Friday, February 24, 2012

I’ve been listening today to Taj, one of my favorite albums. It dates back to 1987, a time when bluesman Taj Mahal’s career was in something of a doldrums. Although he had relocated to Hawaii and continued to tour steadily, Taj hadn’t put out a new LP in ten years. When I spied this then-new release at Melody Records in Washington DC’s Dupont Circle, I snapped it right up. It was love at first spin.

Among the dozens of musicians listed on the back cover were many studio aces I recognized and admired: Jessie "Ed" Davis on lead guitar, Larry McDonald (congas, percussion), the legendary Babatunde Olatunji (djembe, congas, shekere, percussion) and Paul Butterfield Blues Band veteran Ralph MacDonald on congas, tambourine and percussion. The large horn section and backing vocalists signaled that this was not the customary roots-based Taj Mahal album. Love songs, soul ballads, even anti-nuke tunes were now in the mix. I could not keep this infectious disc off my old AR-XB turntable!

Taj and I go back a long way. We both grew up in Springfield, Mass. in the 1950s. Although he’s three years older than me, our paths crossed at the University of Massachusetts in the early ‘Sixties. I used to go hear him sing with the Elektras, his party band that played all around the various campuses on the Northampton-Amherst circuit. I remember his hilarious live cover of The Marathons’ 1961 hit “Peanut Butter.” Well, there's a food going 'round and it's a sticky, sticky goo / Peanut, peanut butter / It tastes too good, but it's so hard to chew / Peanut, peanut butter / People everywhere, they think it's the most / Peanut, peanut butter / Early in the morning they put it on their toast/ Peanut, peanut butter. Believe me, they ain’t writing ‘em like that anymore. Spread it on your bread now!

I can’t tell you how many classes I cut that year, preferring to go listen to Taj noodling way for hours on the grand piano in the UMass Student Union. It made a mess of my academic career, but I wouldn’t trade a minute of that time now.

Years ago Marti forwarded an article to me about how fans everywhere were ecstatic when Taj’s 1971 live album from the Fillmore East was finally released on CD in 2000. Apparently the double-LP had a rabid cult following that three decades had failed to diminish. “Did you have that one on vinyl?” she asked me. Did I have that on vinyl? I fucking wore those two discs out! Talk about an all-star cast: Stax-Volt-influenced John Hall (co-founder of Orleans) on electric guitar, the great Howard Johnson on tuba (see The Band’s Rock Of Ages,) Billy Rich (later in Paul Butterfield’s Better Days), John Simon on pianos. The entire Woodstock Superhuman Krew, it seemed. A classic if ever there were one.

Owners Ron and Valma Merians outside the Joyous Lake, Woodstock.
In 1973 I moved to Bearsville, just outside Woodstock, New York. It was the heyday of one of the most remarkable music venues of the era: the Joyous Lake. I spent countless nights in that gorgeous listening room, enjoying performances by local groups such as The Fabulous Rhinestones, Full Moon and the Marc Black Band. Heavy hitters played there too. I caught Charles Mingus, Willie Dixon and John Sebastian (who lived just outside of town) in that club. Paul Butterfield, another neighbor, would breeze in for the late set and blow incredible blues harp with whomever was on the bandstand. One night Taj was playing and not only did Butter jam with him, but Maria Muldaur chimed in with back-up harmonies from a ringside table. I recall chatting with Taj for a while at the bar between sets that evening. A heady time indeed.

I hadn’t seen Taj in a long while when, around 2000, he played here in Paris. After his gig at the Trabendo, he and I reminisced about a long-gone record shop we both frequented in the 1960s at Winchester Square, Springfield’s African-American neighborhood. It was literally a mom-and-pop deal, owned and operated by a middle-aged white couple with a knowledgeable young gay black dude behind the counter. The place to find the latest Motown, Stax/Volt, King 45s and LPs. I practically lived there. Cutting classes once again. I was always ditching college – especially if music was the alternative.

“Do I remember that place!” Taj said. “You know, after Martin Luther King’s assassination -- when angry folks were setting that neighborhood on fire -- the only businesses that were spared were a few liquor stores – and that record shop.”