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Open Treasures: An Interview with Taj Mahal

The legendary Taj Mahal talks to PopMatters about the early days of FM Radio, the generosity of the Rolling Stones, and his new double album, featuring a live show from London's famed Royal Albert Hall.

Taj Mahal

Hidden Trasures of Taj Mahal

Label: Legacy
US Release Date: 2012-08-21
UK Release Date: 2012-08-20

Taj Mahal's story, for the most part, has been written. The modern blues legend may continue to release new albums and tour throughout his golden years, but his place in the history of American music isn't going to budge. During a time of heavy social change, political unrest, and a slew of old bluesmen who were adopting heavy sounds at the behest of record companies, Taj Mahal was a breath of fresh air for everyone to share. His take on the blues was steadfast, the pop side of his R&B untarnished. More than forty years after his first album, Taj Mahal remains just as much as an influence to the modern blues as he is a drawer of crowds.

Hidden Treasures of Taj Mahal 1969-1973 is a newly released double album that gives the listener a glimpse into an alternate side of Taj Mahal's early story. You may recognize the song titles, but they all have that something special that differs them from their album counterpart. So why is that? Speaking on that and many more topics much longer than our allotted time, Taj Mahal regaled PopMatters about the days of Jesse Ed Davis, the Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, and making sure that his band never wasted time in the studio. I started off by mistakenly referring to the material between 1969 and 1973 as "old." And, as you'll see, to a 70-year-old guitar player who has toured the world and seen many antiquated European countrysides, "old" is a pretty relative word.

* * *

Very old music is, like, 11th century in my mind. That's very old. This is recent/modern. Anything within the last 200, 300 years is recent and modern, modern music. Really modern music is hip-hop, rap and what not. R&B, Chicago blues... how old are you?

I'm 34.

It probably sounds like old music to you. But if you back up a little bit and get a better sense of time, [you'll see] it's actually a continuum; as it passes along, you can really travel along with all the lines of music.

There's a historical context that people like me miss out on, like the time of the late '60s and the early '70s. When you went back to listen to these tracks, what were some things that came to mind about that time period?

First of all, I was glad that I did what I did, which was not leave a whole lot of unfinished music in the studio, outtakes, bad takes, mistakes, and all that stuff. I was really specific about "this is the song I was after and this is what we want." The process of getting there was never to be in the studio trying to get there. I made my musicians rehearse outside the studio. Often times when we were setting up for a song, we would not play the song we were going to record. The reason was [that] the first time you play, that's probably going to be the best it's going to sound that day. And maybe you have two other chances, so maybe up to three times to try to do it. But after three? You're spinning your wheels. You might have a false start or two or something like that, but get rid of all that stuff! There's no need for people to hear all that. What they're there for is the music.

So you hear it in your mind, you put the song together, get into the studio and get to make it, that's what should be there when people go back. But I had, over the years, more towards now, the opportunity to hear some of that stuff. And I have copies of what that music was in storage, but I hadn't sat down and listened to it. My idea was that, not so much to hear the live concert at the Royal Albert Hall, which I didn't really have, but the other pieces, the other recorded studio pieces. I didn't have them. So I hadn't listened to them in a long time. I was very happy because I was particular about not putting them out at the time, but they were good songs and I see they remained as exciting as they were when I recorded them. I can hear a little pitch to my voice; it's probably a lot different, quite a bit more mature now. It wasn't at that time and I can see that I was reaching for a certain thing that I've already been doing for all of 30 years now, maybe more. So it's kind of nice to be able to take a look back and be proud of what it is.

Do you remember any of the reasons for leaving these off of your albums?

Yeah. For certain songs, my feeling was that they weren't as good as the live versions, the versions that usually ended up on the album. But they were good enough not to throw away. Say, with The Real Thing album with "Sweet Mama Janisse" -- forgot what else is on there, maybe "John, Ain't It Hard", some songs like that; you know, they were in process. They were in progress and in motion. By the time I put them on the albums, they were like the live versions. I just felt they had more energy, more feel to it, that's what I was looking for.

"Ain't Gwine to Whistle Dixie (Any Mo')" was on there too.

Yeah, the third time it was recorded... actually it would have been the second. On the live version, there was more room for improvisation. More like jazz, and that was an element I thought that the blues guys could really get involved with. You can always be bringing music up [and] not lose the roots, but definitely climb up the tree.

Reading through your liner notes, it seems like you really trusted a guy like Jesse Ed Davis with what he was able to give you on the first go-round.

Oh, all the time. Jesse was one of the most amazing musicians. I always felt that the industry and popular music and musicians really just kind of wrote him off because he wasn't a flash guy. He didn't sell himself like that. It was about the music. I've met a lot of players out there with great names, and they will remain unnamed, but I don't know anybody who comes close to what he did. He created his own sound, just a beautiful sound. He was one of those musicians that you never had to talk to, never had to tell him about anything. That's what I've been looking for over the years, guys that can play. And I mean play. I don't care if you got a big name out there, I mean play. And that guy could play. There's musicians in Hawaii like that. Occasionally they'll have to ask a question, but they came to play. It was phenomenal. I recognized that I was very lucky and I recognized that we were going to create something that was really exciting and we got three records and a couple more tunes after that, and that was it for what we put together, I think.

Those three albums, we did the tour that brought [about] the Albert Hall thing, and then we did some stuff playing down south with those different bands. I never was going down there to play without [Davis] because he extended the sound that we first started out with. Like when we were playing with the Dixie Flyers, he would get that sound in there. It was just really fabulous. Later in the '80s I did an album after I got off the major labels, Columbia or Sony and Warner Bros., and did more independent labels. I didn't work with him for a long time then I did an album toward the end of the '80s for Gramavision [1987's Taj]. He played on two or three songs on that, it was just great. It's just fantastic, you know, on any day of the week you can go and listen to that. Now I have it downloaded to my laptop [laughs], I put it on whenever I want.

Do you think the music business has become better at recognizing raw talent over flash?

No, because they're trying to make money and that's where they're at. I'm not mad at them for trying to make money, it's just that there used to be a lot more talent around. When I was a kid, there was so much talent outside of recorded music. See, what happens is, before, you either had to hear it, be a part of it or have it part of your culture. I came up not understanding that a lot of people didn't start to hear music until they went to college or were turned on by an older brother or sister. That can always happen anywhere. It wasn't a cultural thing. I did not really know that most people didn't know about music because, when I was growing up, it was happening everywhere. The lesser version of it was rock 'n' roll; the deeper version of it was jazz, blues, gospel and even classical. If a composer wrote a song, then lots of people recorded it because they liked the melody.

Now, the composer writes the song and nobody does anything. It's like they don't share. But there was so much playing. Just the idea of the integrated band -- when I was a kid growing up in the '40s and the '50s, jazz was like that. So I thought that was one of the highest forms of music and that was one of the problems with rock 'n' roll. You can have more than three people in there to create this incredible sound. Where are the guys that did that? It was under my name, I'm African-American, and Jesse Davis who was native American, a drummer and a bass player; European-Americans of English descent. Jesse was a Kiowa from Oklahoma, you can't get more deeply American than that! We're playing the blues, we had country in there, I brought all kinds of different kinds of sounds and those guys really helped carve something that, you go back and listen to it, you go "okay, who does this sound like?" It sounds like Taj Mahal, Jesse Ed Davis, [bassist] Gary Gilmore and [drummer] Chuck Blackwell. That's what it sounds like. We were lucky.

Our biggest luck was FM radio. FM radio was just starting then, so it didn't have very much content. When we made an album, you could put it on and play it from the front to the back. There was always a thought about the sequencing, and people really loved it. They put those albums on and played them. When we did the double album Giant Step/De Ole Folks at Home, we had done the Giant Step album and I said "you know, a lot of people are putting out double albums. But the double albums basically sound like it was a good piece of taffy that you start out with and then you kind of stretched it a little farther than it needed to be." It was pretty much the same thing from one end to the other.

So I said "look, here's the songs after you take them and polish them up and give them a little R&B, give them some blues, a little modern country, and here are the raw songs and what they sound like in their raw form. I'm doing this." I didn't think it would amount to something that was like a set of keys for a lot of people to understand how to put music together. It's only been later on that people started talking about how groundbreaking it was -- it wasn't. I just had an idea and I did it. I didn't really think that much about it. I wasn't trying to shake nobody up.

I'm very happy with the sounds, I'm glad that they're out there and that people are interested. I've had a few comments back like "wow, your voice sounds so young and so different," but I can hear [that I was] still there at that particular point, which really wasn't the beginning, but it was the beginning on records.

Going back to the Royal Albert Hall show, can you take us back there? Can you set the scene for what it was like in England, 1970?

First of all, we had lucked out. By 1970, we had been in the Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus and that was maybe in the process of coming out - that was December 11, 1968 when that was recorded. We had a wonderful time. For me, the Rolling Stones at that time were probably the nicest people in the music business that stuck a hand out and said "c'mon, hang out with us and do what we're doing." It happened after a show I had done at the Whiskey a Go Go and I found them guys and the Animals all hanging out in my audience, so I went over and talked to them. I said "hey, you guys got a lot of stuff going on over there. You seem to be making a career out of blues and I see you have some support from not only people but it seems like the music industry too." They had their problems too, let's face it, but they also had didn't have as much conversation about what was happening here in this country. So I said "hey, if there's any process or project that you got that you would like to do, give us a call and we'd be glad to come over." They sent us eight tickets, first class, round trip to London and back. Any gifts you got to send home, your cigarettes, whatever personal stuff that you bought like that, those guys look care of us.

The Stones and [blues guitarist Bonnie Raitt] are probably the only people in this business that really laid it down like that. It was after that [when] we came back because they had helped us get connected to different people over there. There were a lot of people around who took our business information, and because of them we started having an audience outside of England and in and around Europe. So we went to quite a few places -- I remember Germany was big, Belgium was big, and we came over to do that Albert Hall show and I think that was sort of like the end of the tour. The band was playing really good and it was exciting and we had big fun. People were really nice and England was, like, rockin'! You could get around over there, you could see what you could see; you could see the influence of Carnaby Street and all kinds of stuff we saw on the album covers of those guys coming from that time. They were very knowledgeable and very excitable. It was a wonderful audience. I always have a great audience when I go there. I was just there this summer and had big fun playing. England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and on to the continent.

A personal favorite album of mine is one you recorded in Germany, I think: An Evening of Acoustic Music.

Everybody loves that album [laughs]. There's a classic example of me being really harder on myself that I need to. The guy who recorded the album was part of a record company, and he kept telling me, "I got this recordings of you that is so great that you should listen to it." And I'm moving along, playing night after night, mostly solo. He kept telling me how good this [recording] is. And every night I'm trying to make this thing hit, as good as any jazz player every night, to play at the highest level I could play at. I'm not going back and listening to it! I had listened to none of it, I just wasn't paying attention to it. Finally, he gave me a copy of it, and I thought at some point "I don't really wanna tell this guy I don't like this." When I listened to it, I was like "Dag! That's really good!" I called him back and I said "you were absolutely right, man. That sounds really great." He said "we were thinking of putting it out" and I said "go for it." And he did.

That was really exciting. They caught a great moment in time and I'm really glad. We do it all the time now, we're recording everything all the time. Once I started realizing there was so much [to record] --I think the Grateful Dead just had these guys who were, five, six days a week, doing nothing but listening to their live stuff because they got so much of it. They pull stuff out of the vault and come up with a set of really great versions of certain songs that everybody loves. It's not a bad idea, maybe I'll do that at some point. You know, go through the vault, get some stuff and put it out online or whatever form it's going to be at the time.

I love playing in Germany. I love playing anywhere where people are going to enjoy the music. Germany is especially nice to play. And I like to go and travel around the place, it's got a lot of older-style villages. The villages are very small and you can pretty much see where they build around the river, around where the mill was and all that. It's very nice and the countryside is quite lovely. But you can be in South America or Australia and New Zealand -- we play all these places, in Africa and the Caribbean, Central America, Mexico -- there's always some beautiful place to be where the land is outstanding and the people are really working it.

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