From James Taylor to Janis Joplin: 5 of The Best Songs Recorded at Sunset Sound

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

“Why would I want to own a studio? I’d rather be a client,” this was Walt Disney’s response to his company’s director of recording, Tutti Camarata when he recommended they set up a studio somewhere to record the music for their animated features. Despite Disney’s hesitation, Camarata went ahead with the venture, opening up a one-studio building on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood.

Soon after, the music of “Bambi,” “Mary Poppins” and “101 Dalmations” began flowing out of Sunset Sound. Despite a few setbacks along the way, their small venture soon became a big one, with sister studios scattered around the area.

The magic created there started to draw in the biggest names in music: James Taylor, Janis Joplin, Van Halen, and The Beach Boys to name a few. Below, we’re going through some of the best songs these artists have recorded at Sunset Sound throughout its rich history.

1. “Fire and Rain” (James Taylor)

When you say the name James Taylor, it’s likely “Fire and Rain” that pops into your head soon after. As he noted in the song “That’s Why I’m Here,” “Fire and Rain” helped to get Taylor’s career back on track: perfect strangers can call you by name. Pay good money to hear ‘Fire and Rain’ again and again and again.

Taylor took to Sunset Sound to record his 1970 album Sweet Baby James, for which “Fire and Rain” was a single. He penned the lyrics after the suicide of his childhood friend Suzanne Schnerr. Just yesterday mornin’, they let me know you were gone / Suzanne, the plans they made put an end to you, he sings. Despite being recorded in sun-soaked California, Taylor was working his way out of a blue period. That struggle is well documented here.

2. “Me and Bobby McGee” (Janis Joplin)

Pearl would become Janis Joplin’s final solo album. Among the swan song was a rendition of the Kris Kristofferson-penned “Me and Bobby McGee.” Trading in his soft tones for something far more electric, Joplin’s version has gone on to overshadow Kristofferson’s in many ways.

Sunset was the last studio Joplin ever recorded in before her death on Oct. 4, 1970. Joplin belting out freedom is just another word for nothin’ left to lose / Nothin’, don’t mean nothin’ if it ain’t free, made her an iconic fixture in rock despite her short career.

3. “Break on Through (To the Other Side)” (The Doors)

“Break on Through (To the Other Side)” features on The Doors’ self-titled album, which is apt given its quintessential nature. Everything Jim Morrison and Co. did best—psychedelia, heavy-handed drug references, and vivid imagery—is found in this track. The Doors has long been considered one of the greatest debut albums of all time. Sunset Studio’s echo chamber played a large role in dictating the sonic direction of the record, separating the group from their peers.

4. “Runnin’ with the Devil” (Van Halen)

Speaking of stellar debut albums, Van Halen’s self-titled record was also recorded at Sunset Sound. While many songs from the 11-track record could make this list, we’re choosing to highlight “Runnin’ with the Devil.” The lyrics are a play on a 1974 song from the funk band Ohio Players, who, in contrast, were “Running from the Devil.”

I live my life like there’s no tomorrow / And all I’ve got I had to steal / Least I don’t need to beg or borrow / Yes, I’m livin’ at a pace that kills, are the first rip-roaring lyrics the world heard from Van Halen’s debut, captured at Sunset Studios.

5. “Here Today” (The Beach Boys)

Though most of Pet Sounds was recorded elsewhere, The Beach Boys did make a stop at Sunset Sound to lay down the track “Here Today.” Brian Wilson once said of the song, “‘Here Today’ was probably one of the mystery songs on the album. I don’t really know what it’s about. I liked it, but yet I didn’t. I don’t really identify with that song like I do with ‘You Still Believe In Me’, or ‘Caroline, No.’ It was just one of those songs in there, one little song.” Pet Sounds is one of the most influential albums of all time and Sunset Sound has a stake in that history.

Photo by John Byrne Cooke Estate/Getty Images

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