Published Fri, Sep 28, 2012 10:01 am Dateline
Taj Mahal is a unique character in American roots music. Most people would initially regard him as a bluesman, steeped in country and Delta blues of the southern United States, but he is much more than that.
Since his first self-titled release in 1968, 70-year old Taj Mahal has released two dozen solo albums, eight live albums, and a dozen compilations. You can hear many of his various and numerous influences on those recordings.
Born in Harlem and raised in Springfield, Mass., Taj Mahal's father was a jazz composer, arranger and pianist of Caribbean descent who married a gospel singer from South Carolina.
His home was frequented by musicians, invited by the family as guests, and by broadcasts from around the world via the Fredericks' shortwave radio.
Young Henry studied classical piano as well as clarinet, harmonica and trombone, but it was on his stepfather's guitar that he learned Chicago blues licks from his next-door neighbor friend.
While studying agriculture at the University of Massachusetts, Henry formed an R&B band, The Elektras, and adopted his stage name, Taj Mahal. His ethnomusicological studies also broadened his appreciation of music from all over the African diaspora.
Following his graduation in 1964, Taj headed to L.A., where he played with Ry Cooder in the band Rising Sons. The band, signed by Columbia Records, recorded an album that remained unreleased until 1992.
However, Taj recorded his first three solo projects for Columbia--Taj Mahal, The Natch'l Blues, and Giant Step/De Ole Folks at Home-- that were all released in the late 1960s.
During that period, he played with everyone from Buddy Guy and Howlin' Wolf to The Rolling Stones.
In 1970, Taj started his career in the film industry, scoring the soundtrack to the film, Sounder. Since then, his music can be heard seven other film projects, including The Blues Brothers 2000, Songcatcher and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.
In the 1970s, he started to incorporate more Caribbean styles of calypso and reggae, as well as African-American roots music, including zydeco, R&B and jazz. In 1981, he moved to Hawaii and formed The Hula Blues Band, which blended the blues with Hawaiian music.
Taj also continued to explore other world music, recording Kulanjan, a project with the great Malian kora player Toumani Diabete. At the same time, he collaborated with Etta James and Eric Clapton, and continued to play blues as well as R&B and rock.
He won two Grammy Awards for Best Contemporary Blues Album in 1997 and 2000 and was nominated for a third in the same category for his most recent studio release, Maestro: Celebrating Forty Years.
That anniversary celebration includes performances by special guest artists Ben Harper, Jack Johnson, Angelique Kidjo, Los Lobos and Ziggy Marley, many of whom were greatly influenced by Taj's long and diverse career.
Last month, Columbia released The Hidden Treasures of Taj Mahal-1969-1973 on their Legacy series, a two-disc set that includes early, previously unreleased studio recordings paired with a full-length live concert, recorded at London's Royal Albert Hall in 1970.
Taj Mahal and his Trio will perform at Stuart's Opera House in Nelsonville, Ohio, on Wednesday, Oct. 3 at 8 p.m. Visit www.stuartsoperahouse.org for tickets and information.