Featured Interview – Taj Mahal

taj mahal photo 1There are plenty of personal ways to realize when you’re reached iconic status as a performing musician.

Chief among them would be what kind of car you drive, what kind of house you live in and how big a bank account you deposit your money into.

While all those signposts are certainly not to be ignored, there is one thing that can top all the above when it comes to see just what kind of a rarified-spot a performing musician holds in the public conscious.

That would be when you find yourself animated and appearing as a guest (playing yourself) on a highly-popular kid’s cartoon series.

That prestigious honor, friends, belongs to the Maestro, the one-and-only Henry Saint Clair Fredericks – better known as Taj Mahal.

The Maestro found himself animated (complete with trademark straw hat and a pair of bunny ears) on an episode of the PBS Kids series Arthur back in 2003 (“Big Horns George” was the name of the show he appeared on, along with an animated version of Koko Taylor).

A year after that, he found himself knee-deep with another PBS Kids animated series, this time composing the theme song for Peep and the Big Wide World.

“What happened was, in the 1980s I didn’t really have a record label and was kind of freelancing from the backend of the ’70s, doing one-offs and things. And while I had that big slack time there, I had written a bunch of children’s songs and put out an album (Shake Sugaree: Taj Mahal Sings and Plays for Children). These people (production team and creators of Peep and the Big Wide World) heard that I did that and asked me to come over and create a theme for their show. We literally went in one afternoon and saw some of the cartoon and we created a theme right there … right on the spot. It was a tune that had kind of been hanging around with me for a while and that was a good place for it. A lot of kids will come up to me (at his concerts) and say, ‘Are you going to play that song in a ‘wide, wide world’?’ The kids also really like that song “Squat that Rabbit” (from his 1991 album, Like Never Before).

You don’t have to be a certified, card-carrying member of the Blues Lovers’ Association to know that Taj Mahal is a little more than just a contributor to children’s afternoon television programming.

The New York-born, Massachusetts-bred musician is more like a living legend and has long been one of America’s premier singer/songwriters and musicologists. He has the peerless ability to basically pick up any instrument – be it a guitar, harmonica, piano, banjo … etc., – and play it like no one has heard it played before. He boasts a resume of recorded works that stretches longer than most folk’s arms. He’s a Blues Hall of Famer, is the Official Blues Artist of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and is the recipient of the American Music Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

He’s a national treasure and is also on the precipice of his 50th anniversary as a performing artist.

But as one might suspect of a work ethic that’s burned so brightly for so long, Taj has never really allowed himself the opportunity to look back on all that he’s done.

That’s because he’s still focused primarily on the future.

“No, I really don’t spend a whole lot of time looking at what I’ve done. It’s sort of like I’m a sawyer and it’s time to chop wood and stack wood and now I’ve got a lot of stuff stacked up and I look around and go, ‘Oh, what are we going to do with all this stuff?’ But I think I’m beginning to take a little look back … I mean, I’ve done a lot of stuff,” he said. “And a lot of the stuff I’ve done may be stuff that a lot of people don’t know about. But I refuse to get down about that (about people not knowing some of the things he’s done). I just get the work done and that’s really it. I just don’t want to be at a point where I have an idea to do something and I waffle on it. I don’t want that to happen and look back and see that I missed a chance to do something good or to do something personal that I wished I had done, you know?”

His latest project is something that’s been kicking around as an idea for years; a collaboration and studio album with Keb’ Mo’.

The resulting effort of that long-awaited union is fittingly titled, TajMo (Concord).

taj mahal photo 2“We’ve had almost a musical father/son connection for a long time. I was instrumental in getting one of his big album situations in place (Keb’s first record deal with Epic Records). He’s just a hell of a guitar player and I’m amazed at some of the things he put out there. And I’m really happy with the path that we created (on TajMo), because you know, for about 25 years I was pretty much the only guy out there who was plying those kind of waters. And now, quite a few young people have seen that opening that I came through and said, ‘That’s an opening that I can come through … playing my own music the way that I want to play it and the songs I like to play and people will either get me or they won’t.’ And he’s (Keb’) done a really good job of creating that.”

The connection between the two go back a few decades, back to when Keb’ first saw the Maestro perform up close and personal at a student assembly in his high school in Compton, California.

“Early on, I played at a high school of his, so there’s a lot going on there. Then we’d done a few things together and played a few shows together over the years and we also talked about doing something like this together. And eventually we got it to a head and it happened.”

Back in the day, Taj had heard about Keb’ Mo’ before he actually got a chance to hear the music that he was creating early on in his career as a budding blues player.

“People would come up to me and say, ‘Have you heard Keb’ Mo’? Have you heard Keb’ Mo’?’ Well, what they were saying and what I was reading said he reminded them of me. After I first heard him I said, ‘Well, we really don’t sound alike, but our approach to the music is similar.’ But that was several years ago, way back somewhere in the ’90s. That would have been the first time I heard about him and then finally heard him play. I know I heard him on the radio back then.”

The album’s creation spanned close to two-and-a-half years, with the duo getting together to record as time permitted between tours and other projects the two separately had going on.

TajMo features guest stints from Bonnie Raitt, Joe Walsh, Sheila E. and Lizz Wright.

“It’s really been a great situation all the way and everybody’s learned a lot about each other through the process. It’s really been great … I love it,” Taj said. “The approach (to creating music solo versus writing with someone else) really doesn’t change for me, other than you’re just writing with someone else. What it is, I go to the end of what I can say (in a song) and they pick it up from there. A lot of times when I’m writing, I’ll run into a block – not a writer’s block – but the song just ends right there for me. So with somebody else, I can say, ‘Here’s the song so far.’ And then they go from there. I don’t do that a lot. That’s kind of a personal space for me.”

Back in late 1968 Taj was involved in sort of a musical meeting of the minds, even though the finished results were not available for mass public consumption until many years later.

Along with British groups like Jethro Tull, The Who and the Dirty Mac (a one-off comprised of John Lennon, Eric Clapton, Yoko Ono, Mitch Mitchell and Keith Richards), Taj took part in a filmed concert event on a soundstage in London that was made out to look like a circus tent and put on by The Rolling Stones. Fittingly enough, this event was called The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus. While most of the British rock-n-rollers of that era were always quick to cite American bluesmen as their inspiration, concert events featuring blues acts with rock-and-roll bands, while they did happen, they just didn’t happen all that often. Especially with a blues artist that was still considered an ‘up-and-comer’ like Taj was at that point in time. This film could have possibly opened up some additional doors for Taj in the late ’60s, but it’s release was shelved until some 28 years later, in 1996.

“Well, it’s sort of like spilt milk (the official release being delayed by almost three decades). I can’t worry about that now, you know? But you know they (The Stones), well Mick (Jagger), primarily, had been up for a lot of days. The Who and my band and Jethro Tull, we were like hardcore touring bands on the road back then. Those guys (The Stones) weren’t touring at that time and Mick kind of felt that their performance was kind of stilted (which was the long-circulated rumor as to why the project’s release was pushed back for so long). But if you look it at through a spyglass it’s a moment in time and history on planet earth. So you know, it’s like you can’t spend what you ain’t got and you can’t lose what you never had. That’s just the way it is. But The Stones were the most generous band … they accommodated us the best that we’d ever had. They’re really very, very, very generous. I had a wonderful time recording that.”

Over the ensuing years, Taj would sit in and guest with The Rolling Stones on several of their world tours, playing songs like “Corinna” and “Six Days on the Road.”

Taj’s performance of ‘”Ain’t that a lot of Love” was featured in The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus. Bonus footage on the DVD features another three songs (“Checkin’ Up on My Baby,” “Leaving Trunk” and “Corinna”).

taj mahal photo 3“I have enjoyed that it finally did come out and that a lot of people were like, ‘Wow.’ That’s the only representation at that time in the United States of The Taj Mahal and The Great Plains Boogie Band, which was an interesting quartet if there ever was, you know? Were we really a self-contained band.”

One of the key components of that quartet was the late, great Jesse Ed Davis, an immensely-talented guitar player that never really seems to get all the acclaim that he is rightfully due.

“When you hear all these guys that are, quote – playing the blues, most of those guys are regurgitating or memorizing somebody’s licks and stringing them all together. I said most, I did not say all. Very few of them have their very own signature blues sound. But Jesse Davis did. Jesse Davis had an incredible blues sound, which also filtered in a little country and a little rock and some R&B. He was a really fantastic arranger and was a great sideman. Even back then, a lot of guys were stuck in the playbook of what had already been played. We were creating stuff that had never been played before.”

Some of that ‘stuff that had never been played before’ included a melding of the blues with rock, topped off with a lot of southern soul. The resulting dish? How about the genre that came to be known as southern rock and helped dominate the 1970s.

“Just look at what happened with “Statesboro Blues” (Taj’s version of the Blind Willie McTell song first appeared on his eponymous debut album in 1968). “Statesboro Blues” completely launched the whole southern rock-and-roll thing. It launched Duane Allman and the Allman Brothers, The Marshall Tucker Band … you name it. There were quite a few others that tried to jump in with that sound at that time. But Duane got that sound directly from Jesse Davis’ playing on that first album. I didn’t realize for many years that he (Jesse Ed) was quite upset, because he thought that because Ry Cooder was on the record, people thought it was Ry playing slide on “Statesboro Blues” instead of him. No, no, no. On the album, Ry is listed as a rhythm guitar player; not as a lead or slide guitar player. Lead and slide was Jesse Davis. I always listed the musicians and what they did on my records.”

With as many world-class musicians as he’s played with and as many genres as he’s cross-woven into his own music and with as many fans as he’s made over the past five decades, it would seem like Taj has accomplished all that he possibly could.

However, there’s still more to be done, he says.

“Sure, there’s things still left to be accomplished … make lots of money,” he laughed. “But really, a lot of this stuff has been a labor of love for me. The fact is, a lot of other artists wouldn’t do this stuff. I felt like if someone didn’t take the initiative to do it, nothing would happen.”

Not only were other artists only too eager to shy away from the blend of the blues with world music that Taj was crafting in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but it seems that most of the major record labels on the scene back then also wanted little to do with it.

“Even after the music was made, it had to get distributed and if the labels didn’t see the financial payoff in it, they wouldn’t do it,” he said. “But I just stopped worrying about that. Let the music play. Let it be recorded … let it be documented, you know?”

It’s fairly common to hear world music influences in all forms of popular music these days. Fact is, it’s a real challenge to even go for half of a day and not hear some of that influence on songs on mainstream radio or in commercials viewed on television. But back when Taj was helping to pioneer just such a blend by inserting bits of reggae, the South Pacific and strains of Latin percussion and the sounds of jazz into his tunes, it was fairly uncommon to hear.

“Well, that’s my background. My background is southern American and Caribbean, so I have both migrants and immigrants in my family. So the Caribbean side was really connected to the British Empire, so that was one of my points of view. And then the South Carolina side was connected to education, so there were a lot of different elements. Both my parents listened to a lot of different kinds of music, as well as the popular music of the ’30s and ’40s. They were like in their late twenties when I came along. They were very active people. My mom danced right up until her late eighties. So the music has always been a big thing in my life.”

taj mahal photo 4After being inspired and engulfed by music for the duration of his childhood, it wasn’t long before Taj decided that he was destined to help spread the word.

“I just heard the value of people needing to hear music. The tendency was that they would wear out a particular vein of music and then everybody would be looking around for what’s next. So I just got busy and brought stuff out. That’s what musicians are supposed to do; expose people to things they’ve never heard before. That’s our job.”

Even though he has sold more albums than you can shake a stick at and is in possession of a pair of Grammy Awards, one really does get the sense that Taj would still be five decades into playing music if he had not sold any records or been bestowed any awards. To put it bluntly, he’s long been more concerned about people being able to have the opportunity to hear the music than what financial rewards may be attached to that.

“When I go into these vaults (at record companies), I can only stay so long, because I get crazy thinking that there’s all these tapes – that because someone did not think they were commercially viable – have never been put out for people to hear. Those tapes represent the culture and humanity at the time (they were recorded). But, there are some people that have been working on that. There’s a great project coming out called American Epic that comes out May 16 on PBS. It’s going to open up some of those vaults and show people exactly what’s going on. People will get a chance to know about a lot of great stuff from the past that’s shaped what we’re listening to now. American music is like a mosaic; you could live a hundred lifetimes and never get to the bottom of it. It’s fantastic, but due to commercialization, you only get to hear so much.”

As the Maestro is quick to point out, there is a difference between the way an artist creates art and the way that the public at large may go about consuming said art, and a lot of that has to do with their location on the globe.

“When you meet the original griots in Africa (a griot is a west African storyteller/musician/poet/historian), they are not worried about what anybody thinks. They are worried about what they know. You know, they could have records from the 13th century and nobody in the audience (in Africa) is going to get upset. Here (the United States), you make reference to yesterday and people are like, ‘Well, that was yesterday.’ But time is not linear … time is cyclical, you know?”

He doesn’t tour the world for months on end like he used to and Taj seems at peace with that. But just because his schedule has a few more holes in it these days doesn’t mean he’s ready to lay on a hammock on some beach, full-time, either.

“I’ve got some time to do a few other things these days. I’ve spent a lot of time giving to the world, you know? I have an amazing family and incredible grandchildren and I want to spend more time with them,” he said. “I play whenever I want to and I plan on pushing forward for a while. But I play at home and I create things around me, wherever I am.”

Doesn’t matter if he’s in Massachusetts, Los Angeles or even Paris … wherever he’s at, the wheels of creativity are constantly spinning for the Maestro.

That’s kind of what happened when he moved to Kauai, Hawaii in 1981. What started out as some guys getting together for some fun and a bit of fishing, morphed into Taj Mahal and the Hula Blues Band.

“I was in Hawaii for 20 years and ended up creating the Hula Blues Band with a bunch of guys I was hanging out with. That was fantastic. I’ve always got some kind of project going on … always.”

Visit Taj’s website at: www.tajblues.com

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