California Dreaming: Take A Giant Step

Love weren’t the only long-haired multiracial folk-rock band inspired by the Byrds’ success. When the Byrds had toured in 1965, their residency at Ciro’s had been left vacant, and three new bands stepped into the spot. Love immediately made a mark, as did the Leaves, but the band who most impressed the other musicians in the audience was the Rising Sons.

While the other folk-rockers were taking inspiration from the white singer-songwriters of the time like Bob Dylan and Tim Rose, the Rising Sons were listening to the folk blues of Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James and Reverend Gary Davis, as well as to the electric blues of Elmore James and Howlin’ Wolf. If the Byrds were the Beatles of the LA folk-rock scene, then the Rising Sons were its Rolling Stones, with a harder-edged, bluesier, sound rooted in emulation of older musicians rather than chasing current trends.

The band was led by Taj Mahal, a 22-year-old blues singer and harmonica player from New York who would often sit in with blues musicians from the previous generation, people like Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy, and Ry Cooder, a 19-year-old guitar virtuoso who by his mid teens had already had endorsement deals from guitar manufacturers (he’d been playing since pre-school, having been given a guitar after an accident in which he lost an eye, as his parents understandably became protective and wanted him to have an indoor hobby). The original lineup was rounded out by bass player Gary Marker, rhythm guitarist Jesse Lee Kincaid, and drummer Ed Cassidy, but after Cassidy broke his hand he was replaced by Kevin Kelley, the cousin of Chris Hillman of the Byrds.

The Rising Sons quickly gained a reputation as one of the most exciting bands in LA. At their very first show, in fact, Don Van Vliet and Doug Moon of the Magic Band were in the audience, and Marker saw Van Vliet grab Moon, point to Cooder, and say “There! That’s the shit I’m talkin’about! That’s what I want you to play!” Vliet asked Cooder after the show to give the guitarists in his band some tips on bottleneck playing.

With such a reputation, it was inevitable that the Rising Sons would get signed to a record label, and soon they were in the studio, recording with Terry Melcher for Columbia Records.

Only two tracks from these sessions were released at the time — a single coupling Candy Man and Devil Got My Woman, and it’s clear to see that even though these were both traditional blues songs, Melcher was trying to mould the band into something recognisable to the pop audience of the time. Candy Man is done in an uptempo acoustic style that’s reminiscent of nothing so much as the “good-time music” of the Lovin’ Spoonful, while The Devil’s Got My Woman (as it was titled on the single) is very much in the same style as the Rolling Stones’ early, bluesy, work.

For many years nothing else from the sessions was released, and the legend of the Rising Sons grew, as the various band members all had successes with later projects, to the extent that it seemed astonishing that an album had never been released. When in the 1990s the sessions were finally released on CD, though, it became easy to see why they had been shelved.

Quite simply, whatever they were like on stage, in the studio the Rising Sons were a band without a style of their own, musical chameleons who took on the personas of other musicians. In some cases, such as .44 Blues, done in the style of Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, this produced excellent music, while sometimes, as in Dust My Broom, they duplicate the original Elmore James recording so closely as to render their own version pointless.

And then there are the songs that were attempts at hitting the pop market — among them the Dylan trifle Walkin’ Down The Line, and several original songs by Kincaid — competent but uninspired songs given sub-Knickerbockers pseudo-Merseybeat arrangements which serve only to show how feeble a great set of musicians can sound when playing music they don’t like, and that this would never be a band known for its two-part Everly-style close harmonies. These are so utterly uninspired in both performance and arrangement that one is frankly amazed that the people playing them ever managed to get paying work as musicians, let alone become some of the most celebrated musicians of their generation.

The one time everything comes together perfectly is Take A Giant Step, a song that was clearly a Melcher suggestion, being not by Roosevelt Sykes or Willie Dixon but by the songwriting team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King. This one was done in the style of Love’s amped-up, aggressive, take on folk-rock, and sounds like the work of a different band from anything else they recorded. While the song itself is not one of Goffin and King’s best, Taj Mahal in particular clearly enjoyed it enough to rerecord it as the title track of his third solo album, and the enthusiasm shows in the arrangement and performance.

Other than a couple of slightly stiff fills by Kelley, everything here is exciting, with multiple layers of Cooder’s bottleneck guitar giving a bluesy twist on the jangling arpeggios of folk-rock, playing a riff that seems like an Elmore James inspired take on the riffs of recent Beatles records like I Feel Fine and Day Tripper, while Kincaid alternately doubles the jangling and provides brutal slashing chords. The track is filled out by some genuinely great harmonies (which it’s almost impossible to believe are the work of the same people who sang on the Merseybeat-esque tracks). Everything comes together perfectly, and of all the tracks they recorded, it’s impossible to understand why this one, at least, wasn’t released.

But it wasn’t, and the song was eventually used in a very different arrangement, as the B-side to the debut single of a very different type of band.

Take A Giant Step

Composer: Gerry Goffin & Carole King

Line-up: Taj Mahal (vocals), Ry Cooder (guitar, vocals), Jesse Lee Kincaid (guitar, vocals), Doug Moon (bass), Kevin Kelley (drums)

Original release: Rising Sons Featuring Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder, The Rising Sons Featuring Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder, Columbia CD CK 52828

Currently available on: Rising Sons Featuring Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder, Columbia CD

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2 Responses to California Dreaming: Take A Giant Step

  1. TAD says:

    Kevin Kelley was also briefly the drummer The Byrds, during the “Sweetheart of the Rodeo.” I don’t think he played much on the album though……I’m pretty sure session drummers did most of the drumming.

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