It's hard to believe, but Taj Mahal has been around long enough to have a listing — squeezed between Mad River and Mamas and the Papas — in Lillian Roxon's seminal 1969 Rock Encyclopedia. Harder to believe that, every year, his name never comes up among nominees for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (surely an institution that nominates, as it has this year, Chic, Linda Ronstadt and LL Cool J can find some love for a musical treasure like Taj!).
Back in 1969, Roxon called Mahal "one of the very few sophisticated young black singers" who "brought back the sound of authentic country blues, flatly refusing to gloss over or stylize." That was Roxon's way of expressing her dismay at how white rock 'n' rollers were making a killing by ripping off still living, mostly impoverished black artists. A unifying figure like Taj Mahal, however, has never conveyed the same despair. Indeed, he once told an interviewer, "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."
Instead, his concerts have always been celebrations of traditional music in all its forms — blues, calypso, reggae, African, Hawaiian, etc. — and he is now continuing that mission with "World Blues," a sampling of the blues form as seen through a global lens.
Even before Taj Mahal came across Lillion Roxon's radar screen, he'd already (in 1964) formed one of the first interracial rock bands in the U.S. (The Rising Sons, with Ry Cooder), worked with Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and Lightnin' Hopkins, and landed a contract with Columbia Records. As a solo artist, he began performing stripped-down versions of songs that were electrified by white blues contemporaries like Eric Clapton, Johnny Winter and the Allman Brothers ("Statesboro Blues", "EZ Rider," "Dust My Broom," "Walkin' Blues," "You Don't Miss Your Water"), attracting a devoted, albeit smaller, audience.
His reputation for energetic and engaging live shows expanded his fan base as well as the definition of what fell under the "traditional" music label. As Roxon astutely noted, Taj Mahal established himself, on his early albums, as a champion and something of an archivist of traditional country blues (read: non-electric, bare bones). By the time I saw him perform in North Carolina in the early 1970s, he had already morphed into a West Indian island dweller, playing proto reggae long before Bob Marley hit the States. Over the next four decades, he seemed to be ahead of every musical curve, charting new territory, both a chameleon of world music and an ambassador for international sounds.
Born in New York City as Henry Saint Clair Fredericks Jr., he was raised in Springfield, Mass., in a household steeped in pure music — his father was a renowned West Indian jazz arranger and mother a gospel singer. Taj Mahal (the stage name inspired by an interest in Gandhi and India) taught himself piano, guitar, harmonica, bass, banjo, mandolin, dulcimer and vibes. He also began working on a dairy farm outside Springfield and by the time he attended UMass, he was torn between degrees in animal husbandry and ethnomusicology. All that went out the barn door when he began performing music and found a way to connect with an interracial, multi-generational audience.
During his now 50-year career, Taj Mahal has released more than 30 albums, written soundtracks, performed in films, won two Grammy Awards (nominated nine times) and, in 2006, was named the official "Blues Artist of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts." He has performed and recorded with the Rolling Stones, members of The Band, Eric Clapton, Wynton Marsalis, Doc Watson and on and on and on.
So, when can we expect that nomination to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?