Taj Mahal - vocals, National steel guitar
Whether he was recording solo acoustic, fronting a rock band, or weaving his trademark National steel guitar around a tuba-dominated blues band, between 1967 and the present day, Taj Mahal has created some of the most consistently engaging modern blues, inspiring countless other musicians along the way. His multi-instrumental abilities and multi-cultural vision of the blues transcended previous limitations of the genre, and he should be credited for playing 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. 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 being recruited into Captain Beefheart's Magic Band, Taj Mahal began seriously pursuing his own path.
This remarkable Ash Grove recording captures Taj Mahal during this brief undocumented period, shortly after the demise of the Rising Sons, but prior to assembling his first band. He would record his debut album in August of 1967, but captured here in February of that year, Taj Mahal performs alone, accompanying himself on his now trademark National steel guitar. What becomes apparent over the course of this set is that even at this early stage, Taj Mahal avoids the well-worn practice of reproducing the original sound and arrangements on the songs he performs. Although he is most certainly honoring the Mississippi Delta blues masters that inspire him, he is clearly attempting to put his own stamp on the songs, infusing them with his own interpretations and style. Although his vocals would become far more powerful and confident in the years to come, his unique sense of timing and melody are already apparent. It is a delight to hear him performing many songs that he would never record officially, but that serve as root examples of where he would be heading on his first three albums.
The recording begins shortly in progress with the traditional "Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor." Covered by countless folk and blues artists over the years, Taj Mahal's take on the song strongly emulates Mississippi John Hurt's Delta blues approach, as does his take on "Stagger Lee" two songs later. In between the two, he delivers his own Delta blues style interpretation of Muddy Water's "Rock Me," emphasizing his forceful steel guitar playing while maintaining a nice, relaxed groove. This is followed by the sparsest, slowest blues of the set, a cover of Lightnin' Hopkins' "Have You Ever Been Mistreated," followed by the traditional "Walkin' Blues," the only song performed here that would feature on his debut album. Although all of these songs are covers that veer from the originals to some degree, Mahal's interpretations never sound contrived and despite most of them focusing on dark content, they often have a joyous feel. This innate ability would be central to Mahal's sound in the years to come and while his early critics would attack his music as lacking authenticity, his fluid style, marked by improvisation and interpretation, is what made his early albums so fresh and exciting, despite the fact that he was exploring music from a bygone era.
Nowhere is this more apparent than on his take on Robert Johnson's "Travelin' Riverside Blues," which may be the most impressive performance of this entire set. Here, Mahal's steel guitar work is outstanding and original. This is a truly powerful testosterone-fueled performance that rewards repeated listening. He winds the set toward a close by tackling another Lightning Hopkin's number, "My Starter Won't Start This Morning" before ending the set by heading into boogie territory on John Lee Hooker's "Big Legs, Tight Skirt." This set closer also takes a gutsy approach by including plenty of seemingly spontaneous improvisation, including lyrical snippets of many other songs thrown into the mix, including "Little Red Hen," "Louise," "The Rub" and "Night Time Is The Right Time," among others.
While all of these performances can be perceived as sparse, not unlike the originals, they also show signs of the musical exploration that would be Taj Mahal's hallmark in the years to come. His musical scope would broaden with each consecutive album and this recording displays the bluesy roots at the core of his music. His vocals, which would become far stronger and hard hitting, still lack confidence at this early stage, but his passion and keen sense of timing and rhythm are all readily apparent here. These are lean, stripped-down arrangements to be sure, but they also display the earthy qualities that would remain at the heart of Taj Mahal's sound. With the development of his first band, he would soon develop a far bigger, more soulful sound with increasing variety, but even at this early stage, Taj Mahal was breathing new life into these songs and delivering charismatic performances.
Written by Alan Bershaw