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Pleasing the ancestors: Taj Mahal

by Mick Rhodes | mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

To hear him tell it, Taj Mahal simply has no choice in the matter. “If I hear it, I’ll go out and play it,” he said.

And it’s been that way as far back as his childhood, spent in Springfield, Massachusetts, where his mother was a gospel choir singer and his father was a jazz pianist and arranger Ella Fitzgerald once called “The Genius.”

Born Henry Saint Clair Fredericks in Harlem in 1942, his musical parents steeped him in the roots of blues and jazz: the music of Africa and The Caribbean, as well a sense of pride in his own African heritage.

He studied classical piano for a time, then later clarinet, trombone and harmonica before picking up the guitar in his early teens after his father was killed in a construction accident.

He adopted the stage name Taj Mahal when he began playing with his college band at the University of Massachusetts in the late 1950s. After a few eye-opening years on the Ivy League circuit, he headed west to California and launched 50-plus year career that is unmatched in its sustained, deep, bold exploration of forms from around the globe.

And the 77-year-old master, a man for whom the term “world music” might well have been coined, is far from done exploring.

“If you’re lucky enough to get the gift of being a musician—and it’s a gift—when the gift comes to you man, you don’t just drop it,” Mr. Mahal said. “Whether I was a farmer or a grease monkey, I’d still play guitar and not worry whether I got popular.

The Taj Mahal Quartet will be at the Canyon in Montclair on Saturday, March 21.

Mr. Mahal, winner of multiple Grammy Awards, among many other accolades, has been a truly singular figure in American music for nearly 60 years.

Though most closely associated with the blues, the singer, songwriter, film composer, arranger and multi-instrumentalist has played with Wynton Marsalis and his orchestra at Lincoln Center as a soloist, and in a trio with players that he’s been with for 50 years.

He also has a quartet, a quintet with steel guitar, vibes and percussion, and his international Afro-Reggae and an Afro-Caribbean bands that play African and Latin music.

And that’s just off the top of his head.

“All I really wanted to do was play and please the ancestors, that’s just it and that’s where I stay,” he said when reached by phone recently at his Berkeley, California home. “And whatever falls out of that wheelhouse, somebody else can pick it up from there. I feel that as long as the ancestors are happy, and I’m happy, and people that come to listen are happy, then I’m doin’ good, y’know?”

It’s been a lifetime of pleasing all three masters, as well as countless peers and contemporaries.

In 1992, Claremont born and bred Ben Harper was a raw 23-year-old playing a small venue in town, and Mr. Mahal—a longtime friend of the family—was impressed enough to scoop the young musician up, put him in his band, and take him out on the road.

“Taj Mahal has not only played the single most influential role in how I approach music, he also played a pivotal role in me being discovered as a musician,” Mr. Harper said. “Taj is to this day the most soulful singer and player I’ve ever seen and heard. It is a privilege to know him.

“People always ask me, ‘Who do you want to collaborate with?’ And I always say, “no one. I already collaborated with Taj Mahal!”

“I love that guy,” said Pomona resident and celebrated vocalist Claudia Lennear. “I love his spirit. I love how much he loves what he does, and I love being a friend of his who can hang out with him and enjoy the same music.”

Ms. Lennear first met Mr. Mahal in the early 1970s at LA’s legendary Ash Grove nightclub, where he was performing, at a time when both of their careers were ascending. “I was always there,” Ms. Lennear said in a previous interview. “And definitely when Taj Mahal was performing, I was right there in the front row.”

“I love Taj Mahal so much,” echoed Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Peter Case. “I went and saw Taj Mahal when I was a kid. I’m a really big fan. Taj Mahal’s heavy, man.”

But if not for a persistent college band, Mr. Mahal may not have had a career in music at all. He was actually planning on a life in agriculture, studying animal husbandry at UMass, when a campus group, The Electras, which had lost its singer, approached him about filling the slot.

He told them he wanted to wait until he received his first semester’s marks before he committed to playing the band, as he hadn’t done too well academically in high school.

“And [college] was on my dime, so I was keen to do well with it,” Mr. Mahal recalled. “I was hitting a 3.2 [GPA] so I figured I could do some things, and I started playing with them.” 

Mr. Mahal found the band’s sound and instrumentation needed some fine tuning. He educated the young players—all college students like himself—in the ways of Ray Charles and his band’s tight horn and soulful vocal arrangements. He also got them hooked up with the brighter sound of the then new Fender guitars and basses being manufactured by Leo Fender in a modest little warehouse in Fullerton, California.

Then a fateful gig at a Smith College dance that included representatives from many Ivy League colleges turned out to be a game changer. The Electras were on their way.

Soon the band was gigging all around Upstate New York, Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhodes Island, Connecticut, and some of Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

“From there we played Brown, Harvard, Cornell, Yale and Dartmouth,” Mr. Mahal said. “That’s when I found out about touring. I saw that there was a lot going on out there, and you could make a living.”

And the stories!

“We were out there with Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Ike and Tina Turner, The Contours, The Four Tops, Booker T. and the MGs, all that was happening,” he said. “You didn’t know, when you were listening to them on the radio, that they played all these universities. It was unbelievable.”

“We were playing, and I’ll never forget it, we looked out the window and I said, ‘There goes Smokey Robinson!’ And we raised up the window and hollered out to Smokey and they all waved. And the Supremes are going by, and the Marvelettes and Marvin Gaye. It was like a who’s who of who was on the air at that time, and it was happening at these colleges. It was fantastic.”

And now some 60 years later, Mr. Mahal is still filling venues around the world, and many of his fans have been there for the whole run. He plays a series of shows in Seattle every year, and one family has been coming for decades.

“And they take a picture every year,” Mr. Mahal said. “And I remember when their three girls were cute little girls, and the boy was a bit older, and now they’re all married, they’ve all got kids, and they’re all bringing their kids, and the grandparents—their parents. It’s just fantastic. And they really love the music.

“I mean, you can sell [lots of records], and it may mean that everyone knows your name, but when you really look at the numbers, the artist isn’t the one that’s doing the business. This is closer to what’s real, and I really appreciate how it’s worked.”

Ms. Lennear does as well.

“He’s a keeper. He’s such a wonderful man and such a good friend,” she said, adding that she’s looking forward to the Canyon show. “I will definitely be there. Be there or be square.”

The Taj Mahal Quartet is appearing at the Canyon in Montclair on Saturday, March 21. Tickets are $38-$78 and are available at www.wheremusicmeetsthesoul.com.

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