How sweet it is! The James Taylor track of that name with Carly Simon vocals and a David Sanborn sax solo went to Number 5 on the Billboard 100 in 1975, dominating radio and adding a sweet voice to the din of the turbulent mid-1970s.
The Russ Titelman/Lenny Waronker production of “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” became the most successful version of the Holland-Dozier composition, originally recorded by Marvin Gaye in 1964.
Titelman and Waronker produced about 15 projects together, and speaking of their teamwork, Waronker says, “When you’re working with somebody, you have to have the same aesthetic. Russ and I had been really close for years. I had ultimately convinced him to come work for Warner’s. He wasn’t sure he wanted to work for a big company, but it worked out really well. I think we had the same taste for the most part.”
Waronker adds that their mutual knowledge about songs allowed them to bounce off of one another well, and Titelman’s temperament balanced his personality perfectly. When Waronker got negative, Titelman calmed him down.
“He’s upbeat and has a real sense of enthusiasm,” Waronker says. “I tended to get a little nervous if things weren’t going quick enough. Plus, Russ was the musician who could play. Obviously, I was musical and have been around it my whole life and know the language, but I always felt more comfortable when there were specific musical things driving us nuts because he could deal with that.”
As they were making Taylor’s Gorilla, Marvin Gaye was on their radar when they were searching for a cover song.
“Lenny and I were looking for a cover song because [James] had had success with covers,” Titelman explains. “We had great songs he wrote, but we thought, ‘Let’s get a hit, let’s do a sure thing.’ So we started throwing around ideas. I wanted to do ‘Stubborn Kind of Fellow,’ Marvin Gaye’s first hit record. I put that song forward, and they went, ‘No, maybe not,’ and then I thought some more and said, ‘Well, what about ‘How Sweet it Is’? And they said, ‘Oh, that’s a good idea.’
The track was recorded at Amigo Studios in Los Angeles, which Titelman recalls had an API board and Ampex tape machines; Lee Herschberg engineered. They knew they wanted to use Taylor’s band musicians—Lee Sklar on bass, Russ Kunkel on drums (and tambourine) and Danny Kortchmar on electric rhythm. Then they added piano from Clarence McDonald, who Titelman says he was working with on another project, to bring a touch of Motown to the blend.
At some point, in order to differentiate the Taylor version from the Marvin Gaye original, Waronker came up with the idea to use two drummers on the track, so he brought in Jim Keltner. “You get two guys like that in the room and it makes the room that much more powerful,” he says.
“I remember that Jimmy Keltner was playing these little upbeat things on the hi-hat, not consistent, so it kind of made the thing have this really beautiful bounce,” Titelman adds.
Keltner remembers the session well. He says they didn’t talk about it beforehand; they just sat down and played. While he says he did supply a little backbeat on the choruses, he played only hi-hat on the verses.
“Russ [Kunkel] has always been one of my favorite drummers, and favorite people. One of the sweetest people in the world,” Keltner says. “That night, as usual, he played beautiful—he played the tom-tom fills going into the chorus and I stayed out of all that, and then when we got down to the groove, I played the hi-hat as if that was the way I would be wanting to play the groove. So it had a nice little swingy kind of feel to it.”
When it came time to record Kortchmar’s guitar part, they still had in their minds Curtis Mayfield’s “It’s Alright,” which they were originally going to cut.
“I remember we started running the track, and we ran it a couple of times and went back in the studio to make suggestions to the musicians and I was walking with Lenny,” Titelman recalls. “Lenny leaned over to Danny and he said play the ‘It’s Alright’ part to Danny. That’s how that those little things all came together.”
“He killed it and that was the final thing,” Waronker says. “The personality started to take shape. And once James voice was on the thing, it was its own thing.”
They recorded Taylor’s lead vocals first with either a Neumann U 87 or U 67, Titelman believes, with Taylor singing a few versions that would be composited later. Then they cut the background vocals, which Waronker says he almost hesitates to speak about, but admits was “typically me.” He began to second-guess putting Simon’s vocal on the track, afraid to mess it up.
“I just left and went out into the studio and laid down and dozed for a while,” Waronker recalls. “I guess I had a lot of tension and stress about it. I got up and walked in and there it was. Obviously, those guys had made the right choices.
“There are times when you’re producing a record where you have to know when to keep your mouth shut,” he says, frankly. “When I walked in, I said, ‘Oh, my God, you guys. That’s unbelievable!’”
The last instruments to go on the record were strings and sax.
“I remember when we got together with Nick DeCaro, the string arranger, in Lenny’s office, everyone made little suggestions as to what to do and where to play,” Titelman says. “Lenny had an idea for the line in the B section of the verse and of course then you block it on where the strings play. It was very sweet, the arrangement.”
David Sanborn on alto sax was the last piece of the puzzle. Titelman says it was Sanborn’s first pop record and the idea to hire him came about one night as Titelman was driving Taylor back from the studio to the house the artist was staying at in Coldwater Canyon.
“We had been working on the record and I think we had most of the tracks cut,” Titelman remembers. “One night on the way home, I said, ‘Why don’t we stop at Tommy LiPuma’s house.’ He was living in Studio City and on the route that we would take on the way home pretty much. It was about 8 o’clock or 9 o’clock at night and we went over to Tommy’s, and Tommy had had a guest that he was entertaining named John Court, who was the partner of Albert Grossman. We were talking and he said, ‘You should hear this guy, he’s playing with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band,’ and there was David Sanborn. We heard him and said, ‘Let’s call him and have him play on the record.’ I don’t even know if we knew which songs he was going to play on. We called him and flew him in.”
Then they flew Sanborn in from Chicago. When they showed up to record Sanborn, he was already in Studio B, waiting for them.
“We open the door and we hear the saxophone playing,” Titelman says, pausing to sing the theme from I Love Lucy. “We knew we were in for it. There was this very funny, weird, cool little guy playing TV themes. It was love at first sight. He was so funny and nice.”
Sanborn recorded another song for Gorilla first— “You Make it Easy”—and then took a few passes at the solo for “How Sweet It Is.” Then Sanborn went out into the coffee area. “Lenny and I made a composite out of what he did,” Titelman says, “chose all of the best bits that had an emotional arc to it and he came back in and listened to it and said, ‘Well, that’s good. I wouldn’t have played it that way, but that’s fine.’”
“How Sweet It Is” came easily. Titelman recalls the track only took a couple of takes. Waronker says it took 45 minutes, and ultimately, he muses, it is all about collaboration. “When you’re working with an artist, you’re trying to help an artist and fighting as hard as you can to assure that their personality and character come out. Russ and I were very fortunate. Almost always we worked with very strong artists. Both of us were very sensitive to the fact that the artist, if they were as good as we thought they were, needed to be involved in a significant way. Personality was a big thing in terms of records. It was very important to us, and the only way that comes across is not only if you’re working with the artist, but if you’re pushing the artist in musical ways. So if Russ and I had an idea about an instrument or instruments, we’d talk to James about why we thought it would be a good thing. He was such a great musician, and that’s what you find with great artists.”