Date of birth : 1942-05-17
Date of death : -
Birthplace : Harlem, New York City, U.S.
Nationality : American
Category : Arts and Entertainment
Last modified : 2012-02-17
Henry Saint Clair Fredericks, who uses the stage name Taj Mahal, is an American Grammy Award winning blues musician. He incorporates elements of world music into his music. A self-taught singer-songwriter and film composer who plays the guitar, banjo and harmonica (among many other instruments), Mahal has done much to reshape the definition and scope of blues music over the course of his almost 50 year career by fusing it with nontraditional forms, including sounds from the Caribbean, Africa and the South Pacific.
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."
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.
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.
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."
1968 - Taj Mahal
1968 - The Natch'l Blues
1969 - Giant Step/De Ole Folks at Home
1971 - Happy Just to Be Like I Am
1972 - Recycling The Blues & Other Related Stuff
1973 - Oooh So Good 'n Blues
1974 - Mo' Roots
1975 - Music Keeps Me Together
1976 - Satisfied 'N Tickled Too
1976 - Music Fuh Ya' (Musica Para Tu)
1977 - Brothers (Soundtrack)
1977 - Evolution (The Most Recent)
1987 - Taj
1988 - Shake Sugaree
1991 - Mule Bone
1991 - Like Never Before
1993 - Dancing the Blues
1995 - Mumtaz Mahal (with V.M. Bhatt and N. Ravikiran)
1996 - Phantom Blues
1997 - Señor Blues
1998 - Sacred Island aka Hula Blues (with The Hula Blues Band)
1999 - Kulanjan (with Toumani Diabaté)
2000 - Hanapepe Dream
2005 - Mkutano Meets the Culture Musical Club of Zanzibar
2008 - Maestro
View the full website biography of Taj Mahal.