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A beginner's guide to Taj Mahal

Highlights from the career of the man formerly known as Henry Saint Clair Fredericks

The Grammy award-winning Taj Mahal — subject of an in-depth feature in Classic Rock 203 — counts Led Zeppelin amongst his support acts and Barack Obama amongst his fans. Here's ten important moments from a 40-year career.

Leaving Trunk 
Taj Mahal’s big crossover moment should’ve been The Rolling Stones Rock And Roll Circus, an all-star event filmed for the BBC in December 1968. Taj lined up alongside the Stones, The Who, John Lennon, Eric Clapton, Marianne Faithfull and Jethro Tull. Alas, Jagger & co. were unhappy with their own performance and opted to leave the footage on the shelf until 1996. This cover of Sleepy John Estes’ Leaving Trunk was one of four songs from Mahal and his band, the others being Checkin’ Up On My Baby, Corinna and Ain’t That A Lot Of Love.

Tomorrow May Not Be Your Day
By 1971 Taj was onto his fourth album - Happy Just To Be Like I Am – in as many years. Captured on US TV, this version of Tomorrow May Not Be Your Day features the band at its blues-buzzing best, with Mahal ably assisted by songwriting foil and guitarist Jesse Ed Davis.

Ricochet
December 1972 saw actress Cicely Tyson join Taj on American TV’s Soul!, primarily to promote the movie Sounder, a Depression-era drama centred around the lives of black sharecroppers in Louisiana. Mahal played several selections from the soundtrack, along with the dazzling, banjo-driven Ricochet. The song can be found on Taj’s own album from that year, Recycling The Blues & Other Related Stuff.

She Caught The Katy
Co-written with Tennessee blues legend James ‘Yank’ Rachell, She Caught The Katy (And Left Me A Mule To Ride), originally appeared on 1969’s The Natch’l Blues. In October 1989, Mahal fetched up on TV show Night Music, a showcase for jazz-centric musicians that aired for two seasons. Here he’s joined for a starry finale by, among others, Todd Rundgren and Pat Metheny.

Fishin' Blues
Texan guitarist Henry Thomas laid down the blueprint for ragtime blues in the late ‘20s. His composition Fishin’ Blues, initially cut by the Lovin’ Spoonful in 1965, was one of the highlights of Taj’s De Old Folks At Home, which landed four years later. Here he is a decade or so further on, giving it the delicate acoustic treatment.

Corinna Corinna
Taj first recorded the traditional folk-blues staple Corinna Corinna in the mid ‘60s, during his short-lived stint with Ry Cooder in The Rising Sons. It was a tune he was to revisit several times throughout his career, including on stage with The Rolling Stones in St. Louis in 1997. This version, however, comes from the Annual Claremont Folk Music Festival in May 2008.

Slow Drag 
Recently the recipient of his first Grammy Award for Señor Blues, Mahal and his trio were on the up when they appeared on Later Live with Jools Holland in April 2009. Slow Drag, from another Grammy-nominated album (Maestro), saw him dig out the old banjo. Jools, inevitably, is on piano. Still, don’t let that put you off. 

Just A Closer Walk With Thee
Album and film Play The Blues: Live From Jazz at Lincoln Centre, recorded in April 2011, was essentially a two-way showcase for Wynton Marsalis and Eric Clapton. Special guest, though, was one of Clapton’s late ‘60s heroes, Taj Mahal. Here he takes the reins for a smouldering rendition of an old New Orleans gospel hymn.

Six Days On The Road
In May 2013, having previously been guest on the Bridges To Babylon Tour, Taj was invited onto the stage by the Stones in Chicago. Cue hard-time blues and a very loud shirt. Six Days On The Road, made famous 50 years earlier by country star Dave Dudley, is a tribute to American truck-drivin’ tradition.

Statesboro Blues 
Mahal’s skills for reinterpretation have perhaps never been better illustrated than on Statesboro Blues, originally by Blind Willie McTell. The song formed the central pillar of his 1968 debut LP and subsequent live act. It’s hard to choose which of these 2014 versions is better, so why not enjoy them both? The first with Gregg Allman, comes from All My Friends: Celebrating The Songs And Voice of Gregg Allman. The second, from September’s Americana Music Awards in Nashville (where Taj won a Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance) features old buddy, Ry Cooder.  

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