Taylor wrote this in 1968 at three different times. He started it in London, where he auditioned for The Beatles' Apple Records. He later worked on it in a Manhattan Hospital, and finished it while in drug rehab at The Austin Riggs Center in Massachusetts. In a 1972 Rolling Stone interview, Taylor explained: "The first verse is about my reactions to the death of a friend (that would be Suzanne - explained below). The second verse is about my arrival in this country with a monkey on my back, and there Jesus is an expression of my desperation in trying to get through the time when my body was aching and the time was at hand when I had to do it. And the third verse of that song refers to my recuperation in Austin Riggs which lasted about five months."
This song is about the high and low points of Taylor's life. He was only 20 when he wrote it in 1968, but was battling depression and drug addiction.
This was the song that took Taylor from little-known troubadour to star of the '70s singer-songwriter movement. His first label deal was with Apple Records, the label owned by The Beatles. He recorded that album in London in the same studio where The Beatles were recording The White Album
. And although it produced some Taylor classics like "Carolina in My Mind
" and "Something In The Way She Moves
," it sold poorly due to a combination of Taylor's heroin addiction (he had to seek treatment and couldn't promote the album) and Apple's implosion as the label fell apart.
Taylor was dropped from Apple and picked up by Warner Bros. Records, where he released his second album, Sweet Baby James
. The "title track
" was issued as the first single but failed to chart. Taylor, however, was on the road promoting the album, and when "Fire and Rain" was released as the second single, it took off.
The stark lyrics about Taylor's depression stand out on Sweet Baby James, which contains mostly lighter, uplifting songs. Taylor was surprised that such a deeply personal song would appeal to listeners, as he didn't think people were interested in his life.
The line, "Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground" is a reference to a band Taylor was in called The Flying Machine, which he formed with Danny Kortchmar
in 1966. The band recorded some songs and released one single, but split up without issuing an album. Taylor went to England, where his demo got the attention of Beatles associate Peter Asher, who arranged an audition with Paul McCartney and George Harrison. They liked what they heard, and signed Taylor to their label, Apple Records. By 1971, Taylor was on a new label and "Fire and Rain" was a hit. The enterprising (some would say exploitative) folks at the label that controlled The Flying Machine's recordings suddenly became interested in the band, and cobbled together an album from those recordings which they released in 1971 as James Taylor and the Original Flying Machine
The lyrics, "Just yesterday morning, they let me know you were gone. Suzanne, the plans they made put an end to you" have been the subject of a great deal of speculation, with rumors that Suzanne was Taylor's girlfriend who died in a place crash. In a 1971 interview with Petticoat, Taylor explained: "It concerned a girl called Susanne I knew who they put into an isolation cell and she couldn't take it and committed suicide."
Her name was Susie Schnerr, and Taylor also explained that it was months before he found out about her death, as his friends withheld the news so it wouldn't distract Taylor from his burgeoning music career.
In a 1972 Rolling Stone interview, Taylor added: "I always felt rather bad about the line, 'The plans they made put an end to you,' because 'they' only meant 'ye gods,' or basically 'the Fates.' I never knew her folks but I always wondered whether her folks would hear that and wonder whether it was about them."
This was one of the first big singer-songwriter hits of the early '70s. Before this, most hits were either written by one person and performed by another, or written and performed by a group like The Beatles or The Rolling Stones. Artists like Carly Simon, Billy Joel and Elton John followed the trend of writing and performing their own songs.
In his interview with Petticoat Taylor said that he stole the chord sequence from something his brother Alexander wrote. Alexander, who was the oldest of the four Taylor siblings, was also a musician. He died in 1993.
The Isley Brothers recorded this on their album Givin' It Back, which contained all cover songs.
Taylor guest starred in The Simpsons episode "Deep Space Homer" where he performs for a space shuttle that Homer is aboard from NASA's mission control. He plays this, but after singing the line "Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground," he gasps, due to the irony of that line relating to the mission, and sings it with the revised lyrics: "Sweet dreams and flying machines flying safely through the air." (thanks, Eric - Suffern, NY)
Sweet Baby James was produced by Peter Asher, who was looking for a stripped-down sound to showcase Taylor's songs. That sound was established on this track when he called in the musicians Danny Kortchmar (guitar), Russ Kunkel (drums) and Carole King (piano) to rehearse the song in his living room. Kunkel was a rock drummer, but Asher asked him to play with brushes during the rehearsal so as not to disturb the neighbors. When he played with brushes instead of sticks, it brought out a new dimension in the song and established the sound they were looking for. Kunkel and Kortchmar became part of Taylor's touring band and went on to play on classic '70s albums by Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, and Carole King, who soon established herself as a solo artist.
When Taylor performed this in 2015 on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, he and Colbert had some fun, with Taylor explaining that he was still working on it. "I wrote that song in 1970, and I just hadn't seen that much back then - mostly fire and rain, so that's why I keep saying it over and over again in the song," he said.
Taylor then explained that he had never seen a calzone at the time, but if he had, he would have definitely added it to the lyric. Taylor and Colbert then performed an updated version of the song with new lyrics. A sample:
"I've seen man buns, Myspace and the Baha Men, but I never thought I'd see a new Star Wars again"
"I've seen grandmas reading 50 Shades of Grey"
"Quidditch teams and skinny jeans cutting blood off from my thighs"