The release of The Hidden Treasures Of Taj Mahal (Columbia/Legacy) is a gem of a find: two CDs comprised of entirely unreleased material—one studio, one live—taken from his formative years of 1969-1973. Considering that Taj is a notorious grumpy curmudgeon who insists on only the most perfecto takes when it comes to the studio, there has been a paucity of rarities, outtakes, rehearsal moments and jams that other artists seem to want to flood the market with. That’s why these tracks are so welcome.
Truth be told, Taj has been my hero since day one. I remember on the wall of the kitchen of my first bachelor apartment in Cranford, NJ, I had thumbtacked the album cover to his Recycling The Blues And Other Related Stuff album. There he is, as a young man, posing for a picture with one of his heroes, Mississippi John Hurt, at the Newport Folk Festival (I think). I loved that picture. My girlfriend, who eventually became my ex-wife, made me take it down. I told Taj this story after his recent set at the MusikFest Café in Bethlehem, PA, a venue that’s become my second home due to its feel good ambiance, great sound system, adventurous booking policy, strong drinks and gorgeous bartenders. He had just finished a sterling set with his trio and was making a beeline for the dressing room when he was intercepted by an old friend of his from back in the day, Charles Reid. I wondered if Taj would even stop since he seemed so dead set on getting backstage, so I moseyed on down to watch the spectacle.
He not only stopped and broke into a wide grin and hugged his former bandmate while a crowd formed around them. One by one people came up to pay their respects and Taj, to his credit, didn’t blow anybody off. He stood and talked, signed autographs, and posed for pictures until the last person left. That was me. I reminded him how I interviewed him for this newspaper 35 years ago when he told me he was supposed to play the late great soul singer Otis Redding in the movies but it never happened.
Charles Reid was all smiles. “I was a marketing major at UMass,” he explained, “when I hooked up with Taj as his saxophone player. We did the New England college circuit, playing frat parties. It was a lot of fun, good money, but left my grade point average suffering quite a bit.
“I can remember Taj telling me that his ambition in life was just to sit under a tree playing guitar with a straw in his mouth watching some livestock. He never acted like the ‘star’ of the group although we knew he was our main attraction. We were doing all the pop songs from that era and, to me, Taj sounded a lot like Ray Charles.
“After graduation, I got a job with Procter & Gamble as a salesman for the soap division. I left and after a few more jobs, I decided to go back to college and get a degree in music education, settling in as a vocal music teacher in the Pennsauken, NJ school system for 30 rewarding years before retiring. Now I conduct a church choir in Camden, NJ, The St. John Baptist Jubilee Singers.”
On the “new” album, there’s multiple versions of “Sweet Mama Janisse,” one totally delicious one without the big horn section, stripped-down, naked, if you will, keying in on Taj’s purebred soul. (I ran down to the side of the stage and yelled it out but Taj ignored the request.) Taj, on the album, is on his Mississippi National Steel Guitar as well as harmonica, and he’s got that angry Native American, the late Jesse Ed Davis (1944-1988) on lead guitar. Jesse Ed was such a damn cool fine electric guitarist that even Duane Allman himself admitted he stole Jesse Ed’s riff for the Allman Brothers’ version of Taj Mahal’s version of Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues.” Then there’s the 16-minute+ jam-happy bliss of a song I so wanted to yell for but didn’t think I’d get the time. “You Ain’t No Streetwalker Honey But I Do Love The Way You Strut Your Stuff” is pure Taj: irreverent, funky, down-home and good to dance to.
So here’s to Taj. It’s good he gets to know how beloved he is. And here’s to a guy like Charles Reid, unheralded, who put in his 30 years teaching music without the accolades but with the solid truth in his soul that he made a big difference. I hail them both. And I hail all the music teachers who fight the good fight in this age of disappearing budgets and governmental “leadership” that obviously doesn’t have a clue how important music is.