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Farther Down The Road with Taj Mahal

Farther Down The Road with Taj Mahal
By James Calemine

Taj Mahal remains a craftsman of many musical styles. His career reveals a vast scope submerged within traditions of roots music. This year Columbia released four Taj Mahal classics: Taj Mahal, The Nach’l Blues, The Real Thing, and The Best of Taj Mahal.

These reissues focus on the early years of Taj Mahal’s thirty-five year career in music. Each new CD edition contains original packaging, liner notes, and newly commissioned essays by Keb Mo and Stanley Crouch. 

Born in New York in 1942 to musical parents, Mahal also developed an ear for music at an early age. After graduating from the University of Massachusetts, he moved to Los Angeles in 1964. In L.A. Mahal met the great guitarist Ry Cooder where they started a band called the Rising Sons who opened up for acts such as Otis Redding, Sam the Sham, The Temptations, and Martha and the Vandellas.

Mahal incorporates various styles of music into one streamlined sound. He’s a GRAMMY award winning artist and has played with great musicians such as Etta Baker, Rory Block, Mike Bloomfield, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Algia Mae Hinton, John Dee Holeman, B.B. King, Ziggy Marley, Big Bill Morgan, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Neal Pattman, the Rolling Stones, Carly Simon, Ali Farka Toure, Joe Louis Walker, and many others. Mahal also composed numerous soundtracks for films. 

In a recent interview, Mahal spoke about the origins of his versatile musical career: “All the folks I learned my guitar music from were in Louisburg, North Carolina. The other side of it is, the kids who played music up the street were from Stovall, Mississippi, and that was another influence for a fifteen year old kid with a guitar he got from his stepfather who came from Jamaica. So, I’d heard a lot of music, played a lot of piano and messed with trombone and clarinet, but the sound of the harmonica grabbed my soul.

“At school I studied agriculture—I figured you couldn’t go wrong with music or agriculture. From about 1965, when I first came to the West Coast and the music scene, I’d been playing all kinds of different music over the years, and I found that there was an open format for folk blues. The people I heard about I could finally go and see. Eventually I got to the point where I could play those kinds of clubs, but then I realized it was too much of an ingrown thing. This was because I was in Boston with a bunch of people just talking about the blues, and I knew I could take this thing to another generation of youngsters. So I left the east coast for the west coast because I heard there was a lot of action going on there. Then I got hooked up with Ry Cooder and by September of 1966, we were signed to Columbia. Then I met Gary Gilmore and Jesse Edwin Davis. There’s so many levels that music can come off at, and I just wanted to play music. If you’re there playing with a big band or just up there with a guitar or banjo, harmonica, or piano—by yourself—you can turn it into a show.

“I’ve played all kinds of music—country, calypso, R&B, blues, jazz, reggae, Latin music—but it always ended up on the margin. So I thought, why not just play the kind of music you want. This was American music too, whether people wanted to recognize that or not…which makes those English groups—like the Rolling Stones—important because they went directly to the source. I’ve done about fifty projects, and there are thirty-seven or thirty-eight of them that are directly under my name, and then there are things I’ve contributed to.”

Taj Mahal was originally released in 1967. This record introduced the world to not only Taj Mahal, but guitarists Ry Cooder and the late Jesse Edwin Davis. Davis, the inimitable Oklahoma guitarist and pianist toured with Conway Twitty before he moved to California and met Mahal. Other Oklahoma natives Chuck Blackwell (drums) and Gary Gilmore (guitar) played on Mahal’s first two albums. Davis, Blackwell, and Gilmore comprised a vital part of the “Tulsa Sound”.

This is an album of straight-ahead electric blues covers. The most notable songs are Sleepy John Estes’ “Leaving Trunk”, Robert Johnson’s “Walkin’ Blues”, Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Checkin’ up on My Baby”, and Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues”. It’s been documented Duane Allman spent hours learning the Jesse Ed Davis bottleneck solo to “Statesboro Blues’ from Taj Mahal.

The Natch’l Blues was no sophomore slump when released in 1968. The album is more reflective—and of a country-acoustic nature—as opposed to the debut album. The Natch’l Blues consists mostly of Taj Mahal compositions, aside from William Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water” and the Banks/Parker tune, “Ain’t That a Lot of Love”. Mahal classics such as “Done Changed My Way of Living”, “She Caught the Katy”, and “Going up to the Country” reveal just how mean and diverse his music had become.

Taj explained to me his approach to the material before he recorded for those albums: “Most of the stuff—maybe only one or two times did I have lyrics in the studio—all that was head stuff we played. That’s why it sounded like it did. After three takes, we’d all say, ‘It’s number one or number two’—we didn’t leave stuff lying around the studio like a lot of bands. We always destroyed all the takes except what we used. So, on the new version of Natch’l Blues that’s out, there’s three extra tunes; one’s an alternate take of “The Cuckoo” one is “I Think It’s Gonna Work Out Fine” we did as an instrumental, and the other one is called “New Stranger Blues”.

The Real Thing was recorded live in 1971 at Bill Graham’s Fillmore East in New York. This was the first Taj Mahal album to follow Giant Step/De Ole Folks at Home. This variegated collection of eleven songs is testimony to how well Taj Mahal’s music transfers in a live atmosphere. The band on The Real Thing includes a brass section that emits a lush, free flowing, jazz mood—even when Taj plays along on the banjo.

The Best of Taj Mahal is essential to one’s music collection. The CD not only highlights his blended styles with classics such as “Leaving Trunk”, “Corrina”, “Take A Giant Step”, and the killer reggae song “Johnny Too Bad”, and several live songs, but also obscure gems like “Chevrolet” and a previously un-issued studio recording “Sweet Mama Janisse”. 

For an unknown passenger, just one of these classic Taj Mahal albums is a musical vehicle rolling through deep country, blues, folk, R & B, and gospel destinations en route to his later albums and musical abodes of African, Caribbean, Hawaiian, jazz, and Zydeco descent. There are valleys of discovery in every album, and as for Taj Mahal’s musical journey, he reveals: “For me, music has always been a learning thing—to hear something I’ve never heard.”

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