
“The rehearsals would take up the afternoons. In the evening, Peter and the musicians would drive over to Sunset Sound (thanks to Chris Darrow’s suggestion) and put to tape what they had spent the day perfecting. Bassist Meisner, though, did not have much experience with studio recording at this point, and his enthusiasm sometimes got the better of him. ‘I might have rushed the beat a little bit ’cause I was excited,’ he laughed. ‘I’d start playing a little ahead of the beat, and he [Taylor] would just look over and smile at me like, ‘Come on, now!'”5
“Country Road” was chosen to be the second single off the album (the first was “Fire And Rain.”) The song had become a staple at Taylor’s concerts in 1970, with his band that included Carole King, as well as bassist, Leland Sklar. So when the song was chosen to become a single, it was re-recorded to sound more like the live version, with Sklar playing bass. Additional vocals and percussion were also added:
“When Randy Meisner, who had played bass on the original album track, heard the single on the radio in early 1971, he was miffed–thinking they’d replaced his bass part. ‘But,’ Peter explained, ‘it’s not as if we just took the bass off–which is one of those things people do. What we did was say: We like the way they’re doing it now because they’re locked in as a band.’ A little extra percussion was layered on, and in a further attempt to make it more radio-friendly, Peter, James, and Carole put their voices together at two points in the track–adding something akin to a vocal drone–giving the song a more dramatic ending than the original.”6
The two versions are quite different with the 45 single version being 8 seconds longer than the original album version. The single version has also become harder to find these days. If you stream “Country Road” online you will most likely hear the original version with Randy on bass. Compare the two versions below:
Randy also played bass on the lovely ballad “Blossom.” His understated, melodic playing complements the song nicely:
Sweet Baby James, released in February 1970, became a landmark album for James Taylor and launched his career as a somewhat reluctant superstar. For Randy, the experience of recording with Taylor would end up being a highlight of his career, according to journalist Rex Rutkoski, who interviewed him in 1990:
“When Meisner runs his career video tape in his mind, he says he freeze-frames on ‘the highlights of all the groups I was with,’ including his work in Rick Nelson’s Stone Canyon Band, playing behind Linda Ronstadt ‘when we were all nothing,’ and the two songs on which he played on James Taylor’s much-heralded debut album, Sweet Baby James.” 7
Working with Randy must have been a positive experience for Taylor also. In 1980, when Randy’s second solo album, One More Song, was climbing the charts, Taylor complimented him on his success:
“He’s one of the nicest guys in the business and he deserves it.” 8
1-3 The Story Of Peter Asher by David Jacks, Backbeat, 2022
4 At this time, Randy was living in a bungalow apartment on 1620 North Serrano Drive, one block from Hollywood Blvd. Randy moved there sometime after his arrival in LA in 1966 with the band that would become The Poor (before that he lived for a short time on Stanley Hills Dr. near Laurel Canyon). According to Randy, one of the first names for The Poor was The North Serrano Blues Band. Below: Randy (wearing a headband) in the Serrano apartment in January 1970, taken by his former wife, Jennifer, who recalled that they would sit on the couch, with incense burning, and watch TV with the volume down, but the stereo blasting (the TV was across the room a few feet from the couch.) He also learned to develop film in the apartment’s tiny bathroom.
5-6 The Story Of Peter Asher by David Jacks, Backbeat, 2022
7 “This Eagle is Flying With Poco” by Rex Rutkoski, USA Today, February 2, 1990
8People magazine, January 12, 1981
Header photo and album cover photos by Henry Diltz.