Taj Mahal remembers playing harmonica at the Whiskey a Go Go in the late 1960s with his eyes closed. And he remembers the surreal scene he witnessed from the stage when he reopened them.
“On the dance floor is Mick Jagger,” he said. “It’s Keith Richards, it’s Brian Jones and it’s Bill Wyman, and they’re all dancing. And on the other side it’s Eric Bourdon from the Animals, Hilton Valentine and Chas Chandler — they’re dancing. In the back of the room is Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce.”
All English bands into the blues.
“I said, ‘Something’s going on here,” said Mahal, who performs at Cal Poly on Wednesday.
While Americans hadn’t embraced blues, suddenly, he noticed, all these British musicians were not only inspired by the blues but also giving nods to the great blues players, new and old.
“Europeans were far ahead of us,” he said. “In the ’60s, had it not been for them, there would be no recollection of the fact that those (blues) guys really existed.”
Seeing an opportunity, Mahal approached Jagger during a break.
“I leaned over to Mick and I said, ‘Man, listen. I don’t know what you guys got in the water over there, but it’s great that culturally, you can just jump into music like this and play it the way you want and however you like it. Because it’s difficult over here.”
Mahal knew firsthand, of course. His previous band —The Rising Sons, with guitar legend Ry Cooder— recorded a groundbreaking album that mixed rock, soul and blues a couple of years earlier. But Columbia Records declined to release
it for nearly three decades.
“We were totally progressive, totally beyond the pale,” Mahal said. “It was a group of multiethnic and generational players at a time when what they were trying to do was squeeze it all down to, ‘This diamond ring doesn’t shine for me anymore’ (a song by Gary Lewis and the Playboys) — some form of bland, white-bread popular music.”
Mahal and Cooder managed to get out of the contracts together, and Mahal wound up re-recording many of the Rising Sons songs as a solo act.
Just as he was starting off on his own, he received eight round-trip tickets to England. Jagger had invited him to be a part of “The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus.” The TV special featured live performances from heavy hitters such as the Stones, The Who, John Lennon, Eric Clapton and Jethro Tull.
With the other bands watching, Mahal belted out a sweaty, soulful version of “Ain’t That a Lot of Love” — a rendition that could have catapulted his career. But the Stones, said to be unhappy with their performance (especially compared to The Who’s energetic set), decided to kill the project, and yet another Mahal show wouldn’t see light for close to 30 years.
“I can look back and go, ‘Boy, if those two had plugged in ...’ ” he said. “Woulda, coulda, shoulda. But you can’t eat woulda, coulda, shoulda. You can’t sleep with woulda, coulda, shoulda. All those can give you a headache.”
Despite those early setbacks, there have been bright moments for Mahal — like when the Blues Brothers performed his song “She Caught the Katy” for their popular movie, or when he won two Grammys.
“All you have to do when you think you’re being crowded by something is back up and see the big picture,” he said. “And you realize that this will only make you stronger.”
Through it all, Mahal has never compromised. Though known as a blues-man, he’s always melded genres, fusing soul, rock, Hawaiian, reggae and world music into his songs. Born Henry St. Clair Fredericks, his father was a musician of Jamaican descent. His mother was a Southern school teacher who sang gospel.
While studying animal husbandry at the University of Massachusetts, the idea to call himself Taj Mahal came to him in a dream. And while farming was a passion, music eventually won out.
A testament to his versatility, Mahal plays guitar, harmonica, banjo, clarinet, trombone and numerous other instruments. Given his musical prowess, his collaboration with Cooder should have been a huge hit.
“At the time, as a young, 17-, 18-year-old kid, he was a monster player,” Mahal said. “He always has been.”
Those songs, including “Candy Man” and “Take a Giant Step,” still hold up.
“You listen to it now and go, ‘OK, considering the time and what else was out there, these guys were as viable as any other band that there was, and they had lots of potential for all kinds of music.”
But mixed-race bands simply didn’t exist at the time. And, Mahal thinks, that confused labels. After the Rising Sons split, he personally met with Columbia head Clive Davis and convinced him to let him record his way. And Mahal has retained that independence ever since.
“Nobody has told me what to play, when to play it, how to play it,” he said. “There’s been some suggestions, and there’s always been some good help. But it’s been about what I’ve wanted to do.”
Signature songs such as “Fishin’ Blues,” “Corinna” and “Cakewalk Into Town” typified Mahal’s music — blues, for sure, but not your standard Muddy Waters blues. His music showed the influence of his childhood, when his father’s islander friends came to visit and play music. And it reflected Mahal’s own curiosity in other genres.
“There was about 25 years there where I didn’t have any company out there,” he said. “There was no Keb’ Mo’.”
It took a few decades, but eventually Mahal did garner respect, which continues today. In 2003, he played a big role in “Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues—A Musical Journey,” which appeared on PBS and led to the album “Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues — Taj Mahal.” And his latest album, “Maestro,” featured guests such as Ben Harper, Jack Johnson and Los Lobos.
While Mahal never found huge chart success, he never felt the urge to leave the country, like some underappreciated jazz musicians before him.
“I could have gone, ‘My country doesn’t love me — I think I’m going to go to Europe,’ he said. “I just didn’t worry about it.”