The History of The Albums – n°374
Today we are not going to make a guided tour of an Indian monument, we are going to dive into the analysis of an icon of the Contemporary Blues which bears the same name: Taj Mahal. At the end of the Sixties, the movement of the Blues Revival had of course considerably faded because its inheritance is from now on completely incorporated, like the DNA, in the Pop Rock with in particular the Blues Rock, the Hard Rock, the Acid Rock, the Psych Heavy etc... unlike the Country which will know it a kind of period of rebirth. However a great number of excellent albums categorized as Chicago Blues label will be born in the middle of the Sixties until the New Wave at the end of the Seventies. This is the case of the eponymous album of Taj Mahal. Songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, Taj Mahal has built his legend around several points that distinguish him from others. First of all for his atypical way of applying the fingerpicking, and especially because he is recognized as one of the precursors of the opening of the Blues towards the fusion with the music of the world. Ironically, Taj Mahal has mostly known success in the 90's by winning Grammy Awards, thanks to his more international vision of the Blues, while the album that we are going to study today is literally opposite, in a more traditional register. However, it must be said that this eponymous album is in my opinion the best project of his repertoire, which explains why we revisit it now.
Born in 1942 in Harlem, New York, Henry St. Claire Fredericks Jr. (a.k.a Taj Mahal) grew up in the world of music, his father was an arranger and pianist Jazz recognized, notably by Ella Fitzgerald, while his mother was a local gospel singer. Taj Mahal developed his love for music early on, learning several instruments. His family was exposed to African and Caribbean musicians thanks to his father, and also because Harlem was marked by many of these communities, and this will continue when his family moves to Massachusetts. It is this reason that explains Taj Mahal's passion for world music, long before he became a musician himself, let alone later in his career. It was something that was almost in his genes. Influenced by the legends of Blues, Jazz and more, Taj Mahal received a rich cultural education that would later make him stronger. He is often referred to as a scholar. Unfortunately, his father died in an accident at work when Taj Mahal was just a teenager. Scarred for life, he pursued his passion for music, joining a Doo Wop band in high school before facing the reality of being forced to work as a farmer. But the lack of money in the family home forced him to take up music as a second job. It is finally in the music that he launches his career in spite of his diploma, by leaving on the West coast in 1964. Columbia is then close to an atypical group, named Rising Sons that he formed with Ry Cooder and Jessie Lee Kincaid but the lack of commercial success, probably due to the fact that it was an interracial group.
However, Tah Mahal keeps a place despite this failure at Columbia and decides to launch his solo career, which launches a rather prolific period for him. It should be noted that he will play in a film, release dozens of albums or play regularly with the Rolling Stones as additional musicians or tour. In August 1967, he went into the studio to record his first eponymous album, released in January 1968. Accompanied by the future legend Ry Cooder, Jesse Ed Davis (additional musicians for Bob Dylan, Gene Clark, John Lennon, George Harrison, Leonard Cohen or Eric Clapton), as well as 5 other musicians, Taj Mahal has a luxury line-up which is one of the elements that explains the success of this album. It is important to know that in 1968, Taj Mahal was 28 years old, still young, which differentiates him from many Blues artists of the time on LP. Mahal was part of the future while most records of the time of this type highlighted the revival spirit with Blues legends/Icons. That is to say, this self-titled debut album is still forced by the will of the label and producers Bob Irwin / David Rubinson, but Mahal's imprint remains very significant. Spanning 8 songs, most of which are covers except for Ez Rider the only original Taj Mahal song, the lead performer manages to give new life to selected standards. The A side is clearly my favorite because it has the best moments of this album, including Leaving Trunk, Statesboro Blues or Checkin' Up On My Baby.
The whole album owes its success to a great production, complex textures that fit in the era of psychedelia, by the prowess of the musicians present and finally by the power of its leader Taj Mahal who gives the im-pression to sound like a monument of the Blues while it is his first album. It is an absolutely pure victory lap, while we give these descriptions to the album of the consecration. Mahal did not have time, he was so tal-ented that the year 1968 will be crowned with 2 albums of an impressive quality. I have mentioned some highlights but that's not all, there is obviously the single Everybody's Got To Change Sometime, a song writ-ten by Sleepy John Estes that translates all the positive and contagious energy of Taj Mahal. Finally, the B side is less remarkable, but just as pleasant. EZ Rider stands out from the others, where its author can freely express all his talent through an original song as electric as triumphant. It is also necessary to say that the vocal interpretation of Taj Mahal very close to Rhythms and Blues brings this small more madness, without losing the sincerity of a more traditional Blues. Do not miss this dose of good humor.