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Taj Mahal: The story of a Rising Son

He headlined over Led Zeppelin and taught Keith Richards how to play guitar. Fifty years after he first rewired the blues, it’s time to give Taj Mahal his due.

Radio City Music Hall, New York, February 1998. The 40th annual Grammy Awards becomes one of the more eventful award ceremonies of the year when Best Album winner Bob Dylan’s perfomance of Love Sick is disrupted by a stage-invader with the words ‘Soy Bomb’ scrawled on his bare chest.

The controversy doesn’t totally overshadow the music. Amid all the furore, a man who not so long ago had been more or less forgotten received one of best receptions of the night. The 55-year-old Taj Mahal had scooped his first ever Grammy, for Señor Blues, his 20th album. It’s a sweet moment for a man who has devoted his working life to expanding and remapping the blues in a way that’s taken it way beyond its normal parameters. And endured his fair share of brickbats in the process. 

“It was great to win, because at one time everybody got onto my back about what I was doing,” he says today. “No record company was interested in recording me. The industry was always having a hissy fit: ‘Mr Mahal, will you please get in the box?’ No thank you, it doesn’t fit me.” 

But then Taj Mahal was never a conventional bluesman. A Harlem kid with Caribbean roots, he stripped the blues to its raw essentials in the 60s, before digging deeper and uncovering the hidden wiring that connected it to West Indian folk, R&B, gospel, Latino and African music. One part curator and two parts seeker, Mahal was arguably America’s first global pioneer, playing world music before the term had even been invented. 

Eric Clapton was one who tuned in. In his autobiography, he wrote that the main pull of Mick Jagger’s invitation to The Rolling Stones Rock And Roll Circus TV special in late ’68, was the prospect of seeing Mahal up close. Keith Richards had already been jamming with Taj and Gram Parsons in LA. Richards admitted that Mahal showed him a few things, adding: “He’s got it all together and always did have.” 

Indeed, Mahal was the sole representative of black American blues, the music the Stones adored above all others, at the Rock And Roll Circus. Filmed at a sound stage in Wembley, he cut a striking image – wide-brimmed hat, red neckerchief, leather waistcoat – amid such starry company as Clapton, Lennon, The Who, Marianne Faithfull and many others. He looked like what he was: the hippest of the hip. “Taj is a fabulous player,” gushed Charlie Watts, “like a one-man band.” 

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