The Great Taj Mahal, Still Whistlin' the Blues

It's been a long time so it's hard to remember exactly, but some time in the winter of 1970-71, Taj Mahal played the Houston Music Hall. Between 1968 and 1971, he had put out five albums and become a staple of the hippie music scene.

Yet with his soulful reinterpretations, permutations and homages to old-school blues, the ebullient entertainer from Massachusetts -- look it up, he was named the Commonwealth of Massachusetts' Official Blues Artist in 2006 -- was running counter to the main trends in popular music of the time.

This was no Led Zeppelin or Eric Clapton taking blues toward metal, turning blues into modern rock, this was a throwback, or as his 1971 double album recorded live at the Filmore East calls it, The Real Thing.

In the midst of the crazy madness that British bluesers had wrought, Taj Mahal did the unthinkable, appearing with a gaggle of brass that included four tubas, trombones, saxophones, fluegelhorns, and congas -- and he made it not only work, he made it a must-see sensation.

But this only scratches the surface of the two-time Grammy winner's history. He's written film soundtracks, and was co-starred in the movie Sounder with Cicely Tyson. A lifelong man of the soil, Mahal (real name Henry Saint Clair Fredericks) majored in animal husbandry and took courses in veterinary science and agronomy before deciding to pursue music full time.

By 1964, he was in California, where he joined forces with no less a talent than Ry Cooder in Rising Sons, one of the first interracial roots bands on the West Coast. They were signed to Columbia but turned up DOA almost immediately. But that failure was the gateway to Taj Mahal's huge success that was just about to happen.

Sony is set to release Hidden Treasures of Taj Mahal 1969-1973 two discs of material from Mahal's earliest period, consisting mostly of alternate takes . It is as good as anything anyone is issuing these days, particularly in blues. Disc 1 is titled "Studio Gems," and contains alternate previously-unheard versions of ten songs from a scattering of Taj Mahal albums, while disc 2 is a full live concert recorded in London on a bill Taj Mahal shared with Santana.

We caught up with the 70-year-old road warrior on his tour bus.

Rocks Off: When you really came onto the scene about the time of Woodstock, you seemed to be moving counter to all the industry trends where Led Zeppelin, Cream, Traffic and those heavy bands were all the rage. Was that calculated on your part, did you see a roots sort of niche that wasn't being filled?

Taj Mahal: It really wasn't calculated at all, it was just music I wanted to make.

RO: You were originally in Rising Sons with Ry Cooder and Jessie Lee Kincaid in 1964. What happened there?

TM: That was a musical and emotional nightmare. It was so controlled. Someone was always messing with what we were doing. Someone would want a little more left, then someone else would say it should be more right. We didn't have a chance.

RO: But in spite of that, you stayed on with Columbia and eventually broke out?

TM: I said to myself, I'm going to find a solution. We weren't just signed to Columbia as a band, we were also signed individually. So once we got out of that Rising Sons fiasco, one day in 1967, I think, I called up Clive Davis and told him I was signed to the label and I had some ideas I wanted to record.

So we talked a while and he seemed pretty positive. I told him I wanted to produce myself, but he said he didn't think anyone would go for that.

RO: So what happened, how'd you guys solve that issue?

TM: Clive proposed that he would send over some producers and I could just go through them until I found someone I clicked with. The first guy he sent over was David Rubinson, and we talked a while, and he told me, "Look, you come up with the music and I'll handle the business and fight the battles."

That was our unspoken agreement. No one in management knew. And so we started working together. He produced five albums, and then they just let me do my own thing after that.

RO: One of your first songs I remember making a dent on radio was "Happy Just To Be Like I Am." It was almost like a blues-pop song, and it had that whistling part. It was just completely different than anything else on the radio at that moment. Knowing how the labels think and operate, I just can't fathom how you got that song on an album, much less on radio in the early '70s.

TM: Look, man, the whole point is, the people who were tastemakers in music, if they couldn't figure out someone in their arsenal to match a sound that was popular, they really didn't know what was up.

That's one of the great tragedies, those supposedly creative people had so much money and so much power, but they didn't have many original ideas. Most of them were like Van Gogh.

RO: Like Van Gogh?

TM [laughs] Yeah, no ear.

Taj Mahal jamming with Bob Dylan, George Harrison and John Fogerty at the Palomino Club, Hollywood, California

RO: Well, for a lot of us hippies who were listening to Johnny Winter and Eric Clapton, stuff like that, we couldn't believe it when we heard that stuff. It was so different from anything else.

TM [laughs]: Yeah, you folks were opening up your horizons and the powers-that -be were trying to shut you down and get you back on the track. You know, for me the '50s and '60s were the golden era for pop music, the music was coming from so many angles and so many sources.

And I was still stuck there in my musical imaginings. It really seems that since then, music and choices we have for music are just getting blander and blander.

RO: Yet, like I said, your music seemed so different from anything else we were getting. How did that happen?

TM: All that stuff was being controlled by the industry or someone, but I had music coming at me from all kinds of directions and ways. They couldn't stop that. I'm not looking at another guy's garden for ideas. I just thought it would be interesting to connect jazz music with blues, to bring the Caribbean sound and mix it with blues, you know, give the blues a different sound. And we did it. And it worked, people came to it.

RO: So what is up with these two discs Sony is releasing of outtakes and some of your other earliest stuff?

TM: To me, a label's job is to create an environment to get me on the charts. It's all about the charts. And what I was attempting was not the R&B that they knew, that they were comfortable with. So some of the takes that got left out were actually things that went too far outside what they thought the bounds were as far as trying to get my stuff into the charts.

RO: That stuff is 40 years old, but it still sounds very fresh, very spontaneous.

TM: Man, we had great players and we were just having a lot of fun, exploring new ideas, letting people be creative. Of course, there were still people in the loop who would come in and say something we had just done was a little too far left or a little too far right.

They'd say, 'Sing it just like this.' So we ended up with several takes on a lot of stuff we were working on. I'm just glad they've decided to release those tracks.

RO: You've been a blues guy all your life, what is your take on rap/hip-hop?

TM: If you really study music, you know that music in this style comes from variations of some very old music, from Africa, from the Caribbean. Even the Cockney accents in London, there's a certain thing in that dialect, if you will, that is similar.

To me, it's just a modern version of bebop.

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