Born Henry Saint Claire Fredericks on May 17, 1942, in New York, NY; son of Henry Saint Claire Fredericks (a musician and musical arranger) and Mildred Shields (a school teacher); married Inshirah Geter, January 23, 1976; children: Aya, Taj, Gahmelah, Ahmen, Deva, Nani. Education: University of Massachusetts, BA, 1964. Addresses: Record company--Sony Records, 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022-3211, website: http://www.sonymusic.com/. Website--Taj Mahal Official Website: http://www.taj-mo-roots.com/.
Taj Mahal has spent more than 40 years exploring the roots and branches of the blues. Grounded in the acoustic pre-war blues sound but drawn to the eclectic sounds of world music, he revitalized a dying tradition and prepared the way for a new generation of blues men and women. While many African Americans shunned older musical styles during the 1960s, Mahal immersed himself in the roots of his past. "I was interested in the music because I felt something [got] lost in that transition of blacks trying to assimilate into society," he told Art Tipaldi in Blues Review. He had no intention of repeating what had come before, however, and drew deeply from the wells of the ethnic music of Africa, South America, and the Caribbean. "Mahal began as a blues interpreter," noted Ira Mayer in the New Rolling Stone Record Guide, "but his music has since encompassed rock, traditional Appalachian sounds, jazz, calypso, reggae, and a general tendency toward experimentation and assimilation."
Absorbed European and African Influences
Mahal was born Henry Saint Claire Fredericks in New York City in 1942. His father, who had emigrated from the Caribbean, wrote arrangements for Benny Goodman and played piano. His mother, Mildred Shields, had taught school in South Carolina. "Even though I have Southern and Caribbean roots, my background also crossed with indigenous European and African influences," Mahal told John Ephland in Down Beat. "My parents introduced me to gospel, spiritual singing, to Ella, Sarah, Mahalia Jackson, Ray Charles." Mahal also listened to music from around the world on his father's short-wave radio, and developed a love for blues artists like Leadbelly and Lightnin' Hopkins, and early rock-n-rollers like Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley.
Mahal's family moved when he was a young boy and he grew up in Massachusetts. Tipaldi wrote, "Growing up in Springfield, Mass., Mahal was a rarity--a young African American who immersed himself in the study of his cultural heritage." At age 11 he witnessed the death of his father in a farming accident, but he found solace in music. When his mother remarried, he discovered his stepfather's guitar in the basement and learned to play it with a broken comb. He also took lessons from Lynnwood Perry and absorbed the radio sounds of jazz players like Illinois Jacquet and Ben Webster. Although he is primarily known as a guitarist, Mahal mastered an arsenal of instruments including piano, banjo, mandolin, and harmonica.
Mahal studied agriculture and animal husbandry at the University of Massachusetts. A dream inspired him to change his name from Fredericks, and he formed Taj Mahal and the Elektras in the early 1960s. "I was lucky enough to have my ideas coincide with the '60s and the resurgence of the blues," Mahal told Curt Wozniak in the Grand Rapids Press. He attended the Newport Folk Festival in the early 1960s to witness the folk and blues revival first hand. The opportunity to watch traditional blues players perform and meet the artists in person reinforced his decision to play acoustic guitar.
Authentic Yet Unique Musical Course
After graduating in 1964 Mahal moved to Los Angeles and formed the Rising Sons with Ry Cooder. The group signed with Columbia, but the label was unsure how to market the eclectic group. In Turn! Turn! Turn!, Richie Unterberger declared that "their eclecticism was unmatched on the L.A. scene, with a repertoire including electrified country blues and traditional folk tunes." Although the Rising Sons released one single, the rest of the band's recorded material remained locked away in Columbia's vaults until 1992.
After the Rising Sons broke up, Mahal remained with Columbia and recorded his self-titled debut album, Taj Mahal. The album "was a startling statement in its time and has held up remarkably well," according to Bruce Eder in All Music Guide. The follow-up album, The Natch'l Blues, was equally well received. Mahal, however, soon revealed his penchant for going his own way, recording the half electric, half acoustic double album Giant Step in 1969. "Those three records built Mahal's reputation as an authentic yet unique modern-day bluesman," praised Steve Huey in All Music Guide.
Mahal continued to explore new directions in the 1970s. Happy Just to Be Like I Am surveyed Caribbean rhythms, while The Real Thing added New Orleans tuba. In 1973 he recorded the soundtrack for the movie Sounder, and the following year released Mo' Roots, an album heavily influenced by reggae. In 1976 Mahal left Columbia for Warner Brothers, where he recorded three albums in 1977 alone.
Became Grammy Winner
After remaining relatively silent through much of the 1980s, Mahal recorded the well-received Taj in 1987. He then released Shake Sugaree, the first of several children's albums, and recorded a musical score for Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston's lost play, Mule Bone, for which he received a Grammy nomination. He signed with Private Music and released Dancing the Blues in 1993 and Phantom Blues in 1996. "Mahal is a fine interpreter," declared Roberta Penn in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "breezy and light on love tunes, righteous and randy on cheatin' songs, and soulful and shouting on the dance numbers." Phantom Blues also included high-profile guest appearances by guitarist Eric Clapton and singer Bonnie Raitt. Mahal told Jim McGuinness in the Bergen County, New Jersey, Record, "The album is designed to go down some familiar trails, but to look at new things." In 1997 he won a Grammy for Señor Blues.
Mahal's next music project grew out of his 15-year residency in Hawaii during the 1980s and 1990s. Joining with the Hula Blues Band, he recorded Sacred Island in 1998, and followed it with Taj Mahal and the Hula Blues the same year and Hanapepe Dream in 2003. The latter album included unusual versions of Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" and John Hurt's "Stagger Lee." "My approach to the blues," Mahal told Andrew S. Hughes in the South Bend Tribune, "is more universal and inclusive as opposed to exclusive." Hanapepe Dream would also be the first of his albums to be released on his on label, Kan-Du. He started the label, he told Hughes, "as a place for young talent to come in ... a place where I can have a lot more control over what it is that I do musically." Mahal also received several acting roles in popular films, including the Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood in 2002 and Killer Diller in 2004.
If the mixing of genres such as blues, Zydeco, gospel, and Latin music seems natural today, it is because of pioneers like Mahal. He opened up myriad possibilities for young artists who wanted to expand their musical palette beyond traditional blues. Robert Christgau wrote in the Village Voice, "In the '90s, Guy Davis, Keb' Mo', Corey Harris, and Alvin Youngblood Hart, all flowing out of the surge in cultural consciousness that ensued as the offspring of the civil rights generation came into their own, prove Taj Mahal a prophet."
While proud of his accomplishments, Mahal has remained more interested in pursuing current projects. He has recorded more than 25 albums and traveled throughout the world, continuing to explore new musical veins, playing as many as 200 dates a year, and releasing a steady stream of albums. Allan Orski noted in MusicHound Folk, "Whether he's with a full band playing pop arrangements or stripped-down roots, Mahal has asserted himself ... as a keeper of the faith and a still vital force that continues to roam past musical boundaries."
by Ronnie D. Lankford Jr
Taj Mahal's Career
Performing and recording artist, 1964-; joined Rising Sons, mid-1960s; composed soundtracks beginning with Sounder, 1973; wrote music for the play Mule Bone, 1991; worked with classical Indian musicians to record Mumtaz Mahal, 1995; explored Hawaiian music on Sacred Island, 1998, and teamed with Malian kora player Tourmani Diabate on Kulanjan, 1998; headlined at Firefly Festival for the Performing Arts' Family Fest, 2003.
Taj Mahal's Awards
Grammy Award, Best Contemporary Blues Album for Señor Blues, 1997; Grammy Award, Best Contemporary Blues Album for Shoutin' in Key: Taj Mahal and the Phantom Blues Band Live, 2000.
- Selected discography
- Taj Mahal Columbia, 1968.
- The Natch'l Blues Columbia, 1968.
- Giant Steps Columbia, 1969.
- Happy Just to Be Like I Am Columbia, 1971.
- Mo' Roots Columbia, 1974.
- Taj Gramavision, 1987.
- Shake Sugaree Music for Little People, 1988.
- Taj's Blues Columbia, 1992.
- Señor Blues Private Music, 1997.
- Sacred Island Private Music, 1998.
- Kulanjan Hannibal, 1999.
- Shoutin' in Key: Taj Mahal and the Phantom Blues Band Live Hannibal, 2000.
- Hanapepe Dream Tone Cool, 2003.
- Take a Giant Step BMG, 2004.
- Marsh, Dave, and John Swenson, editors, New Rolling Stone Record Guide, Random House, 1983.
- Unterberger, Richie, Turn! Turn! Turn!, Backbeat, 2002.
- Walters, Neal, and Brian Mansfield, editors, MusicHound Folk, Visible Ink, 1998.
- Blues Revue, April 2000, p. 11.
- Down Beat, November 1999, p. 42.
- Grand Rapids Press, August 27, 2002, p. B4.
- Knoxville News-Sentinel, February 5, 2004, p. B3.
- Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, January 24, 2003, p. 21E.
- Record (Bergen County, NJ), April 5, 1996, p. 3.
- Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 29, 1996, p. 8.
- South Bend Tribune, June 20, 2003.
- Village Voice, September 15, 1998.
- "Taj Mahal," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (August 13, 2004).