When music legend Taj Mahal calls from a tour stop in Phoenix, it’s been just a few days since he played Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival at Madison Square Garden in New York. He’d been asked to play the event before, and never had the time, but this time around he took Slowhand up on his request. The two blues greats go back quite a ways.
“We played a lot over the years,” says Mahal. “When he was first out, actually back in the Disraeli Gears years, we were opening for [Cream] when they came through on their big tours of California. And then when we played on the [Rolling Stones] Rock and Roll Circus he was playing in John Lennon’s Dirty Mac band, and I met him.
“Over the years I’ve heard his music,” he adds, “and he’s always been a strong supporter of the blues, you know. He’s done a lot to create general interest in it around the world.”
Mahal—who also plays on Clapton’s latest album, Old Sock—didn’t actually trade licks with him at the Crossroads Fest, but he did sit in with the Allman Brothers on Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues”, which is cool for a couple of reasons. First off, it’s the song that—after Mahal recorded it on his self-titled debut album of 1968—first inspired Duane Allman to pick up slide guitar.
It’s also the lead-off track on the earliest album included in the new 15-disc Taj Mahal boxed set, The Complete Columbia Albums Collection. Rising Sons Featuring Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder opens with ”Statesboro Blues”, and also includes versions of timeless blues gems by Robert Johnson (“Dust My Broom”), Reverend Gary Davis (“Candy Man”), and Sleepy John Estes (“Diving Duck Blues”).
“That’s when we were all workin’ to try to take those songs and make them palatable to an audience that didn’t have any idea what the raw stuff sounded like,” recalls Mahal.
The Rising Sons album was the first recording he and Cooder had ever made, together or separately, and though its tracks were laid down back in 1965 and ’66, it didn’t see the light of day until Sony Music’s catalogue division, Legacy Recordings, released it in ’92.
“The record company didn’t know what to do,” Mahal explains. “And then eventually somebody said, ‘You know, this guy’s actually been around for a long time! He’s not going away. He’s not dying of an overdose, he didn’t drive his car off a cliff.’ No, I wasn’t about that.”
Speaking of overdosing, Mahal’s former guitarist Jesse Ed Davis—whose playing on the Taj Mahal album so hugely influenced Duane Allman—did just that back in 1988. But his tragic passing at the age of 43 didn’t shock his former frontman.
“I was always worried because he tended to push things pretty hard sometimes,” remembers Mahal. “But I wasn’t so much shocked as I was pissed off. I really was. It was like ‘There goes another incredible talent’, you know?
“Maybe somebody’ll come along and really hear his sound and get it,” he adds, “but there really wasn’t but the one guy that played like that. I’ve been very fortunate to have recorded him at the time when he had everything working for him. And it worked for me.”
Davis joined Mahal after the Rising Sons broke up and played on his first three albums—Taj Mahal, The Natch’l Blues (also from ’68) and the ’69 double album Giant Step/De Ole Folks at Home—all of which are included on the boxed set. As well as blues standards, those early discs feature a lot of Mahal’s arrangements of traditional folk and country songs.
“I enjoy music wherever it’s coming from,” he relates. “I don’t care if it’s somebody else’s song. Most of the time you’ll find that I’ll put my own stamp on it. But I started writing more because, you know, it’s easy to regurgitate what somebody else is doing, but it’s exciting to be able to come up with your own writing.”
Mahal has experienced a multitude of amazing artists during his 70 years on Earth. (As he puts it, “I’m old enough to chew my peas and corn without choking.”) But when asked to choose his favourite musical moment, he doesn’t hesitate for too long.
“If what you’re talking about is seeing someone perform, then I’ll have to say that in the rhythm-and-blues side of things, seein’ Otis Redding live was it, you know? The Rising Sons opened for Otis for a whole week when he recorded Live on the Sunset Strip. I’ve seen a lot of players, and I’ve seen a lot of performers, but I never saw nobody like that. No-body.