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Taj Mahal Biography

Home > Music > T > Taj Mahal > Biography

Birth Name: Henry Saint Clair Fredericks
Born: 1942/05/17
Birth Place: Harlem, New York, United States
Years Active: 1964-present
Genres: Blues, World Music

Taj Mahal (born Henry Saint Clair Fredericks, May 17, 1942), who uses the stage name Taj Mahal, is an American Grammy Award winning blues musician. He often incorporates elements of world music into his recordings. 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, New York, 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. 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, Mahal developed an interest in African music, which he studied assiduously as a young man. His parents also encouraged him to pursue music, starting him with classical piano lessons. He also studied the clarinet, trombone and harmonica. When Mahal was 11 his father was killed in an accident at his own construction company, crushed by a tractor when it flipped over. Mahal's mother later remarried and 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.

After a stint working on a dairy farm, and 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. Around 1959 he began using the stage name Taj Mahal, which came to him in a dream about Gandhi, India. 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 time Mahal was working with other musicians like Howlin' Wolf, Buddy Guy, Lightnin' Hopkins and Muddy Waters. Mahal 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 whom played guitar and piano, also in 1969.

Subsequently 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 12 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 1976 Mahal left Columbia Records and signed with Warner Bros. Records, recording three albums for them. One of these was another film score for 1977's “Brothers.” After his time with Warner Bros. Records he struggled to find another record contract, this being the era of heavy metal and disco music.

Stalled in his career, he decided to move to Kauai, Hawaii in 1981 and soon formed The Hula Blues Band. Originally just a group of guys getting together for fishing and a good time, the band soon began performing regularly and touring. He remained somewhat concealed from most eyes while working out of Hawaii throughout most of the 1980s before recording “Taj” in 1988 for Gramavision. This started a comeback of sorts for him, recording both for Gramavision and Hannibal Records during this time.

In the 1990s he was on the Private Music label, releasing albums full of blues, pop, R&B and rock. He also 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.

In 1997 he won Best Contemporary Blues Album for “Señor Blues” at the Grammy Awards, followed by another Grammy for “Shoutin' in Key” in 2000. He performed the theme song to the children's television show “Peep and the Big Wide World,” which began broadcast in 2004.

In 2002, Mahal appeared on the Red Hot Organization's compilation album Red Hot and Riot in tribute to Nigerian afropop musician Fela Kuti. The Paul Heck produced album was widely acclaimed and all proceeds from the record were donated to AIDS charities.