TAJ MAHAL & THE POINTER SISTERS / “Sweet Home Chicago”
This is a complex undertaking. I want to introduce you to something. Taj Mahal working with The Pointer Sisters. It sounds unlike most of The Pointer Sisters recordings and gives a delightful feminine-rounded frame for Taj’s hyper masculinity—you know, the big old, six-foot something, gruff voiced, handsome-as-sin brown-eyed man standing in your doorway just a grinning about how happy he is to make you acquaintance and would love a chance to get to know you better, ya know, like, on more, shall we say, intimate terms… like that.
Except Taj is really a college-educated Northerner, not a Mississippi-born black man from the years before television. What Wynton did with jazz—not just glanced backward but actually tried to recreate both in fact and in spirit a lot of the music of an era before he was born—Taj did in blues. In fact, I think Taj did it better and on a deeper level.
It’s hard to know when what Taj is doing is him or him doing somebody else. You have to know both Taj himself and a lot of these old cats to fully understand what I mean.
Mtume, I’m sure you don’t remember this, you were a baby when it happened, however in the early seventies when Ahidiana was Egania Street, Taj Mahal came to our school and played for us. The young people gathered around looking at that big old man sitting on the floor playing a kalimba (African thumb piano) and singing and laughing and all. Taj was in town for the New Orleans Jazz Fest. Some kind of way, I got to talk to him, told him about our school and he said he would love to see it, meet the young folks and all. Next thing I knew, we was deep in the Lower Ninth Ward and Taj gave us an impromptu concert.
All of which is to say, I know this man is serious about his music, about his life. Over the years, I followed his career. Interviewed him when he came to town. Hung out with him. For over forty-some years now Taj Mahal has stayed the course and been committed to the blues while expanding his vision of what the blues could be. At another time I will give an overview of his career; for right now let’s just focus on his work with The Pointer Sisters. Please note that at different times Taj is playing guitar, banjo and upright bass—talk about one man bands!
Although The Pointer Sisters are commercially known as a lounge act who had a couple of pop hits, these ladies, as their coupling with Taj demonstrates, were quite capable purveyors of the blues. They started off with a deep retro forties look, but were super-talented as singers and began pop diva darlings. As their long career evidences, they could do a broad range of the music with gusto, with verve, and with saucy elegance.
So here we have them surrounding Taj—notice I didn’t say “backing” him up. What they do is provide a sound bed for Taj to lounge on buy also like some kind of aural hydraulic jacks, they lift up the whole proceedings to a heavenly level . The four sisters are angels. You can hear it. And the joy that shoots back and forth between them is infectious.
What I also wanted to make mention of is that the repertoire is classic stuff they cover in their own way, their personalities governing their interpretations. Check that Sam Cooke has a red rooster song that is a take off from "Red Hen." I know "Sweet Home Chicago" thorugh the iconic delta bluesman Robert Johnson. "Frankie and Albert" references Mississippi John Hurt whom Taj pictures on the cover of Recycling—John and Taj are standing side by side. "Mary Don't You Weep" is a black church song. Of particular note is that Taj references some of the early progenitors in the style of guitar playing that Taj chooses for each song. Taj's instrumental work evidences great and sensitive respect for the tradition.
The way they jump on these classics it sounds like Taj & The Sisters wrote some of these songs last night (or was it 'fo day in the morning?). That's what I like best about this collaboration: there is an air of newness even though these are songs birthed long before The Sisters or, for that matter, some of them probably before Taj was born. It would have been an instant classic—talk about a contradiction in terms—if Taj and The Pointer Sisters had done a whole album together.
Unfortunately, what could have been a hell of an album never got recorded as such. They did three tracks on a very important Taj album, Recycling The Blues & Other Related Stuff, which is now out of print. But through Taj’s providence and, I’m pretty certain, at his insistence (or serious encouragement), five live collaboration tracks are included on the In Progress & In Motion 3-CD anthology.
The last track in the jukebox, “Texas Woman Blues,” is from Recycling and sounds like an early Count Basie aggregation from when Basie had a small band roaming around the territory. The other four songs are from In Progress. We can discuss the etiology of this material at another time, for now just sink down into the sudsy sounds, close your eyes, relax, and enjoy.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
Bring on the career overview
I can't say for sure, because I don't have that much of Taj Mahal's music, but I must like the smoother side of Taj Mahal. I say that because all of these rough and raw-sounding tunes don't do much for me. (Except for "Texas Woman Blues." I like that one.) Off the top of my head, the Taj music I dig is mellow stuff like "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man" and "Queen Bee." I'm not crazy about these songs, but Baba, I'll be looking forward to that career overview. (Hint, hint.)
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