Having just finished dusting off the 35 mm print of the film Scrapple (which I wrote, produced and acted in)that played last week as part of Scrapple Fest, I decided to write about the music in the film for the next two editions of “One Step Ahead of the Blues.”
This week I am writing about the score music that was recorded with Taj Mahal. We made the movie in 1996 and recorded the original score music with Taj in 1997.
I sat down to write the script that became Scrapple with an image of a guy riding in a motorcycle with a pig in a sidecar set to “Taj Mahal’s Farther on Down the Road.”
I am very proud of the version of the song that appears in Scrapple as I produced it and think it stands up to any of the other recordings of him performing the song (Eric Clapton just recorded it on his most recent record “Old Sock”). I produced other versions of Taj songs in the film, but the other songs serve as pieces of the score. For instance, “Lovin’ in My Baby’s Eyes” and “Corrina” appear in Scrapple but they are paired down in length and more mini songs than completed tracks. “Farther on down the Road” is the lone song in which we recorded an entire version and it is my favorite Taj Mahal song.
I had not heard of Taj Mahal when I moved to Telluride in 1990. He first came on my radar when he appeared at the Bill Graham Mid-Summer Music Festival in 1991. I was the editor of the program for the festival and was given the task of interviewing musicians and writing about the event for the Telluride Times-Journal.
Taj was one of those artists I was tasked to interview. Since I was not familiar with his music, I went to KOTO to listen to some of his albums. I listened to his eponymous debut, “Nach’l Blues and Mo’ Roots,” and was absolutely floored. It was like walking through the musical Stargate.
I recognized “She Caught The Katy” because it was the opening track of The Blues Brothers’ movie (it was John Belushi’s favorite song, according to his wife). I was familiar with Statesboro Blues through the Allman Brothers, I knew “Walkin’ Blues” because of the Grateful Dead, and I knew reggae songs like “Johnny Too Bad” and “Slave Driver.”
But I was blown away by songs on those records that I had never heard. Taj’s debut record opens with “Leaving Trunk,” a Sleepy John Estes song. The opening ten chords of Taj’s version hit as hard as any intro I’ve ever heard. It was if they were announcing a new artist who would have a profound effect on the blues and rock n’ roll. And the song “Corrina” just took my breath away with its beauty. Still does.
When I interviewed Taj he was promoting his 1991 album “Like Never Before,” which featured a cover of the Carole King/Gerry Goffin song “Giant Step” – and the lyrics, “Come with me, leave your yesterdays, your yesterdays behind and take a giant step out side your mind.”
Those lyrics spoke to the 22-year-old me. I was very interested in tight grooves, great melodies, and mind expansion in those days. Taj Mahal was my new favorite musician.
The interview I conducted by phone with Taj Mahal lasted over an hour. He spoke about the blues, where he came from (Springfield Mass.; he was born Henry Fredericks, I later learned), world music, the state of the music industry and more.
It was during that interview that Taj said, ”When people meet, they always ask, ‘What do you do for a job?’ I’m not interested in your job, I am interested in what you think, what’s your favorite book. What’s my job? I AM A JOB.”
That has been my philosophy ever since.
Taj Mahal appeared on the lineup on Sunday of the festival. That day of music featured Widespread Panic, David Grisman, Hot Tuna, Taj Mahal and The Allman Brothers. Ask anybody who was there and they will likely tell you it as one of the best days of music they ever saw.
I had a press pass so I was backstage for a good part of the day, aka in heaven. It was that day that I first met the guys in Widespread Panic. I met Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady from Hot Tuna, Warren Haynes and Dickie Betts from the Allman Brothers.
After Taj played, there was an interview with the press that was held in a dressing room. It was clear that none of the other writers had a clue who Taj was. In fact, one writer was looking for the rest of the band in the group Taj Mahal. No one in the room knew anything about his music. It quickly became a discussion between Taj and me, and by that time I was well versed in his discography. By the end of the interview, I had his manager’s number and a tentative plan for me to book him at the Sheridan Opera House.
In February 1991, I followed through on that dressing room conversation and brought Taj Mahal to the Sheridan Opera House for two solo and acoustic shows. My recollection of those shows is that I had never heard a theater as quiet as when Taj played those nights. It was like going to church.
I promoted several more shows with Taj over the next few years. I told him what I really wanted to do was write a screenplay and if I did, would he do the score? Taj said yes. When I approached him in 1995 with my first draft of The Story of Spam (which became Scrapple), he agreed to do the score (this, despite the fact, that the first draft was not very good). There were no deal memos, no lawyers, no contracts, just a handshake deal.
Fast-forward to 1997. We had completed principal photography, and met to record the score for Scrapple in March 1997 in the San Fernando Valley at Ultra-Tone Studios, which was the garage of musician Johnny Lee Schell. Johnny Lee was the guitar player in the Phantom Blues Band, Taj’s backup band at the time. He had previously played with Bonnie Raitt on her breakthrough album “Nick of Time,” and toured extensively with her as she blew up into a major artist. The rest of the Phantom Blues Band featured Tony Braunagal on drums, Jon Cleary on piano and keyboards, Larry Fulcher on bass, Darrell Leonard and Joe Sublett on horns.
We already had a dozen songs we were licensing to be used in the film, but had many parts of the movie that called out for original music that would become the score. We had laid down what is called a “scratch mix” in the editing room. A “scratch mix” is a musical road map that gives the musicians performing the score an idea of the tempo and general sound that you are looking for in a particular scene.
We used songs by Creedence Cleerwater Revival (“Looking Out My Back Door,” “Long as I Can See the Light”), the Rolling Stones (“Loving Cup”), the Meters (“Look Y Py Py”) and asked Taj Mahal and The Phantom Blues Band to create songs with a similar vibe.
The process started with Tony Braunagel, the drummer. He created the tempo. Larry Fulcher came in next with the bass, and then Johnny Lee Schell would compose the rest of the piece. When the band had something they liked, Taj would come in and make the final decisions on what he wanted – add this, more horns here, take this out etc. There were dozens of instruments in the studio and Taj could play them all. There was a monitor on which the movie was projected, and the band played the music as the scenes played out.
I learned from putting the score together that small pieces of music connect scenes thematically in very subtle ways. For instance, the very first scene in which Al Dean is introduced weighing out the pot, the song “Really Love the Rain” plays on the soundtrack. At the end of the movie, when Al Dean realizes he has succeeded with his plan, the opening chords of the song play again. The music connects those scenes.
There was also a piece of score music that we called “Tom and Beth’s Lick.” It is a beautiful banjo piece recorded by Alvin Youngblood Hart. It plays when Beth is taking care of Tom after Tom has drunk himself into oblivion and passed out. That lick comes back at the end of the film when Tom realizes that Beth has left Ajax. Again, it is very subtle, but the music is connected to the characters and their emotions.
As a lover of music and film, to see these two elements come together in my own movie with my musical hero Taj Mahal was truly magical.
Geoff Hanson’s “One Step Ahead of the Blues” radio show airs on KOTO-FM radio, in Telluride Wednesdays, 3-5 p.m. His April 17 and April 24 shows will be devoted to the making of the soundtrack of “Scrapple,” which he wrote, produced and acted in.