Taj Mahal In-depth Biography
One of the most prominent figures in late 20th century blues}, singer/multi-instrumentalist Taj Mahal} played an enormous role in revitalizing and preserving traditional acoustic blues}. Not content to stay within that realm, Mahal} soon broadened his approach, taking a musicologist's interest in a multitude of folk} and roots} music from around the world -- reggae} and other Caribbean folk}, jazz}, gospel}, R&B}, zydeco}, various West African styles, Latin}, even Hawaiian}. The African-derived heritage of most of those forms allowed Mahal} to explore his own ethnicity from a global perspective and to present the blues} as part of a wider musical context. Yet while he dabbled in many different genres, he never strayed too far from his laid-back country blues} foundation. Blues} purists naturally didn't have much use for Mahal}'s music and according to some of his other detractors, his multi-ethnic fusions sometimes came off as indulgent, or overly self-conscious and academic. Still, Mahal}'s concept seemed somewhat vindicated in the '90s, when a cadre of young bluesmen began to follow his lead -- both acoustic revivalists (Keb' Mo'}, Guy Davis}) and eclectic bohemians (Corey Harris}, Alvin Youngblood Hart}).
Taj Mahal} was born Henry St. Clair Fredericks} in New York on May 17, 1942. His parents -- his father a jazz} pianist/composer/arranger of Jamaican descent, his mother a schoolteacher from South Carolina who sang gospel} -- moved to Springfield, MA, when he was quite young and while growing up there, he often listened to music from around the world on his father's short-wave radio. He particularly loved the blues} -- both acoustic and electric -- and early rock & rollers like Chuck Berry} and Bo Diddley}. While studying agriculture and animal husbandry at the University of Massachusetts, he adopted the musical alias Taj Mahal} (an idea that came to him in a dream) and formed Taj Mahal & the Elektras}, which played around the area during the early '60s. After graduating, Mahal} moved to Los Angeles in 1964 and, after making his name on the local folk-blues} scene, formed the Rising Sons} with guitarist Ry Cooder}. The group signed to Columbia} and released one single, but the label didn't quite know what to make of their forward-looking blend of Americana}, which anticipated a number of roots rock} fusions that would take shape in the next few years; as such, the album they recorded sat on the shelves, unreleased until 1992.
Frustrated, Mahal} left the group and wound up staying with Columbia} as a solo artist. His self-titled debut was released in early 1968 and its stripped-down approach to vintage blues} sounds made it unlike virtually anything else on the blues} scene at the time. It came to be regarded as a classic of the '60s blues revival}, as did its follow-up, Natch'l Blues}. The half-electric, half-acoustic double-LP set Giant Step} followed in 1969 and taken together, those three records built Mahal}'s reputation as an authentic yet unique modern-day bluesman, gaining wide exposure and leading to collaborations or tours with a wide variety of prominent rockers and bluesmen. During the early '70s, Mahal}'s musical adventurousness began to take hold; 1971's Happy Just to Be Like I Am} heralded his fascination with Caribbean rhythms and the following year's double-live set, The Real Thing}, added a New Orleans-flavored tuba section to several tunes. In 1973, Mahal} branched out into movie soundtrack work with his compositions for Sounder} and the following year he recorded his most reggae}-heavy outing, Mo' Roots}.
Mahal} continued to record for Columbia} through 1976, upon which point he switched to Warner Bros.}; he recorded three albums for that label, all in 1977 (including a soundtrack for the film Brothers}). Changing musical climates, however, were decreasing interest in Mahal}'s work and he spent much of the '80s off record, eventually moving to Hawaii to immerse himself in another musical tradition. Mahal} returned in 1987 with Taj}, an album issued by Gramavision} that explored this new interest; the following year, he inaugurated a string of successful, well-received children's albums with Shake Sugaree}. The next few years brought a variety of side projects, including a musical score for the lost Langston Hughes}/Zora Neale Hurston} play Mule Bone} that earned Mahal} a Grammy nomination in 1991. The same year marked Mahal}'s full-fledged return to regular recording and touring, kicked off with the first of a series of well-received albums on the Private Music} label, Like Never Before}. Follow-ups, such as Dancing the Blues} (1993) and Phantom Blues} (1996), drifted into more rock}, pop}, and R&B}-flavored territory; in 1997, Mahal} won a Grammy for Señor Blues}. Meanwhile, he undertook a number of small-label side projects that constituted some of his most ambitious forays into world music}. 1995's Mumtaz Mahal} teamed him with classical} Indian musicians; 1998's Sacred Island} was recorded with his new Hula Blues Band}, exploring Hawaiian music in greater depth; 1999's Kulanjan} was a duo performance with Malian kora player Toumani Diabate}. ~ Steve Huey, All Music Guide