Taj Mahal: His Musical Stomping Ground is the World
Every singer-songwriter has musical influences. But it's hard to think of another performer of Taj Mahal's stature whose influences are so wildly varied.
Though he generally prepares his rhythmic concoctions in the sturdy cook-pot of the Blues, the flavors that emerge can range from Polynesian to Zydeco, from Reggae to Swing, from Traditional African to...Truck-Stop Country? If ye doubt, check out Taj's convincing cover version of Dave Dudley's 1960s hit “Six Days on the Road (And I'm Gonna Make It Home Tonight)” from his compilation “The Essential Taj Mahal.”
Taj Mahal began his life with a longer moniker—Henry Saint Clair Fredericks, Jr.—in New York's Harlem. His mother was a gospel singer, his father a pianist and jazz arranger that Ella Fitzgerald referred to as “The Genius.” The family owned a short-wave radio that brought in, each evening, music from around the world. Taj's stage name came to him in a dream, after he learned about Mahatma Gandhi's nonviolence movement in India.
One of Taj's earliest music gigs was with a band that opened for Otis Redding; he pays tribute to the master on his newest album, “Maestro,” with a commanding version of Redding's “Scratch My Back,” accompanied by the Phantom Blues Band. Shortly afterward, Taj began making a name for himself when he moved to California, joined up with Ry Cooder and Jessie Lee Kincaid to form “The Rising Sons,” and started recording on the Columbia label. In 1972 he wrote his first film score—for the movie “Sounder,” starring Cicely Tyson.
Taj Mahal lists his main musical influences as Jimmy Reed, Son House, Sleepy John Estes, Big Mama Thornton, Howlin' Wolf, Mississippi John Hurt, and Sonny Terry. But despite his rigorous Blues foundation, he's sometimes credited as being the first major artist to embrace what's known today as “World Music.”
As one critic puts it, “He's always showed an aptitude for spicing the mix with flavors that keep him a yard or so distant from being an out-and-out blues performer.” His voice has been described as “extraordinary, ranging from gruff and gritty to smooth and sultry.” Along the way, he's developed the unusual guitar style of leading with his thumb and middle finger while finger-picking, as opposed to the traditional index approach.
Dozens of albums and two Grammy Awards later, he's shared the stage with artists as varied as the Rolling Stones, Sheryl Crow, Eric Clapton, the Dave Matthews Band, Bonnie Raitt, BB King, Bob Marley, John Lee Hooker, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, and the Neville Brothers.
And though he still plays regularly in concert halls, Taj Mahal says outdoor venues such as the Beartrap Summer Festival remain his favorite: “My music is designed for people to move to, and it's difficult to have an audience sitting still in a row of seats like they're watching television. That's why I like to play outdoor festivals...because people get up and dance.”
--Dale Short, carrolldaleshort.com