Taj Mahal is the stage name of Henry Saint Clair Fredericks who is a currently active and world renowned Blues musician. He is probably best known for incorporating many different styles and forms into his blues such African, Carribean and South Pacific themes. Taj Mahal was born in Harlem, New York on the 17th May 1942 the child of a West Indian Jazz pianist father and an American Gospel choir singer mother. This gave Taj his deep grounding in music of all different varieties.
Whilst being a multi instrumentalist Taj Mahal is best known for his distinctive guitar playing where he uses his thumb and middle finger to finger-pick rather than the more conventional use of his index finger or the use of a plectrum.
Maestro is Taj Mahal’s latest and probably best album and marks his 40 years in the business. Its an all-star album which has guest appearances from luminaries such as Ben Harper, Jack Johnson, Los Lobos etc and covers the whole gamut of styles that you would expect from Taj Mahal, ranging from reggae to African music on “Zanzibar”. However there is still enough straight out blues to make this a cracking good Blues album, for instance the opener “Scratch My Back” is straight ahead brassy and soulful and “Slow Drag” burns nice and slow.
2. Taj Mahal
Taj Mahal is Taj Mahal’s debut album and is still one of his best works. This album shows Taj trying to establish himself and his sound and is more out and out Delta Blues than some of his other albums but there is still elements of Country and Rock mixed in to separate this from the pack
His guitar playing is relentless and constantly driving forward yet somehow bare compared to his contempories. His vocals however keep this album right up to date and show a young man starting to define himself whilst still paying homage to the old guard.
3. The Real Thing
The Real Thing is Taj Mahal’s first Live album and was released in 1970. It is a double album recorded live at the Fillmore and covers all the bases from the groove and crowd interaction of “You’re Going to Need Somebody On Your Bond” to a grand finale of “You Ain’t No Street Walker Mama, Honey But I Do Love The Way You Strut Your Stuff”. This stuff is raw Delta Blues with a twist and there’s no bigger twist than “Tom and Sally Drake” where you get a Banjo and Tuba duet.
This is one powerful performance.
4. Giant Step/De Ole Folks at Home
Giant Step / De Ole Folks at Home is Taj’s 3rd studio album and probably his most commercial offering. Originally this was released as a double album and this record gives you 22 tracks separated into two distinct albums. The first album is the most commercial with the full band taking on the blues in full rock style including “Give Your Woman What She Wants” and “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl.”. The second album is more laid back and features Taj solo with just the guitar, harp or banjo on versions of “Stagger Lee” and “Fishing Blues”.
5. Dancing the Blues
Dancing the Blues is taken from later on in Taj’s career and was released originally in 1993. The album represents Taj Mahal’s homage to classic Blues from the 40’s and 50’s, featuring Howlin Wolf’s “Sitting on Top of the World” along with a tip of the hat to Motown on the Four Tops “I Can’t Help Myself”. Then there’s the slow blues of “That’s How Strong My Love Is” and “Going to the River”. It even features a duet with Etta James on “Mockingbird”.
This is a great album with no low points.
6. Phantom Blues
The Phantom Blues album was released in 1996 and carries on from where Dancing the Blues left off. Here Taj covers more classics from the 40’s through to the 60’s. There’s more of a New Orleans flavor this time with such classics as Jesse Hill’s “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” and Fats Domino’s “Let the Four Winds Blow.”. Taj Mahal provides one original track which is the country-sounding “Lovin’ in My Baby’s Eyes.”
This album is more straight forward than some of Taj’s other work but certainly none the worse for that.
7. Senor Blues
The Senor Blues album is the follow up to Phantom Blues and continues Taj’s homage to the music of his past. From the first beautiful notes of “Queen Bee”, through the super-tight and mellow “Senor Blues”, through the gospel-drenched “Things Gettin’ Crazy Up In Here”, to the final Otis tribute “Mr. Pitiful”. This record has it all, not a dud track and all played by Taj and his Phantom Blues band with feeling and true understanding and as tight as anything.
8. The Natch’l Blues
The Natch’l Blues is Taj Mahals second studio album and is a worthy inclusion here. As with his debut album this shows Taj finding his feet and his voice and working out what his career is to become.
It is a light and happy album which is more upbeat than your usual blues album and veers off into the country genre quite easily. As with most of Taj’s work there are a whole cornucopia of different influences blended in together but as usual he manages to do this in a seemless way.
The Kulanjan album is a collaboration between Taj Mahal and Malian musician Toumani Diabate.
Somehow they manage to blend their two disparate styles seemlessly, this is best showcased on “Atlanta Kaira” and “Kulanjan” as Toumani’s kora blends perfectly with Taj’s steel guitar. There’s the straight blues with a twist of Muddy Water’s “Catfish Blues” and the straight African rhythms of “Tunkaranke.
The sound of this album is unique, inspiring and compelling.
10. Mo’ Roots
The Mo’ Roots album from 1974 shows Taj exploring his Caribbean roots from his father again infusing it with his own blues roots.
You get Taj singing in Spanish on “Why Did You Have to Desert Me?”, a reggae influenced version of “Blackjack Davey” and a cover of Bob Marley’s “Slave Driver’, all this backed up with “Cajun Waltz”. This is a truly mesmeric album that will constantly give you a lift on each listening.