Born Henry Saint Clair Fredericks on May 17, 1942 in Harlem, New York, the blues guitarist who took the name of “Taj Mahal” grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts. His father was a West Indian pianist, his mother sang in a gospel choir, and his stepfather (after his father died in a construction crew accident when the boy was eleven) owned the guitar that Henry took up — along with piano, clarinet, trombone and harmonica.
While a student at the University of Massachusetts, ca. 1960, Henry was inspired, purportedly in a dream about Gandhi and social tolerance, to call himself after the (Muslim/Mughal) icon, and he called an R&B (doo-woppy) group he led Taj Mahal & The Elektras. (Th avenger Elektra and tolerance don’t fit very well together in my estimation!)
After California, in 1964 TM, Ry Cooder, and Jessie Lee Kincaid formed a short-lived group called The Rising Sons. The group had a contract from Columbia Records and Columbia released TM’s first albums during the late-1960s. There were a total of twevle between 1867 and 1976, and then some on the Warner Brothers label, and his first movie soundtrack, for “Sounder” (1972). (I’m 95% sure that there are Werner Herzog movies with Taj Mahal music, but IMDb doesn’t list any.)
After largely disappearing from view in Kauai during the 1980s, TM made a comeback and won a Best Contemporary Blues Album Grammy in 1997 for “Señor Blues,” and another one for “Shoutin’ in Key” in 2000. (The “Sounder” soundtrack is the only one ofwas nominated for one.)
TM has sometimes incorporated African music as well as Caribbean sounds, but generally sounds too country for my tastes. It’s puzzling to me that someone born in Harlem, who grew up in Massachusetts and went to UMass sounds so country! And not just early on, but in the most recent (2005) track, “John Henry” (joined by Etta Baker).
most of the first disc is too country for me, and rather poorly recorded, the vocals nearly inaudible. The sound engineering is notably better on the second disc. The instrumental plus whistled “Ain’t Gwine Whistle Dixie (Anymo’)” is an exception. “Six Days on the Road” is hard-driving, up-tempo: “not the airbrushed drivel you hear out of Nashville” in the words of (my fellow Minnesotan) Tom Surowicz’s liner notes. “Goin’ Up to the Country” is standard Mississippi Delta blues with an electric guitar added. I don’t much like TM’s raspy singing of “Frankie and Albert” (more commonly “Frankie and Johnnie”), though I like the fast guitar in it.
The tracks I like best are the most Caribbean-sounding – the steel guitar in “West Indian Blues” (incongruously about a summer on the Mediterranean!) and “Take a Giant Step” from the first disc, and the first half dozen on the second disc, including the reggae classics (the Slickers’) “Johnny Too Bad” and (Bob Marley’s) “Slave Driver,” along with the steel drums in “Love Theme In The Key Of D” (with TM sounding lounge lizardish in smoother vocals than in many other insances). I especially like the upbeat “Everybody Is Somebody” and the instrumental (including kalimba) “When I Feel The Sea Beneath My Soul.” I especially dislike the West Indian voice parody of “St. Kitts Woman.” “”Satisfied and Tickled Too” seems to be a favorite of many people, but not me (the voice, not the instrumental component)
Those incorporating brass don’t make me forget the brass on Otis Redding recordings, but break the monotony of the country blues: the (1971) Fillmore-East live recording of “Ain’t Gwine Whistle Dixie (Anymo’),” “Cakewalk Into Town,” and the 1997 (re)recording of “Señor Blues” (which also features vey 1960s jazz piano.) The “New Hula Blues” does not include ukelele, but sure sounds Hawaiian. And “Queen Bee” has a kora (an African string instrument) and an African singer (Ramatou Diakite). Alas, it also has some of the raspiest of TM’s vocals, too.
In addition to playing with the Rolling Stones, TM frequently backed up the Pointer Sisters. They return the favor (as it were) with backup vocal harmonies for “Texas Woman Blues” and “Frankie & Albert.” And TM covers the classic Otis Redding’s “That’s How Strong My Love Is” with a tremulous organ riff (I prefer Redding’s version, though I like TM’s).
Those whose tastes are rooted in country music, and countrified blues will probably like the first disc more than I do, though the quality of the recordings will still be a problem. For me, the first disc is barely 2-star; I’d rate the second disc 4-star for its eclectism (eclectism isn’t enough: I have to like some of the results of various ports of call, and I do). Overall, I prefer Taj Mahal’s guitar-playing to his singing. (Again, I recognize that tastes vary!)