Señor Blues

Señor Blues

Grammy-winning bluesman Taj Mahal celebrated at Grammy Museum Wednesday night

By Bliss Bowen 10/02/2013

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To many contemporary listeners, the bluesman with the exotic name is best known for playing alongside mainstream stars like the Rolling Stones (for their 1968 “Rock and Roll Circus” concert film) and Bonnie Raitt (with whom he shared a co-billed tour in 2009). That is a shame, because Taj Mahal is a legitimate national treasure — one who will be rightfully celebrated Wednesday at the Grammy Museum. 

A two-time Grammy winner (for 1997’s “Señor Blues” and 2000’s “Shoutin’ in Key”), Mahal is a robust testament to the value of open-minded creative curiosity. Born in 1942 in Harlem, Henry St. Claire Fredericks grew up in Massachusetts with parents of Southern and Caribbean heritage who encouraged him to play jazz, gospel and classical music, and nurtured his lifelong exploration of his African and Caribbean roots. He was already playing clarinet, guitar, harmonica, piano and trombone by the time he was a teenager, when a North Carolina guitarist moved in next door and schooled him in the virtues of Delta and Chicago blues. By the time he graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (where he studied agriculture), he not only knew his Muddy Waters from his Jimmy Reed, he also had adopted his soon-to-be-famous nom de musique.

As Taj Mahal, he moved to Los Angeles in 1964 and quickly made his presence known at local clubs like the Ash Grove, where he and fellow roots music-loving prodigy Ry Cooder were the young bucks impressing blues and folk veterans such as Lightnin’ Hopkins and Doc Watson. Mahal and Cooder formed the Rising Sons, a band that opened for marquee acts like Otis Redding, and whose renown over the years exceeded its longevity. (Their one album for Columbia didn’t see daylight until 1992.) Mahal made his first, eponymously titled record for Columbia in 1967; he’s released more than three dozen albums since then.

Blues has always been his foundation, but Mahal separated himself from other acoustic artists by connecting American blues to its African roots, thereby positioning it on a global stage. His music over the decades has reflected his equally passionate interest in R&B, Caribbean, Hawaiian and Louisiana music, and he reached out to future generations with a few albums for kids as well. That diversity hasn’t always endeared him to his original blues fans, and some albums have sounded more diluted than inspired. His strength has always been his live performances, which draw from his encyclopedic understanding of roots music and a song bag bulging with more than four decades worth of material.  

More than that, the man has stories to tell, some of which he will hopefully share Wednesday night. In addition to performing, he will talk about his career with Grammy Foundation and MusiCares Vice President Scott Goldman and take questions from the audience.  

An Evening With Taj Mahal takes place at 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Grammy Museum, 800 W. Olympic Blvd., downtown LA; $30. Info: (213) 765-6800.


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