Taj Mahal is 81 years old today
Taj Mahal, Carnegie Hall, New York City, 2012
Photo by Frank Beacham
Henry Saint Clair Fredericks — better known as Taj Mahal — is 81 years old today.
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.
Born in Harlem, Mahal grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts. Raised in a musical environment, his mother was the member of a local gospel choir and his father was a West Indian jazz arranger and piano player. His family owned a shortwave radio which received music broadcasts from around the world — exposing him at an early age to world music.
Early in childhood, he recognized the stark differences between the popular music of his day and the music that was played in his home. He also became interested in jazz, enjoying the works of musicians such as Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk and Milt Jackson.
His parents came of age during the Harlem Renaissance, instilling in their son a sense of pride in his West Indian and African ancestry through their stories. Because his father was a musician, his house was frequently the host of other musicians from the Caribbean, Africa and the United States. His father, Henry Saint Clair Fredericks Sr., was called "The Genius" by Ella Fitzgerald before starting his family.
Early on, Henry Jr. developed an interest in African music, which he studied assiduously as a young man. His parents also encouraged him to pursue music, starting him out with classical piano lessons. He also studied the clarinet, trombone and harmonica.
When Mahal was eleven, his father was killed in an accident at his own construction company, crushed by a tractor when it flipped over. This was an extremely traumatic experience for the boy.
Mahal's mother later remarried. His stepfather owned a guitar which Taj began using at age 13 or 14, receiving his first lessons from a new neighbor from North Carolina of his own age that played acoustic blues guitar. His name was Lynwood Perry, the nephew of the famous bluesman Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup. In high school, Mahal sang in a doo-wop group.
For some time, Mahal thought of pursuing farming over music. He had developed a passion for farming that nearly rivaled his love of music — coming to work on a farm first at age 16. It was a dairy farm in Palmer, Massachusetts, not far from Springfield.
By 19, he had become farm foreman, getting up a bit after 4:00 a.m. and running the place. "I milked anywhere between thirty-five and seventy cows a day. I clipped udders. I grew corn. I grew Tennessee redtop clover. Alfalfa."
Mahal believes in growing one's own food, saying, "you have a whole generation of kids who think everything comes out of a box and a can, and they don't know you can grow most of your food." Because of his personal support of the family farm, Mahal regularly performs at Farm Aid concerts.
Taj Mahal, his stage name, came to him in dreams about Gandhi, India and social tolerance. He started using it in 1959 or 1961 — around the same time he began attending the University of Massachusetts.
Despite having attended a vocational agriculture school, becoming a member of the National FFA Organization and majoring in animal husbandry and minoring in veterinary science and agronomy, Mahal decided to take the route of music instead of farming.
In college, he led a rhythm and blues band called Taj Mahal & The Elektras and, before heading for the West Coast, he was also part of a duo with Jessie Lee Kincaid.
In 1964, he moved to Santa Monica, California, and formed Rising Sons with fellow blues musician Ry Cooder and Jessie Lee Kincaid, landing a record deal with Columbia Records soon after. The group was one of the first interracial bands of the period, which likely made them commercially unviable.
An album was never released (though a single was) and the band soon broke up, though Legacy Records did release The Rising Sons Featuring Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder in 1993 with material from that period. During this period, Mahal was working with musicians like Howlin' Wolf, Buddy Guy, Lightnin' Hopkins and Muddy Waters.
He stayed with Columbia after The Rising Sons to begin his solo career, releasing the self-titled Taj Mahal in 1968, The Natch'l Blues in 1969 and Giant Step/De Old Folks at Home with Kiowa session musician Jesse Ed Davis from Oklahoma, who played guitar and piano (also in 1969).
During this time, he and Cooder worked with The Rolling Stones, with whom he has performed at various times throughout his career. In 1968, he performed in the film, The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus. He recorded a total of twelve albums for Columbia Records 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 wrote the film score for the movie, Sounder, which starred Cicely Tyson. In the 1990s, he was on the Private Music label, releasing albums full of blues, pop, R&B and rock. He did collaborative works both with Eric Clapton and Etta James.
In 1998, in collaboration with renowned songwriter David Forman, producer Rick Chertoff and musicians Cyndi Lauper, Willie Nile, Joan Osborne, Rob Hyman, Garth Hudson and Levon Helm of The Band and The Chieftains, he performed on the Americana album Largo based on the music of Antonín Dvořák.
Mahal leads with his thumb and middle finger when fingerpicking, rather than with his index finger as the majority of guitar players do. "I play with a flatpick, when I do a lot of blues leads," he said.
Throughout his career, Mahal has performed his brand of blues (an African-American art form) for a predominantly white audience. This has been a disappointment at times for Mahal, who recognizes there is a general lack of interest in blues music among many African-Americans today.
He has drawn a parallel comparison between the blues and rap music in that they both were initially black forms of music that have come to be assimilated into the mainstream of society. Mahal also believes that some people may think the blues are about wallowing in negativity and despair, a position he disagrees with.
"You can listen to my music from front to back, and you don't ever hear me moaning and crying about how bad you done treated me,” he said. “I think that style of blues and that type of tone was something that happened as a result of many white people feeling very, very guilty about what went down."