Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b Henry St Claire Fredericks, 17 May 1940, New York City) Singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, laid-back entertainer, and prolific recording artist who has explored the world's music without straying too far from the blues. His father was a West Indian jazz musician, his mother a gospel singer from North Carolina. The family moved to Springfield Massachuetts; he listened to music from around the world on his father's short-wave radio, and took up the guitar as a teenager. He obtained a degree in animal husbandry from the University of Massachusetts and began playing in coffee houses in 1964. He said the name ‘Taj Mahal’ came to him in a dream. He went to the west coast in 1965, and worked with Ry Cooder and Jesse Ed Davis in a group called Rising Sons. They recorded for Columbia; a single ‘Candy Man’/ ‘The Devil's Got My Woman’ was issued in 1966, but their album was not released until 1992. (Davis made three albums '71-3, and died in 1988.)

Taj then began to develop his eclecticism. He played with the white Blues band Canned Heat, and won a banjo-playing contest at a fiddlers' convention in 1967. His first album Taj Mahal: The Natch'l Blues '68 on Columbia reached the Billboard top 200 but his music was too original with its underlying sardonic humor to make a million-seller. Two-LP sets (a novelty then, fashionable for a while) Giant Step/De Ole Folks At Home '69 and The Real Thing '71 made the top 100 with a ragtime flavor; meanwhile he had toured Europe to acclaim. He wrote a song for the soundtrack of Sounder '71 and appeared in the film. More albums Happy To Be Just Like I Am and Recycling The Blues And Other Related Stuff '72, with the Pointer Sisters on two tracks of the latter, Oooh So Good 'n Blues, Mo' Roots and Music Keeps Me Together '73-5 charted low in the top 200 as the market for eclecticism in that era began to dry up.

He switched to Warner Brothers for Satisfied'n'Tickled Too and Music Fuh Ya' (Musica Para Tu) '77. His audience remained loyal and he continued to tour, often solo, and record steadily. More albums included Brothers '77 and Evolution (The Most Recent) '78 on WB; Taj Mahal And International Rhythm Band Live '79 on Crystal Clear (a high-tech LP recorded direct-to-disc, and subsequently on other labels, including a LaserLight CD), and Going Home back on Columbia, all in the early 1980s. Most of the Columbias have been continuously in print in the USA, selling steadily and proving (if proof were needed) that charts don't tell the whole story.

He had got tired of hearing his licks make money for white imitators and began searching for links between Blues and Afro-Caribbean musics. He later moved to Hawaii, adding the South Pacific to his art; meanwhile, he re-emerged on record to challenge what he called 'chocolate-covered-granola-bars music' with Taj '87, which featured among others Wayne Henderson on keyboards and African drummer Babatunde Olatunji, followed by Mule Bone '91, both on Gramavision. Don't Call Us '91 was on Atlantic. Like Never Before, Dancing The Blues (with Etta James), Phantom Blues (guests including Eric Clapton and Bonnie Raitt), Señor Blues (dusting off Horace Silver, Hank Williams, Otis Redding, etc) were all on Private Music 1991-8. Taj Mahal And The Hula Blues was on Traditional as he moved back to Los Angeles; Kulanjan and Shoutin' In Key were on Hannibal 2000-1, and Hanapepe Dream on Tone Cool. There have also been kiddie albums on Music For Little People and a set recorded live at Ronnie Scott's Club in London on Castle. The Essential Taj Mahal was a compilation of Columbia tracks from Sony in 2005.

He sees himself as a griot, a storyteller, awakening forgotten cultures, and nobody does it better. You never know what you're going to hear at a Taj gig, but it's always going to be interesting.