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Music Memories: Happy Birthday, Taj Mahal!

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Blues singer and composer, Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal was born on May 17, 1942. Mahal is a blues singer and composer whose music incorporates elements of jazz and world music.

He was born Henry Saint Clair Fredericks, Jr., and grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts. The Fredericks family was a musical one; Henry's mother sang in a gospel choir, and his father was a jazz pianist and arranger. The family owned a shortwave radio, on which they listened to music from around the world.

Henry took the usual childhood piano lessons, and also studied clarinet, trombone, and harmonica. He began playing the guitar in his early teens, taking lessons from a neighbor and sang in a doo-wop group in high school.

For a while, there was a good chance that he wouldn't become a musician at all. Henry started working on a local dairy farm when he was 16 and was the foreman in charge of all the workers by 19. He enjoyed the work and was serious enough about farming that when he went to the University of Massachusetts, he majored in animal husbandry with a minor in veterinary science. He was also taking classes in ethnomusicology, though, and it was at about this time that he adopted the stage name "Taj Mahal."

After college, Mahal moved to Santa Monica, where he met Ry Cooder (who went on to have a substantial music career of his own); the two formed the band Rising Sons. Columbia Records released a single, but worried that an interracial band would be a hard sell in 1964, and never released an album. The material that Rising Sons recorded was finally released in 1992 when Mahal and Cooder had become big enough names to draw interest.

3 albums by Taj Mahal

Mahal stayed with Columbia after Rising Sons broke up, and released his first solo album in 1968. He recorded nearly a dozen albums for Columbia in less than a decade and gradually began incorporating West Indian and Caribbean musical styles into his sound. He also ventured into other corners of show business, writing the score for the 1972 film Sounder, as well as playing a small role in the movie.

By the mid-1970s, Mahal, now at Warner Bros. Records, was in a bit of a career slump. Blues had never been an enormous selling genre, but in the era of disco, it struggled even more than usual to find an audience. After recording three albums for Warner Bros., Mahal was unable to get a new record deal.

He moved to Hawaii in 1981 and formed the Hula Blues Band, adding Hawaiian music to his increasingly international blend. Mahal and the Hula Blues Band did some touring, but he was largely out of the public eye for almost a decade. He returned to the recording studio in 1987 with Taj, and released Shake Sugaree, an album for kids, the following year.

In 1995, Mahal made his largest venture yet into world music when he recorded Mumtaz Mahal with V. M. Bhatt and N. Ravikiran, performers on traditional instruments from India. Since then, he's recorded albums with Toumani Diabaté, Mali's virtuoso of the kora, an African harp; and with a collective of musicians from Tanzania. More recently, Mahal has been collaborating with American roots musicians—a Christmas album with the Blind Boys of Alabama; and TajMo, which paired him with blues singer Keb' Mo'.

Mahal continues to tour and record. He says that he prefers outdoor festival venues to indoor theaters. "The music was designed for people to move, and it's a bit difficult after a while to have people sitting like they're watching television," he says, "I just play to the goddess of music—and I know she's dancing."

In addition to the titles linked above, more of Taj Mahal's music is available for streaming or download at Freegal and Hoopla.


 

 

 

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