Taj Mahal - Biography
BY J Poet
Taj Mahal’s talent and eclectic musical taste can hardly be contained by categories. He’s firmly rooted in the blues and African American folk, butt his explorations into roots and Americana before the genres were invented, reggae, African, Hawaiian, Caribbean and world music and anything else that strikes his omnivorous fancy continually expands the limits of the music. He’s won two Grammys and in 2008 celebrated 40 years of music making.
Henry Saint Clair Fredericks grew up in Harlem, NY, during the Harlem Renaissance of the 40s. His father, Henry Saint Clair Fredericks, Sr. was a jazz pianist and arranger from the Caribbean who worked with Ella Fitzgerald and other legends. His mother was a gospel singer and the family’s shortwave radio filled the house with music from around the world. The younger Henry loved jazz, world music, blues and folk and took piano, clarinet, trombone and harmonica lessons while still in grammar school.
In the 50s the family moved to the college town of Springfield, Massachusetts. In 1953 Henry, Sr. was killed in an accident; his mother remarried. Young Henry picked up his step-father’s guitar when he was 13, inspired by a next door neighbor is own age, Lynwood Perry who was the nephew Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup. Perry taught him how to play songs by Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Lee Hooker and Jimmy Reed. Slowly music took over young Henry’s life, and after a prophetic dream in 1959, he changed his name to Taj Mahal.
Mahal worked as a farm foreman, getting up at 4 am to work before attending classes at the University of Massachusetts. He started a popular party band Taj Mahal & The Elektras, stopped farming, and on graduation moved to Santa Monica to become a musician. In 1964 he started The Rising Sons with fellow musical junkie Ry Cooder. It was one of the first integrated bands in LA and quickly made a name for itself as an eclectic blues unit. The signed with Columbia Records and made an album, The Rising Sons, but the powers that be at Columbia decided that they couldn’t market an integrated band and the set went unreleased for almost 30 years. (Columbia Legacy released it as The Rising Sons with Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder in 1992.) Luckily, Columbia kept Mahal on the label after The Rising Sons splintered, and his first three albums, the electric Taj Mahal (1967 Columbia) with Ry Cooder, the acoustic De Ole Folks at Home ((967 Columbia), The Natch'l Blues (1968 Columbia) and Giant Step (1969 Columbia), were hits, staples in hippie homes and widely played on FM radio. His laid back charisma and brilliant musicianship made him a top act, both solo and with his various bands.
In the 1970s, Mahal created his own singular style by combining the blues and various international styles and had hits with Happy To be Just Like I Am (1971 Columbia), Recycling the Blues and Other Related Stuff (1972 Columbia), the soundtrack to the movie Sounder (1973 Columbia), and Mo' Roots (1974 Columbia). After moving to Warner brother he got even more adventurous: Brothers (1977 Warner) is the Caribbean flavored soundtrack for a film about prison activists The Soledad Brothers, Music Fuh Ya (Musique para tu) (1977 Warner) combines calypso and blues, and Evolution (The Most Recent) (1978 Warner) fuses Caribbean, New Orleans and Chicago grooves.
In the 80s he moved to Hawaii and cut back on touring and recording to study Hawaiian music, but he did make Taj (1987 Gramavision), which shared his love of Hawaiian music with his fans and the children’s albums Shake Sugaree (1988 Music for Little People) and Peace Is the World Smiling (1989 Music for Little People).
Mahal returned to a hectic touring and recording schedule in the 90s writing scores for films and plays and getting deeper into world music. Like Never Before (1991 Private Music) went back to a more rootsy blues sound, Mule Bone (1991 Gramavision) was the score he wrote for the Langston Hughes/Zora Neale Hurston play of the same name, Dancing the Blues (1993 Private Music), an R&B flavored set tat lived up to its name and included strong vocals by Etta James, Phantom Blues (1996), with guests Bonnie Raitt and Eric Clapton helping out, An Evening of Acoustic Music (1996 Ruf Germany) a solo set that gets down to the basics and Señor Blues (1997 Private Music) which took home a Best Contemporary Blues Album Grammy.
In the 90s he also made three great albums of world/blues fusion: Mumtaz Mahal (1995 Waterlily Acoustics) which featured classical Indian musicians N. Ravikiran on veena and V.M. Bhatt on mohan veena, a slide guitar/veena hybrid, Sacred Island (1998 Private Music) his first album with his Hula Blues band playing slack key style blues, and Kulanjan (1999 Hannibal) which finds Mahal sitting in with kora master Toumani Diabaté and his band of acoustic players from Mali.
Mahal has toured heavily throughout the 2000s, but hasn’t made that many trips to the studio. His most recent albums are the Grammy winning (Best Contemporary Blues Album) Shoutin' in Key: Taj Mahal & the Phantom Blues Band Live (2000 Hannibal) which captures his electric band laying down a blend of jazz, soul, Latin, funk and soul, Hanapepe Dream (2003 Tone Cool) with the Hula Blues Band playing blues, reggae, soul, jazz, African and folk music, Mkutano (2005 Tradition & Moderne France) a collaboration with Zanzibar’s Culture Musical Club and Maestro (2008 Heads Up) a celebration of his 40th year in the business with party guests Ziggy Marley, Los Lobos, Ben Harper, Angélique Kidjo and Toumani Diabaté. Columbia is the only label to tend to Mahal’s back catalogue with any regularity. Good compilations include Taj's Blues (1992 Columbia/ Legacy), World Music (1993 Columbia) and The Essential Taj Mahal (2005 Columbia).