May 17, 1942
New York City, New York, United States
Singer-guitarist Taj Mahal was one of the most passionate proponents of traditional music in all its forms, from blues and jazz to Caribbean and African music, which he often interwove in riveting and intricate arrangements on albums and in concert over the course of a five-decade career. Born Henry Saint Clair Fredericks on May 17, 1942 in Harlem, New York, Mahal was raised in Springfield, Massachusetts by a family steeped in music: his mother sang in a gospel choir, while his West Indian father was a musician arranger who introduced him to jazz and African music. Though he studied a wide variety of instruments, from acoustic guitar to piano and harmonica, Mahal initially pursued a career in agriculture. But a stint as bandleader for a rhythm and blues act in college brought him back to music, and after adopting the stage name Taj Mahal, he headed west and fell in with the folk and blues scene centered at the Ash Grove club in Santa Monica, California. In 1964, he joined guitarist Ry Cooder to form Rising Sons, a folk-rock act that initially drew notices for being one of the few integrated bands of the period; the group split after their album for Columbia went unreleased, and Mahal commenced on a career as a solo performer with his 1968 self-titled LP. He soon established himself as a blues traditionalist, preferring a fingerpicked acoustic approach to electric arrangements, but over time, Mahal integrated a wide variety of roots-based styles into his music, including reggae and calypso, jazz and zydeco, as well as West African and New Orleans rhythms. Critical acclaim for these efforts led to soundtrack assignments for "Sounder" (1972) and "Brothers" (1977), but following a move to Warner Bros. in the mid-'70s, Mahal's career stalled due to changing tastes in music. He relocated to Hawaii, where the islands' indigenous sounds re-kindled both his interest in traditional music and his career; by the early '90s, he was again touring regularly and recording an array of musical projects, from Hawaiian sounds on Taj (1987) and songs for children on Shake Sugaree (1988) to the score for "Mule Bone," a long-lost play by Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. Renewed interest in his music allowed him to continue exploring a full range of musical styles, from rock and R&B for the Private Music label to collaborations with Indian performers on Mumtaz Mahal (1995) and Malian kora legend Toumani Diabate on Kulanjan (1999). His long and storied career was honored with a number of tributes, including two Grammys, a doctorate degree from Wofford College and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Americana Music Association.