Born: May 17, 1942 in New York NY
One of the boldest and most eclectic of blues musicians, Taj Mahal has become a legend by following his unique vision. Influenced by country blues and early rock & roll singers like Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, Mahal began his career as a folkie before moving into R&B and the blues.
Over the better than four decades of his career, Mahal has dabbled in acoustic blues, rock, folk, jazz, gospel, reggae, various African styles of music, even traditional Caribbean styles on better than 40 recordings. His uncompromising style and dignity has influenced blues artists as diverse as Keb' Mo', Alvin Youngblood Hart, and Corey Harris.
The Making of Taj Mahal
Taj Mahal was born Henry St. Clair Fredericks in New York City. The young Fredericks grew up in a musical household, his father a jazz musician of Jamaican ancestry and his mother a schoolteacher and gospel singer from South Carolina. The family moved to Springfield, Massachusetts when Fredericks was young.
Fascinated by the music he heard from around the world on his father's shortwave radio, Fredericks began play folk music in his early teens. While attending the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, he took on the "Taj Mahal" name, which came to him in a dream, and fronted an R&B band, the Elektras. He gravitated to Boston, performing coffee-houses and area colleges on the folk music circuit.
Los Angeles & the Rising Sons
After college, Mahal moved to Los Angeles in 1964 and quickly made a name for himself on the city's folk scene. Meeting talented guitarist Ry Cooder, who was also interested in the blues and traditional roots music, the two musicians formed the Rising Sons, which became a popular band on the fledgling L.A. folk-rock scene.
Signed to Columbia Records, the Rising Sons released one single and recorded a full-length album. Alarmed by the band's prescient vision of Americana music, however, the label dropped the band and the album remained unreleased until 1992. Dissatisfied with the band's lack of success, Mahal dropped out to pursue a solo career.
Recognizing Mahal's unique talent, Columbia offered him a solo deal and released his self-titled debut album in 1968. The album's original interpretation of vintage blues was universally praised, and Mahal followed it up with two more blues music collections: The Natch'l Blues (also 1968) and the ambitions two-album, half-electric-blues/half-acoustic-blues set Giant Step (1969).
The Many Faces of Taj Mahal
It didn't take Taj Mahal long to begin experimenting outside of his familiar blues sound. The musician's interest in Caribbean music was rewarded with the acclaimed 1971 album Happy Just To Be Like I Am. During the early-1970s, Mahal toured with rock bands and blues artists alike, and in 1972 he appeared in, and wrote the soundtrack music for the film Sounder.
Mahal explored his interest in reggae music with 1974's Mo' Roots, and would move to Warner Brothers Records in the mid-70s. He continued to compose film music, recording music for the 1977 movie Brothers and the 1991 Broadway play Mule Bone. As trends in music changed with the coming of the 1980s, Mahal would sit most of the decade out, moving to Hawaii and reappearing with the musically diverse 1987 album Taj.
The Latter Years
During the late-1980s, Mahal also recorded a number of albums of children's songs, including the acclaimed Shake Sugaree in 1988. By 1991, the musician's comeback was in full-swing with the release of the Like Never Before album. Subsequent recordings ventured into rock, pop, R&B and soul territory, though his 1997 return to blues, Senor Blues, won the musician his first Grammy™ Award, a feat he duplicated with the live 2000 album Shoutin' in Key.
Mahal has continued his exploration of World Music through collaborations with other musicians, such as the 1995 album Mumtaz Mahal, recorded with Indian musicians, or 1999's Kulanjan, recorded with African master musician Toumani Diabate. Mahal always returns to the blues, however, and his 2008 release Maestro is an acclaimed collection of blues, R&B, and soul with guest appearances by musicians like Ben Harper, Los Lobos, Ziggy Marley, and Angelique Kidjo.
Recommended Albums: Taj Mahal's self-titled 1968 debut is a great place to start, but the two-CD, Blues Music Award-winning collection The Essential Taj Mahal features 36 stellar tracks taken from across the entire length of Mahal's storied career.