Born Henry Saint Clair Fredericks in 1942, Taj Mahal (the name came to him in a dream) grew up in Springfield, MA, devouring the wide range of music that beamed through his father’s short wave radio — jazz, reggae, gospel, zydeco, R&B, early rock ‘n’ rollers like Chuck Berry and Little Richard. After learning how to play acoustic blues guitar as a young teen at the knee of bluesman Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s nephew, Mahal attended UMass, where he studied both animal husbandry and ethnomusicology. His passion for farming eventually took a backseat to music, and after kicking around the blues/folk scene with the Elektras in places like Cambridge’s Club 47, Mahal headed to Los Angeles, where he formed the Rising Sons with Ry Cooder, appeared in The Rolling Stones Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus, and released a handful of influential records for Columbia. He continued to explore “world music” sounds throughout the ’70s — indeed, he was one of the first Western musicians to incorporate those sounds into a blues mix — even as his sounds fell out of fashion in the disco era.
Decamping to Hawaii for much of the ’80s, Mahal explored that island’s indigenous sounds, and began a comeback of sorts with 1987’s Taj. The last two decades have been especially fruitful for Mahal, working on collaborations with the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton and Etta James, and earning deserving Grammy awards for Best Contemporary Blues Album for 1997’s Señor Blues and ’00’s Shoutin’ In Key.
(by Stephen Haag)