By Kyle Eustice
You will never see Taj Mahal without a hat on. The 71-year-old legendary guitarist is adamant about performing with a slick Fedora (or some variation of one) at all times. Paired with his love of dark sunglasses, it has become his signature style. More importantly, his unique brand of music has made Taj Mahal a permanent part of music history.
Born Henry Saint Claire Fredericks, Jr. in Harlem, New York, music was already in his blood the moment he entered the world. The Fredericks family relocated to Springfield, Massachusetts where he spent most of his life. His father, Henry Saint Clair Fredericks Sr., and mother were both avid music lovers, as well as musicians in their own right. In fact, Ella Fitzgerald referred to his father as “The Genius” before he started his family.
“My Dad was a very interesting guy,” Fredericks says in an interview with Tavis Smiley. “My Dad was born in 1915 and moved to Harlem. He was taught classical piano and grew up in that era where all the music was transitioning. In fact, when he got together with my mother, he quit being a composer. My father had every record you could imagine. I don’t remember a time not hearing music from them or hearing music from their friends. There was action all the time. I heard artist like Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington and Count Bassie. I didn’t realize that was so different from what other kids heard in their houses.”
Fredericks’ parents were still in their early 30’s when he was a little kid and they would frequently host listening parties. It was then the young Fredericks learned about all types of music and it clearly influenced his catalog later on. His music is a unique brand of sound that infuses world music from places such as the Caribbean, South Pacific and Africa into traditional blues.
“My name started with a dream, but the music didn’t start there,” he says. “The music started before I was on this planet. A lot of people asked me why I called myself Taj Mahal when I wasn’t even playing ‘Indian’ musician. The idea was to give my listeners something beyond their imagination.”
That’s exactly what he did. In 1964, he moved to Santa Monica, California where he formed The Rising Sons, a five-piece blues folk band comprised of Ry Cooder, Gary Marker, Jesse Lee Kincaid, Ed Cassidy, and, of course, Taj Mahal. The group is regarded as one of the first interracial bands of the era. They released one self-titled album with Columbia Records in 1966, but they quickly broke up, but not before they spent a week on the road opening for The Temptations. It ignited Fredericks’ passion for touring even more.
Taj Mahal soon took his first steps towards a solo career and released his self-titled debut in 1968, again with Columbia. Around this time, he met future band mate, bassist Billy Rich, who has since gone on to perform with the Taj Mahal Trio. He wouldn’t reveal much about the first night they shook hands.
“ We crossed paths a few times before we met,” Harris says. “But I think it was at the Whiskey A Go Go in Hollywood, California in 1968. What a night!”
It’s almost surreal that an Omaha musician has a connection to Taj Mahal, but believe it or not, there’s more than one. Guitarist Hoshal Wright is another incredible musician who appeared on several of Taj Mahal’s albums.
“North Omaha has a rich history of Blues and Jazz Music, as well as monster musicians,” Rich says. “I guess people aren't aware of this because back then communication is not like it is now. Omaha, Midwest, and corn; people don't know. You have to really look for it and a lot if it is just recently starting to come to surface.
“I knew Hoshal very well,” he adds. “We go way back. Hosh is one of those monster guitar player musicians I was talking about. I was fortunate enough to have had the chance to play with him.”
While the majority of Omaha may not have been aware of the immense talent scattered across the city, Fredericks certainly was. He recruited Rich for 1971’s The Real Thing and 1972’s Happy To Be Just Like I Am. Similarly, Rich and Wright appeared on 1974’s Mo’ Roots, which ended up being his last recording for Columbia. Rich felt growing up in Omaha had its advantages.
“For me, one of the advantages of growing up in North Omaha was that there was a lot going on at the time,” Rich recalls. “Musicians were working 5-6 nights a week and had to make a living. So it was a lot of playing studying, or ‘woodshedin,’ going on. So we all had time to practice and to get ready for the big boys in NYC and LA.”
Fredericks was already playing with the big boys. He signed with his second major label, Warner Brothers, in 1975, and continued his work with both Omaha musicians. Rich is clearly grateful for the opportunity. With Taj, he has toured Europe, South America, Africa, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the Fiji Islands.
“Working with Taj, for me, is a real pleasure and honor,” he says. I love his music and his style, and who he is as a person. Nobody plays like Taj. He's a natural.”
Fredericks went on to release seventeen more studio albums, culminating with 2008’s Maestro. He still tours the world and makes a stop in Omaha this Friday at The Holland Center for the World Blues Tour, which features Taj Mahal, Vusi Mahlasela and Fredricks Brown.
“I am really excited about the World Blues Tour,” he says. “It is not every day that three artists from different worlds, but who speak a common language, come together for a tour. This used to happen a lot in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but not as much today. It should be real fun and you can bet filled with many surprises."
He’s quick to point out, however, that’s only one piece of the puzzle.
“The stage is one part of what I do,” Fredericks says. “I play banjo, mandolin, slide guitar, whatever, and if a piece of music walks up into my head, it’s like ‘ok, I know what else you play, but play me now.’ Then I go play it.
“If you think of me as a composer it makes it a little bit easier,” he continues. “Some guys are guitar players and you never know that they play bass. I’m not one of those cats. I mean, it’s like I love music, I love instruments and I love playing them. Some of them I know more about than others. It’s like I’m learning a lot of stuff so it’s keeping me real busy.”
The man behind the moniker is indeed a legend. The chance to witness his brilliance in person is a privilege, but the chance to play with him is unparallel.
“Something that good,” Rich concludes, you just don't get enough of.”
Taj Mahal Trio with Vusi Mahlasela and Fredricks Brown, October 25, at the Holland Performing Arts Center, 1200 Douglas St., 8 p.m. Tickets prices vary. Visit www.omahaperformingarts.org