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.