Peace Corps Writers
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Taj Mahal: Autobiography of a Bluesman
by Taj Mahal with Stephen Foehr (Ethiopia 1965–67)
Sanctuary Publishers, Ltd.,
287 pages
Other books by Stephen Foehr

An interview with Stephen Foehr

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  Reviewed by Joe Kovacs (Sri Lanka 1997–98)
The Best of Taj Mahal
NOT EVEN TWO PAGES INTO Stephen Foehr’s biography of Taj Mahal, I knew I had to buy one of the blues musician’s CDs to fully appreciate what the book would have to say about him. Foehr’s portrait of Taj Mahal as an influential pioneer in the fusion of blues, reggae, zydeco, gospel, calypso and ragtime simultaneously highlight a naturally developed spirituality to reveal a richly talented musician and a magnetic personality. Each chapter of the book devotes itself to interviews with family members, friends or other musicians from each period of Taj’s life so that the reader is carried through his life, growing more impressed with the range of his professional and personal gifts.
     Foehr explores at great length Taj Mahal’s upbringing in Springfield, Massachusetts. Born Henry St. Clair Fredericks, Jr. in a five-child household with roots extending back to a blended West Indian, Caribbean, and Africa ethnic heritage, Taj describes his successes as a function of his Caribbean-style upbringing, which prescribed hard work as essential to surviving island life. His father’s death in an accident when he was 14 also helped him develop a sense of responsibility to his family and he worked a series of farm jobs through his teenage and college years to help support his mother and siblings.
     A lover of the outdoors, a gardener and fisherman, Taj pursued a degree in animal husbandry at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. But he dropped out after only two years as his guitar playing in the Boston region began to draw large crowds. “I sought out people whose image and energy came across as positive,” he tells Foehr to explain his inspiration, and cites Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King as great influences. He took the name Taj Mahal to identify with the spirituality of his music. Taj joined his first national band — the Rising Sons — in a musical live-in community in Los Angeles and almost immediately encountered trouble with his recording label. While the Sons were successfully opening for Otis Redding and the Temptations, Columbia Records was pushing for commercial success with a hit single. Simultaneously, Taj sought marketing and promotion support, which he believed was insufficient. Amid the complications and difficulties moving forward, the Rising Sons disbanded.
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