There are artists and music that you find uncontrollably intertwined throughout life. Taj Mahal has been in the collective conscious of American music for many generations, yet still has a youthful enthusiasm for a music genre most associated with living a full, long life. When I saw Taj Mahal appearing with Bonnie Raitt this past October at the Greek Theater, I was overcome with the impact his music has made on my own life. I remembered seeing Taj Mahal excite the crowds at the Long Beach Blues Festival, and then flashed back to when I used to play his tunes on my radio show in the late I 960's at the underground FM in Pasadena KPPC I 06. 7. It's easy to remember the great performances and the crowds he drew then. It's 1 even more noteworthy how enthusiastic the crowds are he packs them in some 30 years later.
Taj Mahal has played more than 100 dates in the last six months. He also has a wonderful boxed set of music being released just in time for the holidays. More touring and more recording is planned for later this year, so tying down the rare Taj is an extreme sport. Although he is not purposefully elusive, Taj Mahal is not known for being very talkative in an interview setting either. lt was with great pleasure that we spent the better part of an afternoon talking about his music, and finding him to be as deep and as entertaining as his recordings. He touched on his roots and family for the first time. in a long time, and you 'II feel his personal philosophy that comes right from the heart.
E: From all I have heard, read and know about you, you've been involved with music for a long time. However, you took a side trip from music when you obtained your Bachelors Degree from the University of Massachusetts in Animal Husbandry. How do you go from Animal Husbandry to music?
TM: I never did go from one to the other, music's always been a part of my life. Both my parents were musicians even though they were not practicing in the sense of music as a livelihood. My dad was a from the Caribbean and immigrated to the United States, just after the turn of the century. My mother's people were from South Carolina.
E: Wasn't your mother a gospel singer?
TM: Yeah, well that's a talent she had. In those times she would have been doing the Jessie Norman, Leontine Price, Aretha Franklin and Mahalia Jackson style of singing. Those were the people she really liked a lot, along with Clara Ward and Shirley Caesar. But in those days, gospel singing was basically sung in a church, and that's where you kept it, in the church where she sang quite often. Gospel was the foundation for what she did. But she did study voice. That's why I was able to hear a tremendous amount classical music during those years. My father figured that she wasn't going to be singing in cabarets, but he was proud, of her and knew she certainly did have a good voice.
E: Your Mother was also a school teacher as her vocation.
TM: Yes, and my father was a day laborer. He worked for U.S. Rubber in Massachusetts after working several different jobs.
E: Was your father also a musician?
TM: He was raised in his family on both sides with music. He went into playing: bebop like a lot of guys back in those days. B t Caribbean people particularly stressed at you learn legitimate music before you could go out and play as they called it the "jumpy jumpy songs". My father also composed songs, kind of like swing and be-bop era and some of his tunes I guess were picked up by people like Buddy Johnson and Ella Johnson. There is also a tune I think Benny Goodman recorded, I think it was called "Swampland," which he was either full or part composer of.
E: Did you listen to a lot of music when you were growing up?
TM: Oh yeah! My father had an incredible jazz collection! It was divided between gospel, jazz and classical. I heard a lot of big band blues. I heard the Basie's, the Ellington's, Joe Williams, Jimmy Rushing and people of that nature, jazz and blues then. In those days the neighborhood I grew up in in general was more of an oral culture. So the people I grew up with I would say were the last one third or one quarter of the southern migration. There were always people coming up from the south. So when I went into a record store what was up front was not rock and roll. It was generally John Lee Hooker, Lightin' Hopkins, B.B. King and Jimmy Reed. When I was growing up, Jimmy Reed's music was popular music. He was played on the radio and it was the music you heard in people's houses. People talked to people about music at that time.
E: Was that true in both New York, when you lived there, and in Massachusetts?
TM: When I was in New York, I was a baby. So I really came into consciousness when I moved with my parents to Springfield in late '42. I was born in 1942 in May, and by Christmas of '42 I was living in Springfield. Being of musical parents who had musical friends and the kinds of parties they put on, all of the music they brought to me was "The Music" not called "this music" or ''that music".
E: You play the banjo, guitar, bass, and piano. Did your parents or their friends teach you to play?
TM: Yeah, all those instruments. I learned basically on my own. I'm a self-taught musician. I did probably take a few weeks of piano lessons, and the piano teacher just thought I really couldn't follow directions very well. Since I already knew what left handed on left handed boogie sounded like, I was ready to go there. I didn't see why, with the information that I had about my own culture through both my father and my mother and the people that they hung out with, that I really needed to go to school. There were two schools of thought, the downtown feel and the uptown feel. Uptown usually learned classical and didn't play the music. The downtown music plays from the soul. So the downtown music, which was becoming more and more part of the popular culture at the time, was what I really leaned towards. I said "Hey! I mean, who taught Africans how to play?", so here I am an African in America, you know? I thought I had my life ahead of me to learn how to play this stuff, and personally I was not interested in performing as much as I was interested in playing.
E: Now what prompted you to get your Degree in Animal Husbandry?
TM: Well there's two things people can't do without, one is food and two is music. Now you have to remember that the record industry wasn't the big multi-national cooperative that it is now. Records really weren't the big thing. In those days, ifa musician was good, you heard about the1n, ancl you talked about them, you didn't think so much about records. You were really trying to get an opportunity to get to see them. That's what my parents did. When the traveling bands came through, they went out to see Duke Ellington, Louis Jordan, Louis Armstrong, Harry James, Glenn Miller and the like.
E: That was great music!
TM: That was real good music. It was great to listen to. When rock and roll came along it was considered several steps down and I felt itwas several steps down from real music.
E: Louis Jordan had a comment about that, he said he knew when rock and roll started coming in, that his jump and jive was gonna be on the outs, but fortunately he kept working.
TM: Well yeah, because you always have that audience that was really getting off on the sound. He always had a really good show. He was a wonderful entertainer, as you know. People left having had a good time and heard the songs that they wanted to him to sing and they wanted to hear their guy play and he played 'em.
E: Do you think that your agricultural background is a contributing factor in your writing songs like Annie's Lover?
TM: To put everything in perspective, I was interested in agriculture. One of the big things that my dad used to do since he worked all week is that on the weekends they'd shop on Sunday, depending on whether or not went to church. If she was gonna sing then he would go. If she wasn't gonna sing my dad would not go. He was not interested in organized religion, he went there to support her and ride herd on us kids while she was up doing her thing. If we didn't go to church on Sunday, we drove out to the country to see the farms. I would say like oh wow, I always wanted to get the hell out of the city. At first I was actually interested in ranching, but in the area that I lived in, the land was extremely high so that really wasn't a ranching situation. So I moved over to diversified agriculture which was basically dairy farming. Many farmers didn't make very much money at the actual vocation so they had, to supplement their income by having 30 to 100 or more acres of tobacco, which would if raised correctly, picked properly and cured correctly would bring them a very high price.
E: Did you ever work on the farm?
TM: Yes! I was about 13 or 14 when I started picking tobacco in. the Connecticut Valley. That was my first actual big away from home gig aside from my brother and I shining shoes at a golf course. We were making, I don't know, 11 or 12 hundred dollars a month and for a couple of little young boys ...
E: Shining shoes you were making 11 or 12 hundred?
TM: Yeah man. There were a lot of guys. This was a big golf course and we did all the guys shoes and then they paid you. There was, I don't know, three, four or five hundred people that played or belonged to the club. We were paid "x" number of dollars a month for the service and then they gave you great tips and man that was some serious change.
E: What happened to your job?
TM: Well my mother got concerned about how much money we were getting and thought we were stealing or something. So we said "No Mom, we're working for it!" and we took her to the club so she could check it out. That was when our cover got blown. The boss said, "You brought your mother here, how old are you boys?" Well, she rambled on and on and the guy said, "OK, well, I'm sorry son. You did a good job but you can't work here anymore cause you're too young." You know they just didn't want to get into any trouble you know. So anyway, my idea was that I want to serve humanity. That is sort of our family motto. So at one point I thought, "wait a minute, I'll take this opportunity and go to college", you know I may even want to teach or do something like that. You know the best thing that was said to me by a teacher anywhere?
E: No. What?
TM: That we only use 10% or less of our abilities! I said, "Did I hear you correctly?" He said, "Yes!" and I went, "OK, I'm working on the other 90%!"
E: Did your parents encourage you and let you know you could do what ever you wanted to in life?
TM: Yes, with our family background we were told there wasn't nothing' you couldn't do. We were never told that we were black and couldn't make it, you know, that was never ever said in our house. What was said is, that people will look at you and they will low-rate you so your going to have to work ten times harder to make things par. Get ready for that and be prepared for it. OK, thanks Mom, thanks Dad. That's what we heard as kids and it was all positively reinforced, by a mother who received her Masters Degree with a husband and five kids. My father wanted her to go back to school, and was not afraid of her having more education than he did. Because that was school knowledge and he had common sense or something that comes from experience. So you know, I mean that's a lot. I was raised around people who made a real go at this life.
E: Yeah, I was raised in a multi-cultural neighborhood and my background was the music, and the blues. Louis Jordan was the first artist I really remember hearing. When I listen to you talk about the love for your parents, education and the music its really coming through. I feel the same way myself.
TM: Yeah, you understand it.
E: Very much so. It is very exciting for me to hear that, because there are young children that are into the blues. I see parents bringing their kids to blues festivals. When you were performing at the Long Beach Blues Festival, I saw kids dancing to your music. You have become a role model. Now that leads me to my next question. In 1969, I was at KPPC Radio in Pasadena, and one of the first songs I played of yours was "A Little Soulful Tune". In that song you tell a story about when you were a little kid you would be sitting around the table, and when your mother was out of the room you would make up little songs and sing, or should I say grunt. But when your mother came back in and 1heard you, she would tell you to stop that. She didn't want you doing that, so tell us, is that a true story?
TM: Oh yeah! My mother was trying to make sure that her brood of kids weren't being seen in any kind of negative light. I mean down to the short haircuts, wearing sharp clothes to school suits or vests and suits with ties, belted pants and clean shoes. Man, I was sharp dresser. I was also so interested in hearing people say I was sharp, because you never get a second chance to make a good first impression.
E: That’s true. I understand that you came by the name Taj Mahal from a dream.
TM: From a series of dreams that started somewhere around 1947 or 1949 or 1950, right around there when there was a complete and very interesting focus in the world. Mahatma Ghandi. Ghandi struck me as very interesting and my parents were very positive towards Ghandi and what he did long before Martin Luther King. If we got up in the morning and grabbed a sheet off your bed and you wrapped it around yourself to go wherever in the house or you were disheveled in any kind of way my mother would say or my father would say, "You look like your running' around here like Ghandi!" He's one of the people who I really hold a big light up to in this life trying to really maintain peace, with the tremendous amounts of violence and ignorance going on in the world.
E: I think you try to promote peace and harmony through your music. How many places have you played in the last six months?
TM: Probably about a hundred places.
E: And that's all over the world.
TM: Yeah, forty-two gigs in Europe between the 26th of June and August. And then, you know, equally as much since then. Let’s say eighty-five to ninety since then.
E: Are you playing more now than in the sixties?
TM: No, I covered some pretty good distance in the sixties. I played in the late sixties particularly sixty-eight. I was in Europe. That's how I got involved with The Rolling Stones who didn't need " Billboard" to find out I was playing music, they knew about me because they were inside the music and that is what it's all about.
E: Your latest release is your new box set "In Progress & In Motion" which encompasses a lot of what you have done, and material that is previously unreleased. How far back does that box set go?
TM: Since 1965. It covers three decades.
E: Did you include some of the things you did with Ry Cooder and the Rising Suns?
TM: Yes, some of the early stuff that we did with Cooder is there.
E: Is any of the music you did with the Rolling Stones on the Box Set?
TM: Yeah! At the time I went over to play with the Rolling Stones "Rock & Roll Circus", we were the only act representing the United States at one of the great underground things. There I am, twenty some odd years . old, playin' with these guys and were playing the "stuff'. The tracks on the new box set have never been officially released till now.
E: What are some unreleased tracks that the Pointer Sisters are on?
TM: "Little Red Hen Blues", "Mary Don't You Weep", "Sweet Home Chicago", and all three of these are live songs with the Pointer Sisters singing back up, when I first brought them out.
E: You were the one who brought the Pointer Sisters out?
TM: Yeah, yeah!
E: Now the unreleased tracks are those sides you did in the studio or live and just decided at one point or another not to release them?
TM: We had enough material for the albums we're doing, and in those days if you put too much music on the record as it got towards the center of the disc, the fidelity started dropping so you only could put so much on a side.
E: "In Progress & In Motion" is a great project. It sounds dynamite.
E: Just one last question in parting. What are your feelings about the new artist in the arena like Keb Mo?
TM: I haven't had a whole lot of communication with the press about what I think of guys like Keb Mo, Ben Harper and Corey Harris. They all site me as being, you know, the mentor and inspiration for them to know what they're doing and I'm really glad. That's all I can say. I'm really happy that they're there because there's room for more.
Sheldon J. Eskin is a noted author and attorney emphasizing Entertainment & Broadcast law, with 30 years of association in the record industry and radio fields. He is the host of the syndicated program "Voice of the Blues" and is a well known performance photographer.