Taj Mahal (formerly Henry Saint Clair Frederick) literally was born to play the blues. Growing up in a musical household, his musical pedigree would be defined by the gospel music of his mother and the West Indian jazz arrangements of his father. Classical piano lessons resulted, plus mastering the harmonica and acoustic guitar. His organic comprehension of music was reflected in academic pursuits of farming, a passion he maintained in addition to his music.
Taj moved to California and formed a blues group with Ry Cooder that failed to generate commercial success. Subsequently, he started working with iconic blues players, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy and Lightnin’ Hopkins, developing his distinctive singing and playing. He recorded with the Rolling Stones (appearing in the groundbreaking Rock and Roll Circus), and release a self-titled debut album for Columbia Records. His career over the next four decades elevated his status to legendary.
Natch’l Blues, originally released in 1968, is a transformative album. It combines traditional blues with modern sound production. “Good Morning Miss Brown” sets a rhythmic tone with a jazzy acoustic steel guitar, walking piano bass line, and soulful vocal. There are numerous hooks that make the songs vibrant. “The Cuckoo”, a medium-paced number has an infectious electric guitar groove that works in tandem with Taj’s discerning harp work.
The harp playing has a natural, understated quality, that is displayed on the instrumental, “Things Are Gonna Work Out Fine” (one of three bonus tracks on the album), as he and Jesse Ed Davis exchange urgent leads, fixed in counterpoint. On the frequently covered, “Corinna”, a country aesthetic is rendered with the harp licks, blending seamlessly with the song’s tempo. A colorful rhythm and blues theme is developed on “You Don’t Miss Your Water (‘Till Your Well Runs Dry)”, punctuated by Memphis-Stax/Volt horn chorus and lead vocals reminiscent of Otis Redding or Sam Cooke.
Even in a traditional blues format (“Goin’ Up To the Country, Paint My Mailbox Blue”), the mystique of this modern bluesman is proprietary. It is inconceivable that he recorded an album this commanding in his twenties. The supporting band (Davis, Gary Gilmore, Chuck Blackwell, Al Kooper and Earl Palmer) is cohesive, led by the musical acuity of Davis.
The analogue stereo sound is flawless. The separation of the instrumentation (especially between the electric and steel guitars) is exact. With reduced distortion, a clearer tone on the electric instruments and the harmonica is achieved. Audiophile or not, this album is an idiomatic excursion into great blues music.
by Robbie Gerson
1 Good Morning Miss Brown - 5:16
2 Corinna - 5:01
3 I Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Steal My Jellyroll - 5:13
4 Going Up To The Country, Paint My Mailbox Blue - 5:35
5 Done Changed My Way Of Living - 11:44
6 She Caught The Katy And Left Me A Mule To Ride - 5:27
7 The Cuckoo - :55
8 You Don't Miss Your Water ('Til Your Well Runs Dry) - 7:05
9 Ain't That A Lot Of Love - 6:41
10 The Cuckoo (Alternate Version) - 5:20
11 New Stranger Blues (Bonus Track) - 8:59
12 Things Are Gonna Work Out Fine (Bonus Track) - 5:17
*Taj Mahal - Vocals, National Steel Guitar, Harmonica
*Jesse Ed Davis - Guitar, Piano
*Al Kooper - Piano
*Gary Gilmore - Bass
*Chuck Blackwell - Drums
*Earl Palmer - Drums