Taj Mahal connected with me in Cambridge. We were both aspiring folksingers in the thriving acoustic music scene. We played hootenanny nights at the Club 47. My repertoire was exclusively the replication of my uncle Fred Gerlach’s songs on his “Gallows Pole” album. His music, nurtured in me, was a powerful and engaging musical force that brought me notice. The music certainly was unique compared to what other musicians around me were performing. Up until the Beatles, a lot of them were trying to recreate authentic American folk music. Once the Beatles hit, forget it. They plugged in, combed their hair forward, and forgot about the roots in a rush to cash in.
Beside the hoots, or open mike nights, Taj had an occasional gig at the Club 47, his own night. Twenty-four years old, he could already catch an audience’s attention, thumping his Epiphone guitar and playing the blues.
Taj was straight out of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He was living with a woman named Maud on the third floor of a house on Putnam Avenue. Richard and Mimi Farina lived around the corner. An acquaintance brought me to the house where he lived. After a few nights on the second floor couch they offered to rent me a room in the attic.
Some months later, the Columbia record executive, John Hammond, who had signed Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, and later, Bruce Springsteen, sat on that same couch to tell Taj and me that although our music was good, we weren’t ready to be signed to Columbia. Columbia must have had their eye on Taj because we ultimately signed with them later, and Taj stayed with them for a while, too.
But before that, not long after my arrival, Taj and I played music. Right away, it flowed. We were getting off on our new twist of an old delta beat.
“I have a gig tomorrow in Philadelphia. Do you want to come with me?” he asked after we played a while. “We can fly first class”
“Wow, a gig in Philadelphia. Let’s go,” was my reply.
We flew there the next day. Our gig at The Second Fret was for two weeks. We played guitars and sang blues songs. Taj played some bottleneck and some harmonica up on a rack around his neck. We had a beat that we called “Delta.” We sang together, falling into two- part harmony in the style of Don and Dewey. A lot of what caught my teenage ear in Los Angeles was black rhythm and blues.
Taj was represented at the time by Manny Greenhill, an agent who booked folk acts out of his office called Folklore Productions. Manny kept us working. We played coffee houses, folk clubs, and concerts all over New England. In Montreal, we discovered a cobbler who made us matching calf-high sheepskin boots. We started wearing them on stage, like a uniform. At one concert in Boston, Reverend Gary Davis, a blind musician, was on the same show. He was backstage playing one of the songs he had taught me. When he heard my guitar start to play along with him he recognized me by my playing. “Jesse, is that you?”
In January we were playing at the Chessmate Gallery in Detroit. Cambridge and Detroit are cold in the winter, especially for a California kid like me. It was so frigid there that we figured it would be a good idea to leave the east coast winter and go to Los Angeles to check out the folk music scene, in a warmer climate.
We got a hold of a new Cadillac at a driveaway car company to deliver to it’s owner in LA, and headed out on the road west. Cautious would describe our attitude about going into some of those Oklahoma restaurants, a black guy and a white guy in matching knee-high boots.
We arrived in Los Angeles and knocked on my father’s door.
“Hi, Dad, look who’s coming to stay with us.”
We settled into a spare bedroom in dad’s house and we set out to find the burgeoning folk clubs to show them what we could do. Our first open mike was at the New Balladeer coffeehouse in Santa Monica. John Kaye, future singer with Steppenwolf, was washing dishes. Bamalama! We hit it into our delta beat, doing our two part Don and Dewey style harmonies. They thought we were pretty cool. After warming up at the Balladeer, we went right over to the Ash Grove and hit their open mike. We were booked on the spot.
It wasn’t too long into the gig when Ry Cooder, then nineteen years young, came in and heard us laying down our funky brand of acoustic blues. Ry had been a guitar student of my Uncle Fred and had briefly been a guitar teacher of mine, but he refused to teach me any more after a while. He didn’t want to show me all his tricks. He actually said that. After seeing our show he asked if he could join us. Where two or more are gathered the spirit is present. Now we were three.
Ry had a gig coming up demonstrating Martin guitars for a Teen-Age Fair at the Hollywood Palladium. We decided to do the gig but added Ry’s friend Gary Marker to play bass. My junior high school skill playing drums in the school band gave me the impetus to switch over to drums for the weekend engagement. My friend Freddie the Freeloader loaned me his sparkling silver Ludwig kit, even delivering it to the Palladium. Taj and Ry played electric guitars, Gary was on electric bass, and my thing was drums. We were a band!
Gaggles of teenaged girls glimpsed us and got off on our blues. All the other bands there had matching sequined jackets and Farfisa organs and sang “Gloria.” We was nat’chul.
We made a big splash at the fair and got noticed by Ed Pearl, who owned The Ash Grove. He wanted to book our now electrified blues band at the club. All we needed was a permanent drummer and a name. “The Rising Sons” occurred to me and was adopted.
Gary had a drummer friend named Cass Strangedrum. He called him to play the gig. Cass’ real name was Ed Cassidy. Ed was an older man with a shaved head that looked odd in the developing long hair scene. But having a proper drummer permitted me to switch back to guitar. Cass stayed with us for a few months. He later played with a popular band called Spirit.
The Rising Sons debut created a buzz of excitement with audiences and in the Los Angeles press. Reviews described us as “America’s answer to The Rolling Stones.” Some of the Stones heard us at The Ash Grove, where they picked up on Ry’s bottleneck style. They later invited him over to swinging London to record with them. Ry laid his bottleneck guitar on a few of the Stones’ cuts, notably, “Sister Morphine,” and did music for the film, “Performance,” in which Mick Jagger made his acting debut.
The Beatles had influenced me to begin writing songs which we added to our repertoire of traditional blues songs. My style was a beginning songwriter’s copying of the style of The Beatles and Dylan, though without the depth those artists had. It was a beginning. My uncle Fred’s style was phased out as the new music blasted in.
Los Angeles was experiencing an explosion of psychedelic flower power. In a rush to capitalize on the new music, record companies were signing every band that had a gig. We were offered contracts with numerous labels. Columbia Records was our choice.
Once the band secured our contract we decided to change drummers. Cass’ style was more jazzy and lighter than we required. Chris Hillman, bassist with The Byrds, suggested that we consider his cousin, drummer Kevin Kelley. Kevin auditioned with us and the change was made. In addition to his drumming, Kevin provided us with a rehearsal space in his mother’s house in Beverly Hills. Kevin stayed with the band almost to the end. He, too, was replaced for what became our final gig at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. Drummer Frank Lupica became a Rising Son for the band’s final performance.
Thirty girls from The Rising Sons Fan Club were waiting for us in the parking lot at our first recording session. We let them in. They sat in folding chairs inside Columbia’s cathedral studio while we went at it.
The Byrds, Love, Buffalo Springfield, The Doors, Hendrix, Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and the San Francisco bands were weaving a tapestry of a new social experience. Young people were turning on to the guitar driven sounds and songs that expressed a “we will be free” lifestyle.
The Rising Sons’ experience was played out in the clubs on Sunset Strip and in the studio. At night we shared the stage at The Trip, It’s Boss, Hullabaloo, on ten day engagements with The Temptations, Martha & The Vandellas, Sam the Sham & The Pharaohs. We did ten days with Otis Redding when he recorded his album “Otis Redding Live at the Whiskey Au Go-Go.”
During the day we recorded at Columbia. Our producer, Terry Melcher, had produced hits with The Byrds and Paul Revere and The Raiders. Between our blues and pop song repertoire he couldn’t find the right combination. Between the producer and the band, we weren’t able to come up with a hit. In those days, no hit single, no album. One single was released by us, “Candy Man,” and “The Devil’s Got My Woman,” both songs sung by me, which was odd, since Taj’s voice was the noticeable strong lead vocal in the band. Most importantly, Columbia didn’t release an album so our recording output stayed in the vaults. Columbia finally released the bulk of our studio recordings in 1992, and Sundazed Records released the vinyl LP that Columbia didn’t in ‘98.
After a year and a half some frustration set in.
Ry departed the band after what was our final gig. It was at Santa Monica Civic Auditorium.
By this time, Taj, the lead singer and main focus of the band, departed to go solo. He had a distinct style that was marketable on it’s own. The rush of Hollywood came to a grinding halt for me. The stardust fell from heaven as twilight heralded the evening of my heretofore-skyrocketing Hollywood career. But there was more to come.