Emerging in the late 1960s as an enthusiast of blues and folk music, Taj Mahal has spent his career bending genres to his own signature style. His work includes moving explorations in jazz, funk, reggae, country, rock ‘n’ roll, and more. He has worked with everybody from Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters to the Rolling Stones to Bob Marley and the Wailers. His songs have been covered by Eric Clapton, the Black Keys, the Blues Brothers, Natalie Cole, and more. And like the range of his influences (those he has been influenced by, and those who he has influenced) the artists that pop up in conversation really run the gamut. Take a look at the tags below!
Taj Mahal: I really literally don’t recall a day in my life up to now that I have never listened to music or heard music or thought about music or had music in some kind of way. Danced to it, watched dancing, got involved in it, played music.
What was the first instrument you picked up?
Voice. Then went to the piano. . . . Clarinet, trombone, harmonica and then guitar.
Yeah. I remember hearing an anecdote that your mom danced until she was 80, or in her 80s. Was music always around the house, and were they playing as well?
My dad played. I didn’t really know my mom played as much. I found that she played piano later on, but my dad was a Caribbean classically trained musician that grew up in … Well, after the ragtime, into the swing and bebop and jazz. You know, jump blues, big band era. All that kinda stuff. I was born in 42, so I inherited all the music at that time, and didn’t know this at the time. It just was a part of what it was, you know? I inherited all that great 30s and 40s music, and some 20s music and even earlier. Just because some songs were still around. In those days, a lot of musicians were … Well, a lot of the writers were … You know, that was a different time where a writer would write a song and get as many people as he possibly could to play and create a version of it. You know, more revenue for him and a guy played differently, somebody liked this version and that version and that one too. But yeah, I heard a lot of different kinds of music. We had a piano in the home, and we had a record player. My dad was like a lot of people at the time. If you could afford to, collected the records of, you know, Louis Jordan, Wynonie Harris, Bull Moose Jackson, Count Basie, Billy Eckstine, Harry James. Some of The Dorsey Brotherss, you don’t think of that stuff. Then you know, stuff like Lily Pons and Andre Kostelanetz. Then we were living in a neighborhood that was multi-ethnic to the max, so you heard people come home in the daytime, take their shoes off, open their tie, momma would pour the wine and then dad would sit there and listen to opera. The opera would be coming out, you know? So you got to know the voices of Ezio Pinza and Enrico Caruso and Mario Lanza. Then of course later, Pavarotti and Placido Domingo.
Yeah. I just love what he does.
It’s interesting you talk about people passing down songs and putting their own spins on it. When I think about your music, one of the songs that I think is such a defining song is “Stagger Lee,” which has been with you since the beginning, as far as I can tell.
Oh, yeah. It was actually before I started playing music. I mean, it’s an old song, but how I got it, I got it through kind of the R&B . . .
The Lloyd Price version?
The Lloyd Price one, yeah. Just in the midst of one day listening to the lyrics, I was like, “This is an older song than this. This didn’t just happen right now.” You know, “Somebody didn’t just write this for rock and roll, or even R&B.” But yeah. It made me always keep my ears open, and then of course in the 60s when a lot of that music was coming around, particularly through the university, and the university of Massachusetts where I was going was … I realize now, if I probably had gone to HBC, a historically Black college in the south, I probably would have missed the music that I actually got in touch with. Yeah, because you know, Springfield had a … Well, Springfield was a big terminal in the Underground Railroad, and that whole area was a big abolitionist area. They used to have a stronghold. So there was a lot going on to bring people into society there, but nationally and for the record industry and the music business, there was a large black population there, or a significant one. Therefore, they were marketing to that population. If you came with stuff, you could go … In those days with record stores, you could ask for what you knew you wanted and they could go and get it. They had distributors and they could ask for it. So it was a lot different than what it is today where whatever it is they got is what you get, you know? Also, so that kind of like put everybody in a particular lane. Unless you heard the blues beyond, say, Jimmy Rushing and maybe Count Basie, or just been into the jump blues stuff, you didn’t really hear the down home stuff except kinda closer to Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and those guys, late at night. There was a guy over in I think even Rochester or Buffalo, “Hound Dog” Lorenzi used to play stuff. If you was a radio kid like I was, I listened to the radio deep into the night. There was always a lot of different kinda music that was on. You’d hear music out of Chicago, hear music out of Memphis, Louisiana. As far away as New Orleans. When all the radio stations went down and it would roll up on the skip. But the thing is, the point I’m making, is that I would have been just … If I hadn’t heard music before the programming of rock and roll or R&B to people, I would have gone along with what everything was. But then I went to the university, and all of a sudden there was this whole kinda folk music thing which I didn’t particularly care about in the beginning, because it kinda was like Burl Ives and I didn’t really get it. You know, my mom really liked Burl Ives. No disrespect for Burl. Hey, the guy had an idea, he had a way of putting it across and he followed through. Made records, had a career around it. You know, as you get older, a lot of stuff that you really think about when you were younger, you just realize that, “Boy, I was nuts.” Anyway. What was really great was that neighbors in my neighborhood … I mean, circumstance set itself up that [when I was] around 12, my dad was killed. After that, my mom spent a few years really adjusting herself to the fact that she was a housewife and a substitute schoolteacher with a degree from South Carolina and a big family.
How many siblings did you have?
At that point, I had two brothers and two sisters. There were five of us and I’m the eldest. So here she was. She didn’t have any concept of how to handle the business. My father was from a Caribbean background and Caribbean men handle the business for the house. So anyway, a number of years later, not that many, she remarried to another man from the Caribbean. This time from Jamaica. With him unbeknownst to me came a guitar. Then that guitar eventually got spoken about to a neighbor that moved up from South to North Carolina, and he could play. He could really play. And I mean, he had the natural keys to everything. He was not a schooled musician, which is fine by me, because I kept noting that there was a certain kind of snobbery that went along with schooled musicians that unschooled musicians didn’t have. So anyway, he came to North Carolina and then up the block from me was a bunch of guys that came from Clarksdale, Mississippi. Stovall, actually, outside of Clarksdale. On Colonel Stovall’s farm out there. So they played that kinda John Lee Hooker, Mississippi boogie stuff, you know? Then the inside music was like Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker. Both T-Bone and B.B. [King] were, I found very hard to listen to at first because I had been listening to a lot of jazz, which is always moving and improvising. This was a different kinda set. So it took me a little bit to get to that, but all along the music was there in those versions of the blues that were there. The classic blues, the stuff that W.C. Handy and those kind of guys wrote. But yeah, I just know that I heard it, I felt it, we danced to it. It just was something that I never thought it was a good idea to let go of.
Yeah. So you’re a teenager and you’re listening to all of this, but are you playing all this stuff too?
Mostly I was playing pretty much, as far as vocally I could go anywhere. As far as my playing was concerned, I pretty much stuck it around Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters. In or around there. It wasn’t until I started going to the university that I got a chance to see some of the other guys in the same way I learned from my next-door neighbor. I picked up from them, and created my own stuff.
You had a different track at university, right? You were going to do farming?
Yeah. I was doing it before university. I was doing it in high school.
What finally made you commit to music?
I was committed to music one way or another. If the farming came first then the music would just be what I did. If the music came first, hopefully then I’d have an opportunity to put together a farm or be involved with it one way or another. What I was doing was like, dealing with the fact that traditionally the music and the agriculture and the culture and the life were inseparable, and here it tended to be separated because of probably Western ideals, where you sit in the audience and you are separate from the performer and the performer performs and you wait till the end, as opposed to if you went to say, a black gospel church, people are shouting in the audience and encouraging the singer to do something. It’s just a different kind of aesthetic, you know? I was always trying to impart that to an audience, say, “Hey, you. Don’t you understand, when you get involved in this music you are a part of the performance? And nobody’s going to tell you no!”
So you get out of school in 1960-what?
63-64. Then I came up to Cambridge. I was going to see a lot of different people, listening to a lot of music. I had the time to be able to do it. I also had kind of a college R&B band at that time, called The Electras. We played around the east coast, all the Ivy League colleges. We went to a big northeastern mixer at Smith College. Our drummer was a business major, and he made up some cards and passed them out. We worked every weekend, and sometimes even during the week, while we were in school. Did that, but all along I was really working on my guitar jobs. Banjo and mandolin, and attempting to figure out harmonica. Came out to the west coast with a friend of mine who knew some people out there, knew some clubs. Most importantly, he knew Ry Cooder and he knew The Ash Grove and McCaig’s Guitar Store. Wallichs Music City. A few other places. Got involved when I came out to the West Coast, and started working with him. Ry was phenomenal. I knew a lot of guys that played guitar and they were okay, but he was just leaps and heaps ahead of everybody.
Yeah. Had he already found success commercially by that point? He was just a young guy too, right?
Just a young kid that … Well I mean, he had some success working with people like Jackie DeShannon and maybe some other people. I don’t really recall right now. In that musical pond out there, he was well-known, and for a 17-year-old, 18-year-old kid, he was really playing the music, you know? A lot of guys brought the notes. The thing of Ry, Ry not only brought the notes, the melody, the notes, but he brought the body of the music and he also was really, totally onomatopoeic about the swing and the rhythm. I mean, he could transfer that, and a lot of guys couldn’t do that. Didn’t even know how to. They didn’t know. I mean, they would either speed up or slow down, or slow down and speed up. In his pace, he was really consistent.
So he was playing with you. Who else? Was Jesse Davis playing?
No. Jesse Davis was not in the picture. Jesse Davis didn’t start until I started my solo career. We were, all of us, were signed to Columbia Records as The Rising Sons as a group, and individually.
Oh wow, I didn’t know that.
Yeah. So it was Ry Cooder, myself, Gary Marker played bass. Ed Cassidy, who eventually became the drummer with Spirit. He was our drummer at that time. Yeah. And Jessie Lee Kincaid, he was the other guitar player and writer. So yeah, we were a bunch of guys that came with a lot of information. We didn’t have a group leader or anything. We just really had a group, and we would love to go and work with each other’s ideas, which was a little bit difficult for the record company. I see now that it was difficult for the record companies, because they are like … Because these are brown hi-top shoes, and we can sell those. You know, on the other side, they don’t understand if you’ve got anything different than that. So the problem with them is that they didn’t have any … They couldn’t see the future, because what we were doing was eventually about a year and a half after they stopped with us, everybody was doing the same thing, you know? But you know how they are, they won’t leap in to something. They wait till it’s happening all around them. So anyway, that and a bunch of crazy politics around the group kinda put everybody at odds with the industry. Then we just sort of, all of us just decided that, okay we’ve had enough. Rather than break up our friendships and go away disgusted with one another, we just cleared out. Then here I was, teaching harmonica and guitar and a little banjo.
But you had your solo deal, right?
Yeah, but I didn’t really know how well that was. Finally what I did was I went like, “You know what? You’re signed individually to Columbia. Pick the phone up and call them. Call Clive Davis.” That’s exactly what I did.
And he answered?
No, his secretary did. No, his secretary did and I told her what was going on: that I was on their label and I had some ideas and I wanted to record and I’d like to talk to Clive Davis, Mr. Davis. She said, “Alright, well I’ll take your number down and that’s Taj Mahal?” “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
so you were going by Taj Mahal at that point?
I was going by Taj Mahal since 1959. So anyway, what happened then was about three hours later, phone rings and it’s Clive Davis. You know, it’s exactly like a certain 45 says: “Don’t talk to the people downstairs in the basement. Talk to the top.” Call him. He’s going to say no, or you’re going to get a message, or you won’t get no message at all. Which is the message. You know? So anyway, I told him what I wanted to do and he quickly said, “Well look. I’ll tell you what we can do here. How about we send you out some producers?” They were willing to put that kinda money in, so I don’t think they sent but the one guy out, and that turned out to be David Rubinson. I didn’t need to hear anything else. We clicked. We kinda came out of the same neighborhood in Brooklyn that my grandparents were in, and we had a lot of [inaudible 00:19:06], he was really deeply into Latin music. He was a wonderful person to hang with, and he kinda did me like Damon Dash did Jay-Z. He did the business, and I did the music. He just left me to the music. That was what I wanted. I knew what songs I wanted to record, and then the only thing that was difficult was I didn’t have a band. I was kinda like, sitting in with different bands. I sat in with Gandhi a few different times and this one and that one, and then I was like, helping people make demos and that kinda thing. I ran into a guy that was playing in a band with a woman named Pamela Polland. Pamela Polland, Riley Wildflower and I don’t know who was the bassist in that, but a guy named Sandy Konikoff was the drummer. This guy named Gordon Shryock, he always had … people were making demos so they needed a harmonica player or a rhythm guitar player to make the demo. So I did a couple things with him, and then he asked me, well, what kinda music was I up to? I said, well I really liked blues a lot and I was thinking about putting some stuff together. He says, “Well you know, I think I’ve got somebody that you might really like to work with.” He said, “Now, he’s an Indian.” I said, “Well, okay. Is there a problem?” He said no. I said, “Well where can I hear this guy?” He says, “Well they’re playing up in Topanga Canyon Corral, him and a bunch of guys. Junior Markham and who was this guy? The Old Boatman I think was playing. Chuck Blackwell. A whole bunch of them had all come out from Oklahoma, behind Gary Lewis and the Playboys and Leon Russell. You know, they saw there was something happening out here and they were playing in a different band. James Burton was part of that thing. So I went up ultimately to hear him play. I just heard five notes and I knew this was the guy. You know? It’s like, first of all he wasn’t derivative. It wasn’t like, “Oh, he’s really great. He’s white and he plays like B.B. King.” No, no. I don’t need that guy. You know, “He’s white and he sounds just like Albert King.” Nope, I don’t need that guy. I’m talking about I don’t care who you are: what is your sound? Who are you? That’s who I wanted in my music, and so when I heard him play, he just … I never heard anybody play like him, you know? I mean, there hasn’t been. I mean, I think probably the closest guy tonally to him would probably be Robbie Robertson. Robbie Robertson plays kind of understated, where Jesse can really get out there and sing it up real loud. You know, I mean Robbie could play that way too, but his tendency is this wonderful, understated, beautiful tone. Then there’s another guy named Willie Hona. He’s a Maori down in New Zealand. He’s the only other guy I heard that had that, just had magic coming from wherever it came from. So yeah, got hold of him and then the guy Sandy Konikoff who I mentioned before was the drummer. He kinda grew up in I think Buffalo or Rochester, and grew up around the real deep music that was happening at the time. Jazz, groove, Oregon trails. All that kinda stuff. He could play. I was listening to how he was playing behind Leaving Trunk the other night, just listening. Just sometimes I go back and listen to the records, just listen to the bass player. The bass player, Jimmy Thomas, he was somebody I used to see coming in this club and playing with a lot of, play with people … See, he was playing with … Who was he playing with? I’m trying to think. Maybe he was playing behind Big Mama Thornton or somebody like that. It was good, you know. I thought he should be in there. Then Cooder came in and played rhythm guitar on most tracks. Jesse Davis played slide. So basically, I just told them, “Be at the studio on Monday night.” We had no rehearsal.
None! I just knew that these guys could play, and I knew that I could walk around and tell each guy what I wanted them to play, and then when we hit, it would all hit. Then I mean, that was one, two … I’d say probably about three, maybe three or four songs on there went that way. Then the other stuff went, Jesse Davis did some arranging. I would sit with him and play the song, and then he’d take his pick and put it in the cleft of his chin and give you a 20 thousand mile stare and hang out there and come back, and then he’d tell Chuck what to play, or Gilmour what to play, or I would tell Gilmour, like, in the case of a specific bass line that I wanted or rhythm that I wanted, just like “Leaving Trunk,” I told everybody the parts I wanted to play except for Davis and Cooder. Them guys could play, whatever it was. I gave instruction to the drummer and the bass player, I wanted to play. Then we right there on the spot said, “Well how are we going to start this?” I said, “Well okay, I’ll just open it up with a harmonica.” I said, “We’ll do it this way.” Soon as I played that part, Davis knew to just set it up that way. So a lot of it was very telepathic. Because I mean, you know, oftentimes got a call: “Hey man, I got a gig and we got no singer. We need somebody who plays the harmonica. Can you come down?” Sure, come down. You know, “Okay. What key do you want to do it in? G, shuffle, one, two, three.” Then you go. So these guys were really, just really good. Got started there. The second record, we were a bit more … By that time, we really had a group. It was Chuck Blackwell on drums, Gary Gilmour on bass and Jesse Davis on guitar and me on dobro and harmonica and vocals. The second record, we got real … it was more crafting what we did. By the third record, the Giant Step record, we really got more sophisticated. That was one of the things that I saw happen as the evolution of the music, and that’s why I put the second album on there, of all the acoustic stuff. Because I said, “This is like what raw material sounds like, and older forms of music.” I didn’t realize how much of a bible that was for so many people. I had no idea. It was just a whim. Because I listened to a lot, I saw a lot of double albums arriving in at that time. Basically double albums were like, sort of more of what went on on the first one, then here’s some more on the second one. Not bad, but it didn’t inform nobody with anything.
Right. You talked a little bit before about frustrations with the record labels. Did they go for the double album right away when you proposed that?
Yeah. I mean, like I said, David Rubinson did the business. Whatever it was that I wanted to do. Even when we did the double album with the tubas and recorded it in New York at the Fillmore, Wally Heider’s truck was there, and all the equipment plugged in, so we made that great live record. You know, it’s like, “I dare somebody else to make a record like that!”
So what changed after you were getting your own production credit on the records? I mean, I don’t hear that much of a departure in the sound.
Well, I mean basically he worked pretty much up through, you know, there’s Taj Mahal, Natch’l Blues, Giant Step, and De Ole Folks at Home, and then there was The Real Thing with the tubas. Happy Just to Be Like I Am, and then Sounder, Recycling The Blues and then Oooh So Good ‘n Blues. By then, that’s when I started being involved.
Right. And you produced, was Mo’ Roots, was that the first one you did?
One of them, yeah.
I remember reading a story about Bob Marley coming to record and finding that some of the tracks had already been recorded without him.
Well he came, yeah. Yeah, well the long of the story is, I knew some people. I had some people I’m really friendly with in England. When I went over in 1968 to The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus. That was Denny Cordell and his people. Rondor Music, I think it was called. There was a woman named Janet Dicker, who was a friend of mine. I think she convinced somebody to send me two copies of Catch a Fire. Maybe one copy and then another one showed up from somewhere else. I can remember the day I got it. I opened it up, and is aid, “Wow, that looks like a cigarette lighter.” Opened it up and sure enough, it was like a cigarette lighter. Turned it over, and like I said, “Ooh, that’s a rough looking bunch of characters there. Jamaicans here, all right. Wonder what this sounds like.” I put that thing down on there, and as soon as I heard the bass booming out of the speaker, I said, “They will never play that on AM radio!” And they never did! But anyway, Bob, Rudy became a huge fan. I mean, I’d already listened to Jamaican and Caribbean music through my family. Particularly through my stepfather. Not so much reggae, but a lot of mento and ska, and that kinda stuff, you know? So Bob and those guys had come to the United States and I was keeping my antennas up for them. I think they were on tour with Sly and The Family Stone, and Sly was pretty much full of himself in those days. He couldn’t … You know, he didn’t know who these guys were and didn’t pay any attention till he figured out that the music was actually grabbing the audience. Whoa. He threw those guys off the tour, and just left them all scattered around the Bay Area. I found out about it, and I was like, really perturbed. I was like, “Are you serious? You mean to tell me that the music that you’re playing, you would be threatened by somebody else playing good music to your audience?” I don’t get that. The audience comes there to see you, and it also hears this group. That means your stock goes up. But he didn’t see it that way. Threw those guys off. I thought it was the worst thing I ever heard of a fellow musician. You know, doing it nationally, let alone internationally. So I hooked those guys up, and we found kind of a kitchenette, motel kind of place where there was rooms for everybody, and helped them get settled until they could get things. You know, I guess probably get Chris Blackwell involved with them to pull them together. So you know, they were always grateful for that. Not that, no pressures, like just do stuff. Then eventually, I thought about wanting to work or have Bob involved somewhere in around, so he did. Eventually came, he and Family Man [Aston Barrett], the bass player, and Skill Cole, the great soccer player and a guy named Augustus Pablo came to my house and kind of had a jam session. That’s where he came up with the idea of “Talkin’ Blues.” At my house. You know, “Walkin’ blues, your feet are too big for your shoes.” We had a great night playing music and then I got word out to them that I was working in the studio, but by the time we got hold of him or by the time he got there, we had already been down the line because, you know, we were sticking to the schedule and here’s the time you gotta record. But he came in, he was in the studio and he listened to it. Family Man requested that they put more treble guitar tops on the bass. He was, “Put a little more tops on de bass. More tops on de bass, yes, yes. More tops on the bass.”
So, you’ve experimented with so many different types of music. That’s just one example, with the reggae, and I know your stepfather was from Jamaica. Was there any type of music that you have … When you’re approaching a genre that is not native to you, or that’s outside of your own experience, how do you approach it?
Like, what you’re talking, like, what kind, when you say “genre”?
Basically like you have stuck your foot in every single genre. You’ve done folk, blues . . .
I think you’re dealing it from the record company’s perspective.
Ha ha! You may be right!
If you deal it from culture, how are you going to bring millions of black people into the Western civilization, in some cases mix them up, and not in 500 years when we’ve been here and … unless you buy … The land I’m in is the land I know. Without it, I never bought that. That’s really clear.
I know, but I guess, how did you just, so confidently . . .
Because they’re my cousins. They’re my cousins. They’re my relatives. You know, it’s like, because I listen to, when they play toward our music. See, when you’re in the Caribbean or even Africa or South America, you hear American music. You don’t hear American music in boxes. When we’re here, we hear the world in boxes. You know, it’s, “Oh, this is African music.” Then, no. It’s like, that’s a real narrow box for what’s Africa, you know?
So no. I mean, my thought is that I’m … I mean, the whole experience of coming out of Africa into the Western civilization just broke up family, culture, blah blah blah. So at this point, for me, it’s just connecting the dots between family I recognize musically. Probably the farthest out one for people to be able to deal with has been the Hawaiian music, and that came as a result to me being … As a kid, I would note that some music went through my head and I didn’t feel it in my body. Some music went through my body and I felt it in my head, in my soul, my spirit and my heart. The first time I heard Hawaiian music was somewhere around maybe between seven and nine years old. I was just shook to the core, how deep that music was already in there. And I don’t even know these people. My thought then was, “I don’t know how it’s going to happen, but someday I want to find out why. What is it about this music and these people that reached me at that deep level?” Because I’ve listened to a lot of music. From all different types of sources. Some, I would sit back and let the musicians that play that music play, because I don’t have any direct relationship or connection to it, but most of the stuff that I’m involved with has been, just as I say: getting connected, and familial. You know, after having been split up in the diaspora, so . . .
Is there anything you wouldn’t try?
Oh, I mean I could jokingly make a heavy metal record.
I bet it would be awesome, though.
Rap isn’t difficult.
No, not at all. Because I mean, there’s a way. There’s a way to do it. I mean, as an elder musician I’m not against what the young kids play. A lot of people think that they have to have an opinion about it, and we know what we have to say about opinions. You know, I mean the thing is to me it’s like bebop, you know? Everybody didn’t like bebop either. I also think it’s kinda funny now, talking to or listening to rappers that are now 42 and 46 and 50 talking about the youngsters that are coming along now. Saying, “Gee whiz, that sounds pretty much like what everybody was saying about you guys when you started.” The only ones that I know have said something really smart, right, at this point, has been David Banner. David Banner was really sharp about it. Said, “Hey. We birthed them, but we didn’t show them the way. We didn’t give them nothing to work with, so they’re doing what they can with what they got.” So we were chasing the money, and while we were chasing the money, we didn’t take care of handing the torch off to them. So then Snoop Dogg. Snoop Dogg said the same thing. “Hey, I’m a grandpapa now.” You know? “I’m grown. When I was coming out, they didn’t know what I was doing either. I didn’t care about them either.” So you know. They’re going to say what they’re going to say.
You talk about chasing the money. You’re the last person I’d say, would ever accuse of doing that in the industry. You’ve always seemed to follow your own instinct artistically.
Yeah, for good and for bad.
Right, yeah. I mean, but for good or for bad you’ve been in the industry for 50 years now. That must make you feel pretty accomplished, the fact that you have never compromised. Or do you feel that you ever have?
I may have made … I think I made one song probably back in 1970. I worked with a guy named Bill Greene. We tried to do, you know, make a popular R&B tune on the Satisfied ‘n Tickled Too album. It was okay, but you know. I already knew the value of what was going on is that with Mo’ Roots, I had a song called “Why Did You Have to Desert Me?” and “Why Did You Have To Desert Me?” sold 10,000 copies of a 45 in Philadelphia. ?uestlove said, when I was on the Jimmy Fallon show, ?uestlove said, “Man, you gotta play that song. We gotta play that song.” He said, “My aunts used to play that song all the time.” I know a bunch of guys from Santo Domingo, they loved it because there’s a whole section there I’m singing in Spanish. They really loved it. So I knew it was a matter of the record company understanding what it was that I was doing, and going for it. But no, they didn’t get it. I mean, at different times I’ve locked horns with them and then I just stopped. I would never compromise the music. It’s just like, “No, you don’t understand. This needs to happen, and if you don’t understand it and they don’t understand it, I can’t help you, but I’m not leaving my pathway here.”
Yeah. What do you hope from this entire career, pouring your heart and soul into music, will be the lasting legacy of Taj Mahal?
I am still . . .
I’m sorry, I just heard how pretentious that sounded . . .
No, I’m still busy at it, so I mean, it’s like you know. I mean, I don’t know. It’s like one of the biggest questions that’s asked of me, people go like, “Oh my God, you’re really great. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. I remember seeing you … Are you still playing?” I go like, “I guess we still have work to do.” You know?
Yeah, because they don’t know. I mean, what has happened that they don’t realize is their information system has gotten … It’s important for somebody to have a hold to it, because they can monetize it. So they’re monetizing it with that which works for them. I mean, anytime they wanted to blow up my spot because of how I had my publishing set up and my business set up, I stood to win. So you know, whatever. It’s not something to worry about.
You mentioned listening to “Leaving Trunk” earlier. How familiar with your own catalog are you?
Very. … I listen to it anytime I want to. Especially now that stuff’s on, you know, on YouTube. Plus what I have myself, you know, I’ve gone and loaded my laptop up with all the stuff. I mean, I’m not like no wizard of computer or digital age, but you know, I can do stuff and get stuff and ask questions. Figure out, you know.
One last question: What sort of advice you’d give to our students who are starting out in the music industry?
You’ve gotta learn as much as you can. If I can think of anything that I probably wish I had done a little bit more, it’s spend more time learning about the music industry and business. You know? I mean, I’ve done pretty good with it. I was able to put my kids through school and that’s been always a big thing with me, and not end up at the end of the whole thing with college debt. None of my children have college debt whatsoever. You know, we did it kind of like as it went along. And I’m very happy about that. I mean, pretty much beside me being who I was doing things the way I was doing, I was able to take care of my family and see that my kids were educated. That’s really good.
He speaks quite a bit about his song “Leaving Trunk,” and to give you an indication why it’s something he still listens to half a century later, you need to check out this performance of the song from 1968 at the Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus.