Reel Time: Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder ‘Get On Board’ with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee
(Update: Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder’s collaborative record won Best Traditional Blues Album at the 2023 GRAMMYs).
“I met Ry when he was 17. And what was so amazing about him, even back then, is that he played the music the way it was supposed to be played,” Taj Mahal says of his initial encounter with a like-minded Ry Cooder in early 1965, at a time when Mahal himself was only 22. “So many people were about the flash, the cost of the guitar, what the mark of the guitar was and all that kind of stuff. They were thinking about everything else but the music. Ry understands the value of the music, which connects you to the universe in a way that other things just can’t.”
The two soon formed a Los Angeles-based blues-rock band called Rising Sons. Columbia Records signed the group, which also featured singer/ guitarist Jesse Lee Kincaid (aka Nick Gerlach), bassist Gary Marker and drummer Kevin Kelley (succeeding Ed Cassidy, who left due to a wrist jury and then co-founded Spirit). Rising Sons entered the studio for a series of sessions, in which the quintet performed songs by musicians such as Elmore James, Willie Dixon and Reverend Gary Davis, along with a few originals by Kincaid. Their sound was a few years ahead of its time, anticipating the popularity of artists such as the Allman Brothers Band, and Columbia ultimately dropped the outfit from its roster before releasing an album. Rising Sons Featuring Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder finally came out in 1992.
Mahal and Cooder would embark on successful solo careers, starting with their self-titled debut records. Cooder added guitar and mandolin to 1968’s Taj Mahal, and although they subsequently crossed paths, it would be more than five decades later before they reconnected on a recording project.
In 2014, Mahal received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Americana Music Honors & Awards Show, where Cooder and his son Joachim backed all of the evening’s performers, as members of the Americana All-Stars house band. Mahal joined them for a version of “Statesboro Blues”—the opening track on the Rising Sons record—and rekindled a musical connection.
Finally, Mahal traveled to Southern California last summer where he spent three days in Joachim’s living room for a stripped-down session. Taj appeared on vocals, guitar, harmonicas, and piano; Ry contributed guitar, mandolin and banjo; Joachim added percussion and bass. Their new album, Get On Board: The Songs of Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee finds the musicians exploring the catalog of the duo—who began performing and recording together in the early 1940s and remained a tandem for over four decades, with Terry on harmonica and McGhee on guitar. The paired performers were exemplars of Piedmont blues, a style that incorporates elements of gospel, country and ragtime with some intricate fingerpicking.
Following the Americana event, Cooder had been thinking about the ideal context for the two of them to reunite in a studio setting. He recalls, “While I was watering the yard one day, it came to me: ‘We should do a duet record.’ Then, I thought about whose songs we should sing. I started with Sleepy John Estes or Son House but I thought those might be too remote—people might not understand what Sleepy John was singing about. Finally, I realized, ‘The answer is Brownie and Sonny. Taj can play harmonica and I can be Brownie.’ We would do it in one take, simple and basic, with live singing. That’s how you get the flavor of that music across; although, there’s a difference between simple and easy. It’s not easy, but we’ve been listening to this stuff all our lives, so I thought we should be able to pull it off.”
Can you recall the first time you saw Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee perform?
RY COODER: It was quite memorable. What happened was Ed Pearl got the idea to open a folk-music club because he was very left wing and progressive politically. He was like Pete Seeger in thinking that you had to overcome class separation, and one way to unite people and bridge their differences was to sing together. Pete did this over and over again—you would see him in a crowd of 10 people or 10,000 people, it didn’t matter how many, big or small. He would get them singing within minutes and they would all feel unified. It was quite something.
I saw this when I was about six years old and my mother took me to a Pete Seeger show. I thought, “Good Lord, what’s happening all around me? The whole place is starting to reverberate.” It was wild. It was kind of like a religious meditation.
So Ed Pearl got hold of this little building in West Hollywood that had been a grocery store. He built a little stage, put up a sound system and opened a folk club called the Ash Grove. This was at a time when people had come up with the idea of creating folk-music festivals, where they would bring traditional players mainly from the South to places like UCLA. Then, when people would come in to play at these festivals, Ed Pearl would hire them for a week or two and serve beer and pretzels. It was a chance to see people up close, which is what I did.
Brownie and Sonny opened that club. They were the first people to play there. So it was a real revelation for me. I was about 12 or maybe 13 years old, and they came walking down between the chairs—one guy limping and one guy blind. [McGhee contracted polio at age 5; Terry lost his eyesight before he turned 16.] It was heart-stopping just to watch them walk to the stage. And then they sat down, started in with this rhythm machine and sang these songs. It was just like the record that I had, Get on Board. It was incredible.
TAJ MAHAL: Those guys were representatives of their time and the tradition. One man was blind, one man was crippled, and they showed you that they could overcome those obstacles and make something beautiful that would lift you and transport you.
That kind of grist and grit is important to you when you’re in your 20s—it is important to see people who come from hard times make something out of their lives. Here were two incredible Black men making this incredible music and creating a great stir around them.
They were my elders. They could have been my grandparents or my uncles. Certainly, in Africa, they would’ve been the griots or the musical seers. So they represented not only what was going on in the South and what was going on with the Civil Rights Movement but also something deeper culturally.
How did the two of you first meet?
TM: I was working as the emcee one evening at a hootenanny up in Cambridge, Mass. [at Club 47 in 1964]. I played older music and I could draw people into this place. So they had a hoot night, and this young man [Nick Gerlach] came up with a 12-string guitar, signed in and told me he had two songs. I noticed his style, the way that he held the instrument, how he played the instrument, his attention to detail and his music. It was great music—different, but great.
So I spoke to him after and asked where he learned to play like that. He told me that he had an uncle who played and that he’d asked his mom to get him a guitar.
As time went on, we created a duo. We’d have two voices, a harmonica and two guitars. I could play harmonica on a rack and then I could play guitar. At one point, I said, “Where the heck did you learn how to play stuff like that?” Because I was listening to the old music, but I wasn’t hearing anybody in contemporary times being able to produce that kind of music from that kind of place where it really comes from.
When you put on those old blues records, it’s obvious these guys know how to play and they’re coming from a place that you rarely hear anymore. But this music was coming to him, so I asked him, and he said he took some lessons from Reverend Gary Davis and he also took some lessons from this guy in California named Ry Cooder.
At one point, I said, “Do you think he would want to be in the band?” He said, “Well, I don’t know, he’s 17.” I was like, “17 years old? Are you kidding?” I thought, “What the heck is going on?”
Ultimately, we schemed to get ourselves some gigs in order to get some money and go to California. Manny Greenhill and Folklore Productions got us up through Maine over to Montreal, then Toronto and down to Detroit.
At that point, we were thinking of hitchhiking the rest of the way. Then, his uncle told us: “People come here and buy cars and have folks drive them out. They’re called driveaways.” So we did that. We started in Detroit, and we drove out to California. And, before I knew it, I met Ry.
Then, I went to his house and it was the first time we sat down and played with one another. He came ready to play. The guy really knew what he was doing.
RC: After Brownie and Sonny came to the Ash Grove, a lot of other people played. I saw Flatt and Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, Mississippi John Hurt, Son House. It was unbelievable. So, along the line, Taj Mahal and his sidekick, Nick Gerlach [Jesse Lee Kincaid]—the nephew of Fred Gerlach, who was one of my guitar teachers—showed up like people did. It was the place you went if people came to town, whether they were known players or not. Everybody was starting to hang out and play together to get this thing going. It was a moment.
I had my license and, by that time, I had my car, so I would drive from Santa Monica every night. I’d go down there, walk in, sit down and wait for somebody to come through the door. And, one time, Ed Pearl says to me: “Meet Taj Mahal,” Then, he walks away. So I say, “Hi, Taj, how are you?”
The very first time we played together, we saw that we liked the same tunes and understood them. It was just a natural thing that was starting to happen. People were getting together.
By gosh, the next thing was we got a job at the Teen Age Fair [at the Hollywood Palladium in April 1965]. We got a bass player, Gary Marker, and Nick played drums.
Rising Sons quickly landed a record deal, but were dropped relatively quickly afterward. What do you think accounted for that?
RC: I’m 75 now and Taj is 80 this year. So certain details may not be in the mind anymore but, as I recall, back then, there was this sudden explosion of folk music in Los Angeles. When The Byrds hit with “Mr. Tambourine Man,” it was like a volcano. The whole city was swept up into this thing. It was on the radio a thousand times a day and, in those days, radio was the arbiter. Everything had to do with radio. You made records in order to get them on the radio.
The next thing we knew, we had a record deal, for heaven’s sake, because the record companies were running around town like headless chickens, scared to death that they might miss the next Byrds. This was a time when, if you had little sunglasses and spandex pants and a velour shirt—if you dressed like The Byrds—you could get a record deal. So we signed with Columbia. They were on fire because of The Byrds and Paul Revere & the Raiders.
So what did we do? We said, “We’re gonna play what we know how to play: a little Reverend Gary Davis, a little Son House and Skip James.” Nick also wrote a few tunes. But it didn’t work because the record company was not interested in antique music, no matter how you might reinterpret it and no matter if you were good at it or not. That’s not what they were looking for.
We tried to do this rhythm-accented, old-time music. It was beyond jug band, with an electric bass and drums, which had already been done by Howlin’ Wolf and people like that. But the record company had never even heard of Howlin’ Wolf. They had no idea. What they wanted was The Byrds.
TM: Whether we knew it or not, we created something that the music industry wasn’t ready for yet with all the different sources that came together. They didn’t realize it was coming. We just heard it early because we were involved in the real roots of the music. It’s like the difference between a farmer—who put seeds in the ground and grows wheat or barley or oats—and someone who goes into the supermarket to get their oats in a box. The record companies couldn’t see anything until it looked like it could be put in a box, and we were just probably a year ahead of what ultimately was gonna happen.
We thought, “If The Rolling Stones and a bunch of English guys can come over here and play the music, why can’t American guys play the music?” I thought it was the weirdest thing in the world that everybody was freaking out over these guys coming in from England—not that they were bad or anything. In fact, I had a really good run with those guys and still do, but I just didn’t understand why Americans didn’t get it. They got it when it came to Mick Jagger, but they didn’t get it when it came to Muddy Waters, even though he was already here.
I think we were very successful with what we did. It’s just that the record companies didn’t know how to market it. We’d been used to seeing concerts where people played lots of different kinds of music and different people played together. I was used to going to see Pete Seeger, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, Theodore Bikel and Dave Van Ronk all playing on the same concert. Whereas, the mindset of the record companies was to see one thing and only allow you to go two degrees to the right and two degrees to the left. That’s what they could package. But playing the same kind of music over and over again doesn’t really turn me on.
How long after the two of you performed at the Americana Awards did you arrive at the concept for this record?
RC: Taj was an honoree at the awards show, and my son and I were in the house band. I’d seen Taj here and there but we hadn’t talked about anything specific in a long time. We were backstage and he was wondering what to play. I said, “‘Statesboro’—we can grab that. Let’s stomp it on down to the bricks and the band will follow.”
So we worked it out in soundcheck and rehearsal and it sounded really good. That brought it all back to me. I thought, “We used to play like this. We would do the tune and it rocked like this.” So an idea began right there.
Then, right before COVID, he came to my house and we talked about what we might do if we did something, but we couldn’t quite figure it out. We just sat there and kind of played a little and it was like old times.
Afterward, I came up with the idea for us to do Brownie and Sonny. That was when I asked Taj, “You wanna try this?” And he agreed.
So we got a list of tunes that we thought we’d like to do together because they had a huge repertoire. We picked the ones that are fun and rhythmic, and then sat down in Joachim’s living room for three days with earphones and microphones. Then, we went through these things.
TM: Ry came up with the concept after we connected and reconnected. I felt like we could do something with it. I trust his judgment in any direction. He’s the type of person that I wouldn’t be worried about whatever he wanted to do. It was a wonderful situation and I was pleased to be a part of it.
Beyond the fact that Sonny and Brownie recorded these songs, is there some connective tissue between them?
TM: All these songs have great lyrics. The main thing is that each of them tells a great story. Think about “Midnight Special.” You have a prisoner saying that if the midnight special shines a light on him in his cell, then he’s gonna be able to get out. It’s phenomenal what goes on and the imagery really captivated me as a young kid. Back in those days, if you listened, you could hear what life was like through what they talked about in these songs. For me, that was exciting. Then, once rock-and-roll came in during the 1950s, a lot of those stories disappeared.
A few of these songs I had heard as a kid, like “My Baby Done Changed the Lock on the Door.” My parents had that record. I think it might have been by Louis Jordan. I remember that because it was around the same years as “Caldonia,” “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” and “Blue Light Boogie.” I listened to all those tunes a long time ago, so it was nice to do “My Baby Done Changed the Lock on the Door.” I was always interested in the history of the music.
“Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee” is another song I heard as a kid. It was written by Brownie McGhee’s half-brother, Stick McGhee. Cool uncles would walk up to you say, “What’s going on spo-dee-o-dee?”
The songs that we did were popular tunes among some of the blues guys because you could play them in a duo. I loved the way Sonny sang on these, like “My Baby Done Changed the Lock on the Door.” He sang a little sharp every now and then but, if I’ve got a choice, I’ll take sharp over flat every day.
The range of songs also encompasses a spiritual like “What a Beautiful City” and “Deep Sea Diver,” which plays off a double entendre.
TM: I got to hear “What a Beautiful City” from Reverend Gary Davis and it’s another great song. Reverend Gary Davis always reminded me of an even rawer Ray Charles. He had that kind of preacher voice and he also played the guitar. I’m sure he started out playing the blues. Then, he got ordained as a minister and played pretty bluesy gospel. I love the tune.
“Deep Sea Diver”—that kind of ribald stuff was always good fare for people dancing. They didn’t play that music around kids. And, when they did play for children, they had other kinds of material. These men were respectful of what circumstances they were in. But when they were around grown folks drinking liquor, smoking, dancing and having fun, well, they had some different kinds of lyrics. Between Ry and me, one of us is a septuagenarian, and the other one is an octogenarian. So what are you gonna do? We’re playing for grown folk. [Laughs.]
When I listen to Sonny and Brownie’s versions of these songs or watch their performances on YouTube, there’s a looseness that you capture on the record. Was that your intent from the very start?
RC: The looseness is in there because that’s the way the old time rural music goes. So of course, naturally, that’s how you do it. That’s how you go about it.
We wanted that flavor in there. We wanted that feeling in there. So that’s how we approached it, as opposed to planning the thing out and saying, “Well, I’ll go here and then I’ll go there, and you do this and then I’ll do that.” You don’t want to do that. We wouldn’t do 10 takes. You don’t want to defeat the music—you have to let it breathe a little bit. If you can’t do that, then you’re in trouble. But I thought we could do it. I was certain of it.
The album closes with “I Shall Not Be Moved.” Can you talk about the tone and context of that one?
TM: Well, it’s just another great song. It made its way from the Deep South gospel and spiritual people all the way to being a part of various movements, in particular the Civil Rights Movement. It’s the stalwart of a solid tree in the great pantheon of religious music in the United States and the world.
This music is a global resource—all African-based Western music has become a global resource. It’s full of stories and history and joy and sorrow. Somebody once said that blues is life. Well, jazz gives you back your mind, reggae gives you back your soul and blues gives you back your body.