Taj Mahal - vocals, harmonica; Jesse Ed Davis - guitar; Gary Gilmore - bass; Chuck Blackwell - drums
Between 1967, when Taj Mahal recorded his first solo album for Columbia, and the present day, he has created some of the most consistently engaging modern blues, inspiring countless other musicians along the way. Solo acoustic, fronting a rock band or weaving his trademark National steel guitar around a tuba-dominated blues band, his multi-cultural vision of the blues transcended previous limitations of the genre and he has played an enormous role in revitalizing and preserving traditional blues.
Born Henry St. Claire Fredericks in 1942, he was raised in Springfield, Massachusetts by parents who encouraged their children to take pride in their diverse ethnic, musical, and cultural roots. His father was a jazz pianist, composer, and arranger of Caribbean descent, and his mother was a gospel singing schoolteacher from South Carolina. In addition to the direct influence of his parents, many American musicians, as well as musicians from the Caribbean and Africa were frequent visitors to the Fredericks home, exposing the teenager to a diverse range of roots music. Like many children interested in music, his parents provided him with piano lessons, but he quickly gravitated toward his own interests and in the process learned to play clarinet, trombone, and harmonica. Like countless other teenagers in the 1950s, he soon became enamored with singing and playing the guitar. When a blues guitarist became one of his next-door neighbors, Henry latched on to him, learning the stylistic rudiments of Lightnin' Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, and Jimmy Reed, thus beginning a lifelong fascination with the raw earthy sounds of the Delta and Chicago blues greats.
The musical heritage of both parents would figure more prominently in Taj Mahal's music as the years went by, but by the time he was attending college at the University of Massachusetts in the early 1960s, he was fronting an R&B party band called the Elektras. It was as lead singer of the Elektras, that Henry first adopted his stage name, Taj Mahal. Upon graduation, he and his friend and fellow musician, Jessie Lee Kincaid, relocated to Los Angeles where they struck up a friendship with another aspiring musician, guitarist Ry Cooder. Together they formed the Rising Sons, essentially a blues-infused cover band which soon became popular on the local circuit, opening local shows for touring artists like Otis Redding and the Temptations, as well as becoming popular openers at the Ash Grove, where they were directly exposed to blues legends like Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Lightnin' Hopkins, and Sleepy John Estes. The Rising Sons became popular enough to be pursued by Columbia Records. They recorded an ill-fated album for the label, which wouldn't see the light of day until nearly three decades later, when it was eventually released in 1992. By late 1966, the Rising Sons had run their course and with Ry Cooder recruited into Captain Beefheart's Magic Band; Taj Mahal began seriously pursuing his own path.
He would record his debut album for Columbia in August of 1967, avoiding the well-worn practice of re-producing the original sound and arrangements of popular folk and blues songs. Although honoring the Mississippi Delta blues masters that inspired him, he was clearly attempting to put his own stamp on the songs, infusing them with his own interpretations and style. He intentionally designed the album to appeal to a broader rock music audience without compromising the integrity of the vintage blues.
Although his vocals would become more powerful and confident in the years to come, his unique sense of timing and melody was already quite apparent. He also assembled what many consider to be one of the most underrated, yet highly influential bands of the late 1960s, which featured Jesse Ed Davis on guitar and the superb rhythm section of bassist Gary Gilmore and drummer Chuck Blackwell. This band had a remarkable chemistry and each member was critical to the sound, which took amplified blues to a whole new level, making it rock harder, and in many cases, even made it danceable!
Just as the Stones added injections of pure blues to their rock music, Taj Mahal was injecting rock flourishes back into the blues, modernizing it in the process. He and guitarist Jesse Ed Davis were interpreting old and revered styles of blues in a personal and original way and both musicians became highly influential, especially in Britain, where their tough, but joyous sound was quickly embraced by almost everyone, including the Stones and the Beatles.
Until now, the earliest example of this lineup of Taj Mahal's band on stage has always been the posthumously released footage taped for the Rolling Stones' Rock & Roll Circus, recorded on a sound stage in London on December 12, 1968. Although not technically "live," those treasured performances conveyed this band in all their delirious high-energy glory and made it pretty clear what all the fuss was about. Here we present Taj Mahal, Jesse Ed Davis, Gary Gilmore, and Chuck Blackwell live on a real public stage nearly six months prior. Recorded on July 25, 1968, when they hit the stage of the Newport Folk Festival, this recording captures a fresh and vital performance, with Mahal and Davis both in exceptional form.
What is most puzzling is that this flies directly in the face of many first-hand published accounts, including The New Yorker, which reported, "For most of the weekend, amplifiers were kept at a low volume. This was especially disastrous for Taj Mahal, who sounded sickly, but all the electric performers resented it...." Festival producer, George Wein, stated similar recollections of Taj Mahal's set in his autobiography. Yet the recording speaks for itself, conveying a band full of fire and with amplifiers certainly cranked. If any resentment or anger was indeed part of the equation that day, Mahal and his band fuel it into a deliciously gritty performance that simply blazes with raw energy.
The first song of the set is a prime example, despite a rather lackluster introduction that acknowledges the electric guitar amplifiers and equipment more prominently than the band. They kick the set off with a highly amplified take on the traditional "The Cuckoo," and it's a deliciously raunchy performance. Those familiar with the gritty low-down pummel that this band applied to "Leavin' Trunk" will be especially delighted, because this performance is mining similar territory. Jesse Ed Davis has never sounded raunchier and he and Blackwell's sledgehammer hi-hat accents combine into one seriously crunchy performance. Gilmore is equally impressive and Taj Mahal's vocals and virtuosity on harmonica all contribute to a very deep groove. The chemistry between Mahal and Davis is all encapsulated in this opening number.
The sparks continue to fly for the remainder of the recording, continuing with Sonny Boy Williamson's "Checkin' Up On My Baby." Here the band's sound is more pure and fluid with Davis contributing natural and unlabored lead lines and Taj sounding confident and engaged, not unlike the version on the debut album. A wonderful example of this band's sense of timing and melody follows, with their adaptation of Yank Rachel's country blues, "She Caught The Katy (And Left Me A Mule To Ride)." This number has an appeal that is fun, direct, and immediate. It is now of course, one of Taj Mahal's career-defining songs and although it may have improved as the years went on, it is doubtful one could find a performance conveying more youthful exuberance.
The recording ends prematurely, but not before providing listeners with a taste of Taj Mahal's original, "EZ Rider," another track from the debut album. Although only a minute was captured, this slides along on a sensual groove while Taj creates an original blues variation without losing sight of the traditions within. This innate ability would be central to Mahal's sound in the years to come. While his early critics would attack his music as lacking authenticity, his fluid style, marked by improvisation and interpretation, is what made those early albums so fresh and exciting; despite the fact he was exploring music from a bygone era. Over the course of the next two years, Taj Mahal would continue to develop a bigger, more soulful sound with increasing variety, but even at this early stage, he was breathing new life into the blues and delivering charismatic performances.
Bonus tracks: An additional song, recorded at one of the workshop performances at the 1968 Newport Folk Festival is also included here. This sequence features a rare acoustic performance by Taj Mahal and Jesse Ed Davis, with bassist Gary Gilmore and an unidentified kazoo player helping out. This is quite interesting as it conveys another side to these two musicians. Not only are they performing on acoustic instruments, but both share lead vocal duties here, trading verses and licks on what is essentially an improvisation on "Going Down The Road Feeling Bad." This features Mahal and Davis singing familiar verses as well as improvising, liberally sprinkling lyrics from other songs into the performance. Loose and fun, this number conveys the camaraderie and innate chemistry between these musicians and provides listeners an opportunity to hear them playing together off the main stage for the sheer fun of it.
Written by Alan Bershaw