Real name: Henry St. Clair Fredericks.
Born: May 17, 1942 in New York, NY.
Styles: Contemporary Blues, Folk-Blues, Electric Country Blues, Modern Acoustic Blues, Blues.
Instruments: Slide Guitar, Vocals, Piano, Harmonica, Guitar, Bass, Banjo
One of the most prominent figures in late 20th century blues, singer/multi-instrumentalist Taj Mahal played an enormous role in revitalizing and preserving traditional acoustic blues. Not content to stay within that realm, Mahal soon broadened his approach, taking a musicologist's interest in a multitude of folk and roots music from around the world - reggae and other Caribbean folk, jazz, gospel, R&B, zydeco, various West African styles, Latin, even Hawaiian. The African-derived heritage of most of those forms allowed Mahal to explore his own ethnicity from a global perspective and to present the blues as part of a wider musical context. Yet while he dabbled in many different genres, he never strayed too far from his laid-back country blues foundation. Blues purists naturally didn't have much use for Mahal's music and according to some of his other detractors, his multi-ethnic fusions sometimes came off as indulgent, or overly self-conscious and academic. Still, Mahal's concept seemed somewhat vindicated in the '90s, when a cadre of young bluesmen began to follow his lead - both acoustic revivalists (Keb' Mo', Guy Davis) and eclectic bohemians (Corey Harris, Alvin Youngblood Hart).
Taj Mahal was born Henry St. Clair Fredericks in New York on May 17, 1942. His parents - his father a jazz pianist/composer/arranger of Jamaican descent, his mother a schoolteacher from South Carolina who sang gospel - moved to Springfield, MA, when he was quite young and while growing up there, he often listened to music from around the world on his father's short-wave radio. He particularly loved the blues - both acoustic and electric - and early rock & rollers like Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. While studying agriculture and animal husbandry at the University of Massachusetts, he adopted the musical alias Taj Mahal (an idea that came to him in a dream) and formed Taj Mahal & the Elektras, which played around the area during the early '60s. After graduating, Mahal moved to Los Angeles in 1964 and, after making his name on the local folk-blues scene, formed the Rising Sons with guitarist Ry Cooder. The group signed to Columbia and released one single, but the label didn't quite know what to make of their forward-looking blend of Americana, which anticipated a number of roots rock fusions that would take shape in the next few years; as such, the album they recorded sat on the shelves, unreleased until 1992.
Frustrated, Mahal left the group and wound up staying with Columbia as a solo artist. His self-titled debut was released in early 1968 and its stripped-down approach to vintage blues sounds made it unlike virtually anything else on the blues scene at the time. It came to be regarded as a classic of the '60s blues revival, as did its follow-up, Natch'l Blues. The half-electric, half-acoustic double-LP set Giant Step followed in 1969 and taken together, those three records built Mahal's reputation as an authentic yet unique modern-day bluesman, gaining wide exposure and leading to collaborations or tours with a wide variety of prominent rockers and bluesmen. During the early '70s, Mahal's musical adventurousness began to take hold; 1971's Happy Just to Be Like I Am heralded his fascination with Caribbean rhythms and the following year's double-live set, The Real Thing, added a New Orleans-flavored tuba section to several tunes. In 1973, Mahal branched out into movie soundtrack work with his compositions for Sounder and the following year he recorded his most reggae-heavy outing, Mo' Roots.
Mahal continued to record for Columbia through 1976, upon which point he switched to Warner Bros.; he recorded three albums for that label, all in 1977 (including a soundtrack for the film Brothers). Changing musical climates, however, were decreasing interest in Mahal's work and he spent much of the '80s off record, eventually moving to Hawaii to immerse himself in another musical tradition. Mahal returned in 1987 with Taj, an album issued by Gramavision that explored this new interest; the following year, he inaugurated a string of successful, well-received children's albums with Shake Sugaree. The next few years brought a variety of side projects, including a musical score for the lost Langston Hughes/Zora Neale Hurston play Mule Bone that earned Mahal a Grammy nomination in 1991. The same year marked Mahal's full-fledged return to regular recording and touring, kicked off with the first of a series of well-received albums on the Private Music label, Like Never Before. Follow-ups, such as Dancing the Blues (1993) and Phantom Blues (1996), drifted into more rock, pop, and R&B-flavored territory; in 1997, Mahal won a Grammy for Senor Blues. Meanwhile, he undertook a number of small-label side projects that constituted some of his most ambitious forays into world music. 1995's Mumtaz Mahal teamed him with classical Indian musicians; 1998's Sacred Island was recorded with his new Hula Blues Band, exploring Hawaiian music in greater depth; 1999's Kulanjan was a duo performance with Malian kora player Toumani Diabate. Maestro appeared in 2008 from Heads Up Records.
- Steve Huey (All Music Guide)
In Progress & In Motion
For more than 30 years, Taj Mahal has delighted fans with his effortless and eclectic blending of musical styles. He is a master of finger-picking country blues, bluegrass banjo, slide guitar, southern blues, soul, and R&B, reggae, music of Hawaii, the Caribbean, and beyond, and more. His influences and abilities are seemingly endless and his energy to share and perform is equally as deep.
Emerging from the folk music scene of the early 1960's, Taj established himself as an artist who knew no boundaries. Along the way, he played a pivotal role in the mid-'60s blues revival and went on to make his mark in the worlds of rock, soul, world, contemporary blues and even soundtracks. Always looking forward with an understanding of and respect for the past, Taj Mahal has made not a just a career, but a life of searching out and exploring new musical territory.
With his unmistakable and unique voice, talent that can not be learned, and a spirit which keeps him in a state of perpetual artistic growth and evolution, Taj Mahal has always, and will always play music that he loves. For that, he continues to pull fans, new and old, from every conceivable walk of life and continues to open our eyes to all that the art of music can be.
Now, for the first time, a comprehensive collection of the diverse and exquisite work of Taj Mahal's recorded legacy are available in one package- In Progress & In Motion (1965-1998).
The Senor Blues Bio
Ask anyone who knows him, and they'll tell you; Taj Mahal is a family man. Of course, we're talking about the family of great African-American musical traditions - blues, folk, R&B, zyedeco, gospel, jazz - all of which define the very character of music in this country. For Taj, music may have a gullah dialect, a Caribbean lilt, or an urban growl. But whatever the accent, over the course of his peerless thirty-five year career, Taj has remained one of our premiere troubadours, revealing in every performance the souls of black folk. His new Private Music album, Senor Blues, is the latest from the manic street preacher of American roots music.
"This album expands on a concept I started three albums ago," says Taj of his ambitious vision on Senor Blues. "It basically aims to reestablish certain foundational types of music that underlie what's going on today. They are the source from which many young people draw much of their inspiration." That's true not only for young people, but for Taj himself, whose very sustenance seems to come from the music he sings.
Senor Blues kicks off with the hypnotic, folk-flavored "Queen Bee," a Taj Mahal original recorded by the artist once before in the 70's with his International Rhythm Band. James Brown's hyper-syncopated funk classic "Think," follows, as does "Irresistible You," an infectious party track originated by New Orleans keyboardist Bobby Peterson back in the 50's. Taj turns Delbert McClinton's "Real Bad Day" into a smoky blues anthem, then stretches dramatically with the title track, Horace Silver's cool jazz classic that Taj and his ensemble of players pull off with panache. "Since the 70's, I've moved more to where jazz is," says Taj. "This song gives me an opportunity to reach into something else."
"Sophisticated Mama" is a rockin' and rollin' gem Taj first heard on an album by revered R&B pioneer Washboard Sam, while "Crazy Up In Here," a rousing gospel/dance number, is pure church. T-Bone Walker fans will appreciate Taj's sizzling blues rendition of "I Miss You Baby," while "You Rascal You" (with a Louis Jordan jump vibe), once recorded by Louis Armstrong in the 20's, reflects many cross-currents, from ska to big band swing. A relatively unknown Hank Williams composition, "Mind Your Own Business" points up the underlying links between blues, country, and folk, with Taj playing it like a New Orleans blues stomper. Taj's own "21st Century Gypsy Singin' Lover Man" is a Muscle Shoals-style R&B ballad, while "At Last" is a joyously upbeat version of the early Motown hit by Marvin Gaye. The album closes with "Mr. Pitiful," another 60's classic, originally performed by the late great Otis Redding, and a featured song on the soundtrack to the New Line Cinema release, Trial & Error.
Senor Blues brings to 36 the number of albums Taj Mahal has recorded over his storied career-six of which were Grammy-nominated. However, his personal passion for music goes back to his earliest days. The oldest of nine children, Taj Mahal (born Henry Saint Claire Fredericks) grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts, in a home filled with music. His mother was a gospel-singing school teacher, and his father a Jamaican composer/arranger and avid jazz fan. "My father had this old Firestone radio with a short-wave band. I could listen to London, Rio, Havana, Kingston, Moscow ?all around the world, and I could hear people's souls through their music." As an adolescent, Taj explored the roots of American blues and other forms of music filtered through the black experience in America. He idolized such pioneers as Jimmy Reed, Howlin' Wolf, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Big Mama Thornton, Sleepy John Estes, Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, Sonny Terry, and other masters. During 1961-63, he had an R&B band called Taj Mahal and the Elektras and was performing in Boston coffeehouses and college mixers. After earning his degree in agriculture and animal husbandry from the University of Massachusetts in 1964, he emerged professionally the following year as co-founder with guitarist Ry Cooder of The Rising Sons. This led to a recording contract for Taj, who quickly rose to prominence with his first solo albums, Taj Mahal (1968), The Natch'l Blues (1968), and Giant Step (1969).
Over subsequent years, Taj toured, recorded and/or performed with other great artists, including Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, B.B.King, John Lee Hooker, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Sheryl Crow, Bob Marley, the Pointer Sisters, the Neville Brothers and the Rolling Stones. In 1968, Taj was a featured guest in the Rolling Stones' Rock And Roll Circus - a remarkable event, which was released on video and record for the first time after an almost 30-year wait, that showcased the cream of the music community including John Lennon, George Harrison, Jethro Tull, The Who, and Marianne Faithfull.
A self-taught musician, Taj plays over 20 instruments, including the National Steel and Dobro guitars, and his remarkable voice ranges from gruff and gravelly to smooth and sultry. His music remains a well-seasoned gumbo, spiced with influences that originate in the Caribbean, West Africa, the southern states, and the inner-cities of America.
In addition to his regular work, Taj has acted in films and composed motion picture scores. Among the esteemed titles he has been associated with are Phenomenon, The Mighty Quinn, Once Upon A Time When We Were Colored, Sounder I and II, The Man Who Broke A Thousand Chains, Scott Joplin - King of Ragtime and the Wynton Marsalis-scored Pulitzer Prize winning epic, Rosewood. He also wrote the Grammy-nominated score for the Broadway production Mule Bone, based on a play by Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. Taj has also recorded several Grammy-nominated children's albums and provided voices for popular cartoon characters, such as "Sage," from the forthcoming animated series, The Blues Brothers.
When Taj manages to find some free time, he can be found fishing, gardening (organically, of course), smoking Matacan "Maduro" cigars, or in the kitchen cooking up some spicy dish. He is an avid reader of philosophy, and is fluent in five languages. He also makes time to respond to his website e-mail. A true Renaissance man, Taj Mahal is a cyclone of energy and sound. Most important to him is to pass down the vital traditions of the past. Based on the glories heard on Senor Blues, it's safe to say Taj Mahal is fulfilling his mission.