I had heard stories of this 53-year-old gentleman, Ted Horowitz, from the Bronx whose razor-sharp lead guitar howls, moans and cries the blues like Stevie Ray Vaughan or Johnny Winter. So he renamed himself Popa Chubby (it’s what oftentimes happens when the male of the species sees a pretty girl). Armed with bassist Francesco Beccaro and drummer Felipe Torres, Chubby barreled into The Musikfest Café in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and proceeded to blow the roof off the joint.
We’re talkin’ old school.
Like Clapton jamming out on Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads,” Chubby goes on and on rumbling and rambling on his six-string like a maniac, shoutin’ out some stick-to-your-brain blues that gets inside your skin. And he knows no musical genre boundaries. He rocks. He funks. He goes from “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” (1939) to B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby” (1964) to some badass originals that all feature his signature soul-shouting and those pin-pricks of electric lead that are like acupuncture for the soul.
He played mostly songs from his 25th album, Universal Breakdown Blues (Mascot Label Group), that features “Take Me Back To Amsterdam (Reefer Smoking Man)” and “I Ain’t Giving Up,” a song he wrote about his painful divorce. He likes Lemmy, Jimi and Iggy as much as Buddy Guy and his show has a punk flair to it. He’s a big man, bald and tattooed to the hilt. Scary, even.
As he says, “Howling Wolf and Muddy Waters [two blues titans he always interprets freely] were dangerous men. They’d cut or shoot you if they thought it was necessary. Little Water [another of his blues heroes] packed a gun and wouldn’t hesitate to use it. That danger is a real part of the blues and I keep it alive in my music.”
Taj Mahal: The Complete Columbia Albums Collection is 170 tracks on 15 CDs from 1965 to 1976. It includes the long out-of-print Rising Sons album with Ry Cooder that has early examples of songs Taj ultimately perfected on later releases, as well as the 2012 Hidden Treasures album of all unreleased gems. Add the 1972 soundtrack to Sounder and his first non-blues disc Mo’ Roots (1974) that had longtime fans like me scratching our heads in bafflement. Now, though, with the passage of time, Mo’ Roots sounds wonderfully worldbeat proving, once again, Taj was ahead of his time. The best, of course, is Recycling The Blues & Other Related Stuff (1972) and Oooh So Good ‘N Blues (1973) where Taj done tore the blues inside out and upside down with The Pointer Sisters oohing and ahhing behind his every move. These two albums still stand supreme today as creatively iconoclastic, as Taj bent those blues to fit his own thing like nobody ever. Albums like Music Keeps Me Together (1975) and Satisfied ‘N Tickled Too (1976) used that totally unique individualistic stance to incorporate Jamaican, African, West Indies, Caribbean and Deep South USA strains into a powerball of kaleidoscopic soulfulness.
This is a supremely talented man who always had a bit of a chip on his shoulder that arguably fueled his art. He grew up in Massachusetts, honed his chops in Cambridge coffee houses, graduated from UMass Amherst and beautifully, profoundly and reverently covered the likes of Sleepy John Estes (1899-1977), Sonny Boy Williamson II (1912-1965) and Blind Willie McTell (1898-1959) before eventually morphing into that which he at first could only emulate.
Jam band fans should love his 19-minute tour-de-force “You Ain’t No Street Walker Mama Honey But I Do Love The Way You Strut Your Stuff” (cut down to 11 minutes here) as his partnership with legendary tuba man Howard Johnson pointed his already esoteric personality into big-band funk and soul, giving Taj a brassy sassy bed upon which to experiment successfully on stage for The Real Thing (1972).
Taj once was going to portray Otis Redding in the movies. It never happened but it just goes to show his wide divergent tastes. Go see him in concert. He’ll play banjo, guitar, piano, kalimba and harmonica and tell the best stories in between songs. He’s a national treasure and this box, long overdue, is a must.