Live Concert Photography: Taj Mahal at City Winery 8/28/18

Live Concert Photography: Taj Mahal at City Winery 8/28/18

Born Henry Saint Clair Fredericks, Taj Mahal is Harlem-born, Berkeley, CA-based singer/songwriter, composer multi-instrumentalist (guitar, piano, banjo, harmonica and others) and arguably one of the more influential bluesmen of the past 50 years. Interestingly, Taj Mahal can trace the origins of his passion for music and his musical career to growing up in a musical home — growing up in Springfield, MA, the legendary bluesman’s mother was a member of a local gospel choir and his father was an Afro-Caribbean jazz pianist, composer and arranger. As a child, the legendary bluesman’s family owned a shortwave radio, which received music broadcasts from around the world, exposing him to an early age to a variety of musical genres and styles. He also had an interest in jazz, enjoying the work of Charles Mingus, Theolonius Monk and Milt Jackson among others.

Because his father was a well-regarded pianist, composer and arranger, Fredericks’ family frequented hosted musicians from the Caribbean, African and the US, and unsurprisingly as a result, the young Fredericks developed an interest in African music, which he studied assiduously as a young man. Because of his deep and abiding passion in music, his parents encouraged him to pursue music, starting out with piano lessons. He also studied clarinet, trombone and harmonica. Sadly, when Mahal was 11, his father was killed in an accident at his own construction company — and understandably, it was a very traumatic experience.

Mahal’s mother later remarried and as the story goes, his stepfather owned a guitar, which the young Mahal began playing when he was around 13 and 14. Some of his first lessons came from a new neighbor from North Carolina, who played acoustic blues guitar — Lynwood Perry, the nephew of Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup. Interestingly, as a high schooler, he sang in a doo-wop group but he also developed a deep passion for farming that nearly rivaled that of music; in fact, he started working on a dairy farm in nearby Palmer, MA when he was 16 and by the time he turned 19, he was a farm foreman.

As the story goes, his stage name Taj Mahal came to him after repeated dreams that centered around Gandhi, India and social tolerance and started using the name around the time he began attending the University of Massachusetts, where he studied animal husbandry, veterinary science and agronomy before deciding to fully pursue music. And while at UMass, Mahal led a rhythm and blues outfit Taj Mahal and The Elektras and was part of a duo with Jessie Lee Kincaid before relocating to the West Coast.

By 1964, Mahal and relocated to Santa Monica, CA, where he formed Rising Sons with Ry Cooder and Jessi Lee Kincaid, and the trio quickly landed a record deal with Columbia Records — although unfortunately, because they were one of the fist interracial bands of their day, they were deemed commercially unviable. A single was released but an album never was, and the band broke up. Simultaneously Mahal had been working with the likes of Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Muddy Waters among others. He remained with Columbia Records who released his early solo releases — 1968’s self-titled debut, 1969’s The Natch’l Blues and Giant Step/De Old Folks at Home, which featured Oklahoma-born Kiowa session musician Jesse Ed Davis, who played guitar and piano. During this same time, Mahal and his old Rising Sons bandmate Ry Cooder worked with The Rolling Stones; in fact, he performed in the 1968 concert film The Rolling Stones rock and Roll Circus. But importantly, his work with Columbia Records through the late 1960s through the 1970s were important, as they began to cement his reputation for incorporating elements of a variety of West Indian and Caribbean jazz, reggae an other styles into his work.

In 1976, Mahal left Columbia Records and signed with Warner Brothers Records, writing, recording three albums, including the soundtrack for 1977’s Brothers. With heavy metal, pop, disco and soul being popular, Mahal struggled to find another record contract. Finding that his career was stalled, he located to Kauai, HI in 1981 and formed the Hula Blues Band, which was originally just a group of guys getting together to fish, jam and hang out; but it eventually became a regularly touring band. Although he was largely working with little fanfare throughout the bulk of the 80s, 1988’s Taj started a comeback — and by the early 90s, he was releasing albums of blues, pop, R&B and rock, and collaborated with the likes of Eric Clapton and Etta James. 

1997’s Señor Blues received a Best Contemporary Blues Album Grammy, which was followed up with an album in which he collaborated with renowned songwriter David Forman, producer Rick Chertoff and Cyndi Lauper, Willie Nile, Joan Osborne, Rob Hyman, Garth Hudson, The Band’s Levon Helm and The Chieftains.  2000’s Shoutin’ in Key received a Best Contemporary Blues Album Grammy, and since then Mahal has been writing and recording solo albums, and working with fellow multi-Grammy winning bluesman Keb’ Mo‘ on a collaborative album, 2017’s TajMo which featured guest spots from Bonnie Raitt, Joe Walsh, Sheila E, and Lizz Wright.

The legendary bluesman was at City Winery earlier this year, where he played a career-spanning set featuring his incredibly global take on the blues. Check out photos from the set below.

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For these photos and more, check out the Flickr set here: