Wikipedia: “Henry Saint Clair Fredericks who uses the stage name Taj Mahal, is an American blues musician, a singer-songwriter and film composer who plays the guitar, piano, banjo, harmonica, and many other instruments.
He often incorporates elements of world music into his works and has done much to reshape the definition and scope of blues music over the course of his more than 50-year career by fusing it with nontraditional forms, including sounds from the Caribbean, Africa, and the South Pacific.”
Taj was born in Harlem and grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts some 90m. (144km) southwest of Boston. (On February 8, 2006, Taj Mahal was designated the official Blues Artist of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.)
I first became aware of Taj when I was in my first year of college. I used to hang out with a group that included a couple of girls named Ronnie. I used to try to figure out which one I was gonna sleep with but as it turns out, they had other plans and so, alas, neither. One of the Ronnie’s had a brother who was a rock critic for either Creem or Rolling Stone, I forget. He used to bring her copies of records and one of them was called Natch’l Blues.
It wasn’t my first introduction to the blues but it may have been my first real introduction to country blues. Did I like it? Yeah. But I can’t say I was blown away by it at the time. Given the choice, nine times out of ten I’ll pick electric blues. But I certainly know where the electric blues came from.
Players on that 1968 album included the ubiquitous Al Kooper, drummer Earl Palmer who played with – among others – Little Richard and is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And native American guitarist Jesse Ed Davis.
From that album is one of my favorites, “She Caught the Katy (And Left Me a Mule to Ride.)” I couldn’t make heads or tails of this title but it turns out the “Katy” refers to the Missouri–Kansas–Texas Railroad. (The KT).
Jesse Ed is notable not only in his own right but also because, famously, Gregg Allman brought brother Duane a birthday present of Taj’s debut album and a bottle of Coricidin pills for an injury. “About two hours after I left, my phone rang,” Gregg recalled. “‘Baby brother, baby brother, get over here now!'”
Duane had poured the pills out of the Coricidin bottle, washed off the label, and was using it as a slide to play along with the album track “Statesboro Blues” (on the recording, the slide guitar is played by Jesse Ed Davis). “Duane had never played slide before,” Gregg later said, but “he just picked it up and started burnin’. He was a natural.”
From Taj’s debut album, “Statesboro Blues.”
As is typical of so many musicians I write about, Taj had a musical family. His mother was a member of a local gospel choir and his father was a West Indian jazz arranger and piano player. He was exposed to a lot of music and in addition to blues, he heard jazz artists like Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, and Milt Jackson.
Taj learned to play guitar, harmonica, and piano. He initially thought of being a farmer but soon turned his sights towards music. Seeking fame and fortune, he moved to California in 1964 and – fortuitously – met Ry Cooder with whom he formed a band called Rising Sons.
The band did some recording but could never find a contemporary sound that would sell. Sadly, their being an early interracial band didn’t help matters much. Although at that time, some in LA were wondering who would break first, the Sons or the Byrds. We know the answer.
Wonder what that sounds like? How about “If the River Was Whiskey (Diving Duck Blues).”
Even though his music wasn’t particularly commercial, Taj managed to carve a career out for himself. He kept releasing albums and even managed to play on the Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, possibly through his friendship with The Stones sometime collaborator Ry Cooder. Pete Townshend: “[The Stones} weren’t just usurped by The Who, they were also usurped by Taj Mahal – who was just, as always, extraordinary.”
Wikipedia: “Taj Mahal recorded a total of twelve albums for Columbia from the late 1960s into the 1970s. His work of the 1970s was especially important, in that his releases began incorporating West Indian and Caribbean music, jazz, and reggae into the mix. In 1972, he acted in and wrote the film score for the movie Sounder, which starred Cicely Tyson. He reprised his role and returned as composer in the sequel, Part 2, Sounder.”
Taj was nominated for a Grammy in 2008 for an album called Maestro. Guests on this album were Los Lobos, Ben Harper, Ziggy Marley, and on this tune, “Hello Josephine,” the New Orleans Social Club. This’ll make you tap your toes.
As fellow blogger Christian noted in a review a while back, Taj has recorded with fellow bluesman Keb’ Mo’ for some fine blues. Here’s a tune he singled out called “Don’t Leave Me Here.”
I saw Taj a couple of years ago at an Experience Hendrix show that was essentially a tribute with some heavy hitters. Thought I wrote about it but I can’t find it. He gave a shoutout to us Massholes and did his thing. Alive and kicking.
Taj Mahal has received three Grammy Awards (ten nominations) over his career.
- 1997 (Grammy Award) Best Contemporary Blues Album for Señor Blues
- 2000 (Grammy Award) Best Contemporary Blues Album for Shoutin’ in Key
- 2006 (Blues Music Awards) Historical Album of the Year for The Essential Taj Mahal
- 2008 (Grammy Nomination) Best Contemporary Blues Album for Maestro
- 2018 (Grammy Award) Best Contemporary Blues Album for TajMo
On May 22, 2011, Taj Mahal received an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree from Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He also made brief remarks and performed three songs.
In 2014, Taj Mahal received the Americana Music Association’s Lifetime Achievement award.