It takes a certain type of person to get onstage under a name taken from a building renowned as one of the most beautiful ever constructed, without being laughed out of the room.
Henry Saint Clair Fredericks is that type of person, and he has long preferred the name Taj Mahal, which he says arrived in a series of dreams a few decades ago.
Under that moniker he has done 50 albums, pulled in a couple of Grammys and traveled to the ends of the Earth, performing his style of the blues and an array of genres, averaging 125 shows a year since 1968.
He has spent a lifetime on the road, playing guitar, singing and, when he has the time, fishing.
Taj Mahal was introduced to the world as a lanky 20-something in a January 1969 issue of Rolling Stone that also announced the break-up of the English psychedelic group Traffic and highlighted the short-lived Kozmic Blues Band, then called the Revue.
Taj Mahal was described as wearing an “Amish cowboy hat with the band made of beer-can pop tops.” He was heading to Los Angeles High School to give a blues lesson to a gym full of wary teenagers.
His renditions of blues classics such as “Corinna, Corinna” and stories of what the blues means and where it came from got the crowd clapping, stomping and lining up for autographs.
An executive from Columbia Records was so impressed by the enthusiastic response that he said Taj Mahal would need police protection by the end of the year and would be the one to deliver blues to young black kids, turning them on to greats like Muddy Waters, who struggled to resonate with that crowd.
As it turned out, things built more slowly than the Columbia exec would have liked, but Taj Mahal, now armed with graduate studies in ethnomusicology, still makes a point of telling audiences about the music he plays and gives credit to those who wrote and first performed the songs he uses to bring crowds to their feet.
When he gets to talking about fishing, it is again apparent that he is a shade different from his early musical inspirations who hailed from the Mississippi Delta, like Muddy Waters, who also sang about the catfish blues.
Taj Mahal got a fishing pole and a book about the fish of North America from an uncle from South Carolina when he was 4 or 5, and he was raised fishing the waters around New York.
“There probably used to be salmon in those rivers, but so many of them were part of the Industrial Revolution,” Taj Mahal says. “With the ecological clean-up, some of them are coming back.”
He has also fished in Fiji, New Zealand, Mexico, Alaska and just about everywhere else he has stopped for any length of time. ESPN cameras were rolling when he reeled in a 650-pound blue marlin off the coast of Costa Rica, but he isn’t one for telling tales about the big ones he has caught. Instead, what stands out is one he missed.
Every couple of years, he went to a fishing tournament with Gene Price, a machinist from South Los Angeles, on a banged-up boat called the Gene Machine. One year, Taj Mahal’s then-manager pushed him to add some dates in the fall, so he missed the tournament.
“The one year I don’t go, the water was hot from El Nino, and the fish that ended up winning was 375 pounds,” Taj Mahal says. “Gene pulled it in, sitting in the chair I would’ve been in, and got $700,000 for it.”
Even if he had landed that prize, Taj Mahal says, he would turn 70 just the same, between shows in Kansas City and Colorado on May 17, on a tour that will take him around the United States, Canada, Europe and the Caribbean.
His gravelly voice has yet to turn rocky like many musicians his age. He has mastered 60-plus instruments, and anyone expecting him to sail into the sunset or sink into retirement should probably think again.
“I’m always cracking up when I hear what people think I should be doing,” he says. “I’m doing exactly what I always wanted to do, and I still like what I can do musically. I’m doing exactly what I should be doing, every day on the road.”