Power Pickers
of the '60's

Musicians of the Flower Generation


Ry and Taj: Rising, Setting Sons

I hated having to pass up last summer’s Ash Grove benefit/reunion in LA; it cost me a chance to chill with Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder, the three of us together for the first time in over 40 years. Frankly, I’m surprised we’re all still alive, given the mortality rate of the Tune In, Turn On and Drop Out Generation.

I’m not sure why seeing them together would have been such a big deal to me. I mean, we’d all known each other independently as guitar, and in Taj’s case, mouth harp, teachers at the Ash Grove School of Folk Music in the mid-‘Sixties. But I have this clear picture in my head of a noisy, testy rehearsal on the Ash Grove’s stage, sometime in 1964, of the Rising Sons, their promising band that double faulted before finding their sweet spot.

It seemed the Rising Sons had everything it should have taken to be successful.   Por ejemplo, an album that turned at least some heads and street cred as a really watchable band on stage. Tall and handsome, Ry was a creative and resourceful guitar player then as now. Besides his natural talent he had a hovering father, who, according to a mutual friend, Doctor Demento (Barry Hansen,  at the time), culled through American folk and genre music and picked only the best stuff, e.g., Leadbelly and Rev. Gary Davis, for Ry to listen to. I don’t know if this extra paternal  attention was at all triggered by Ry’s loss of an eye–the middle one, I believe–in a childhood accident,  but the early exposure to good playing didn’t seem to hurt his playing, did it?

Taj, also tall and good looking and also a good musician (guitar and mouth harp) had terrific stage presence and was very much at ease with an audience, whereas Ry tended to be a little less charming onstage.

Drummer Kevin Kelly, who once auditioned for my band, Evergreen Blueshoes, and later played with the Byrds, was a genuinely sweet person, rosy of complexion and soft-looking, maybe a little like the Pillsbury Doughboy (Sorry, Kevin). As a player he was anything but “heavy,” the common adjective in those days to describe the powerful but ponderous music of acts like Jimi Hendrix, Cream and Blue Cheer.

I never knew the Sons’ bass player and I’m too lazy to look his name up, but I do remember a singer/12-string guitarist, one Nick Gerlach (aka Jesse Lee Kincaid), who was simply not very good at either task (Not sorry, Jesse, because you were also a putz). However, there was nothing between Kevin, the bass player and Jesse Lee to really hurt the band.

What did hurt them, as I remember hearing at the time, was racial prejudice. Not your straight-up, out-front discrimination against African-Americans and/or Latinos that were driving the Civil Rights Movement, but something a little more insidious, because there was no way to verify it, or even identify it.

I’m talking about mixed bands being difficult to book. It was the kind of thing club owners and booking agents could never be directly accused of, because they could book all-Black or all-Chicano or all-White bands. The trouble came when they hired bands of mixed ethnicity.

Yes, I know the Fifth Dimension, Jimi Hendrix and Chicago had both white and Black members, though I will always wonder if they had problems before they got famous, because performing and booking problems didn’t seem to happen at that level. What I’m talking about is the freeze on hiring mixed groups at the local level. Club owners and bookers were just reluctant to hire these acts because they feared trouble in the audience.

And they were not that wrong. Civil Rights hadn’t embedded itself in our culture yet; nothing had seeped down to the neighborhood level of local performing, and problems played out all over the place. I remember once when Skip Battin, my co-leader in our band, and I were going around LA looking for talent. Skip, who had had a lot of experience playing at the local level, said we really couldn’t audition blacks and Latinos, not because he was prejudice but because he knew places like the Cougar Lounge in Reseda and The Plush Rooster in Arcadia wouldn’t hire us. Period. Case closed. And I remember playing in one place in San Gabriel trying out a Chicano sax player and having to escort him to his car after the gig because some rednecks in the audience threatened to beat him up.

Anyway, concern over the difficulty they thought they might have booking their band is what I heard was the reason for the Rising Sons not keeping the band together. On the other hand, maybe it wasn’t that at all. Maybe it was because of a personnel brand, after all.

At any rate, this was the Number One question I would have asked Ry and Taj if I’d gone to the Ash Grove reunion. The second would be, “Whatever happened to that 12-string player who couldn’t carry a tune?”

One-liner Notes:

“Oh, he ain’t colored, he’s Spanish.” Ray Charles’ Band when the local police in a Southern town were about to give guitarist Don Peake a bad time for traveling with Negroes.

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