Serious Artiste or Red-Hot Mama? BOTH!
Maria Muldaur explores the naughty, bawdy side of roots-rock
As a child of the '60s, a survivor of the '70s, an art-school anarchist of the '80s and a patient observer during the '90s and 2000's, I can unequivocally state that one of the most sensual performances of the '70s in particular or any decade in general is Maria Muldaur's original recording of "Midnight At The Oasis."
From her self-titled solo debut released in August of 1973, the all-star recording arrived in the middle of a perfect storm. FM radio was gaining traction, but the national Top 40 was still relevant. Both outlets were kind to Muldaur and her self-described "little three-minute Rudolph Valentino movie." Her other album cuts could be heard on forward-thinking rock, blues and jazz stations. Due to her commercial popularity, she was also featured on a number of the television variety shows of the day.
Although technically a modern artist of the era, her song selection, delivery and on-stage persona suggested a soulful performer beamed in from another time, the personification of a mysteriously alluring voice from a long-lost 78 rpm record.
Currently on the road with her 41st album, Don't You Feel My Leg, The Naughty, Bawdy Blues of Blue Lu Barker, recorded this summer in New Orleans, her current tour includes a local stop at The Red Light CafĂ© with her Red-Hot Bluesiana Band (including Atlanta-based drummer Adam Goodhue).
INsite spoke with Muldaur by phone from her home near San Francisco.
The new album is really good. The lead track, "Georgia Grind" is a fitting intro to the collection.
We wanted to put that one first to kind of represent the whole New Orleans side of what we are celebrating. It's not one that Blue Lu Barker wrote but it's an old classic from the songbook. It also has that naughty and bawdy feeling to it. It's just full of innuendo. It never really says exactly what the "Georgia Grind" is, it's left to your imagination. And, as I say in the liner notes, imagination is the best aphrodisiac.
Absolutely. As a listener growing up in the '60s and '70s, it's still so much sexier to see and hear a strong, provocative performer than today's crop of - as Exene Cervenka of X so aptly describes them - strippers.
Exactly. That's what so great about these songs is they're much sexier than the blatantly explicit, X-rated lyrics you hear in today's music.
In the '80s Madonna seemed shocking, but she's mild in comparison to what followed.
That's why I think the old blues singers like Bessie Smith and Blue Lu, for example, were so in touch with what was truly sexy and what sort of entertainment really endures.
Over the years, you've saluted influential female entertainers as diverse as Memphis Minnie, Peggy Lee and Shirley Temple. You actually knew Blue Lu and had a tight connection that went back to your very first album. How'd it all come about?
Well back in the day, I was doing my first solo recording for Warner Brothers, the one that had that "Midnight At The You-Know-What" on it. As you know, it became a huge hit and was nominated for Grammys and was a hit, not just in this country, but worldwide. I'm still known for that record. Go figure, a song about a camel! Anyway, I was blessed to find myself in the studio with so many of my musical heroes, greats like Dr. John, Ry Cooder, David Lindley and Jim Keltner. While we were working on the album, Dr. John suggested a song and played it for me. It was the Blue Lu Barker song called "Don't You Feel My Leg." I thought it was cute and fun so we did it and put it on the album. Later, after "Midnight" had been riding on the charts for months, they said that DJs were actually getting more requests for that song than "Midnight." They were strongly suggesting we release it as the second single from the album. They brought it up to me and I said, 'Ok, fine.' I was a neophyte and I just didn't know that much. It sounded like a good idea to me but then they said, 'We want you to consider that if we do release it as the second single, you might forever be known and pigeonholed as a sex symbol or a red-hot mama. You might prefer to be thought of as a serious artiste instead.' So I thought it over. Stupid, innocent, naive girl that I was said, 'You're right, I do want to be known as a serious artiste!' I only wish we'd released it then. But to this day, it remains my most requested song.
How did you finally connect with Blue Lu and [her husband, fellow musician and frequent collaborator] Danny Baker?
Since the song wasn't a single but was on a huge-selling album, we had a lot of mailbox money and royalties to send them. When we went to pay them, their publisher said, 'Oh they're diseased, just send the money to us.' We told Dr. John about it and he said, 'The f--- they are! I just seen 'en down on Bourbon Street three weeks ago.' He got their correct contact info and we mailed them the first of many fat royalty checks. They were very grateful for that. I finally met them when I was in New Orleans on tour in '74 and we became friends. They were delightful people and we remained in touch over the years. I even sent them a gold album which they proudly displayed on their wall.
They had a great history, but you brought them several new generations of attention.
Well they were both fixtures on the New Orleans music scene for decades and they were both from there. But a lot of their records were recorded with many of the great New York jazz players. Danny had played rhythm guitar with Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holliday and they had such great stories. Every time I'd go to New Orleans, I'd see them. Because of our friendship, in 2016 I was invited to do a tribute concert to them. I knew a few of their recordings but as I started digging around, I discovered to my delight that they'd written dozens of songs - equally naughty, bawdy and clever and funny as "Don't You Feel My Leg." I put together a stellar band of New Orleans players and we had a great evening of their music.
Were you surprised by the audience reaction to the songs?
People came rushing over to the CD table and wanted to know, 'Which CD has the songs we just heard?' Then a little lightbulb went on over my head: we've gotta make an album of this material and share it with the world. It took a couple of years to pull it all together. My friend Bill Wyman hooked me up with The Last Music Company, a wonderful label out the UK. They specialize in vintage music. We recorded it this summer in New Orleans and I'm very excited about it.
It's also exciting that this is your 41st album.
It's hard for me to believe. But that does include compilations and all, but why not?
You've captured a fresh vitality with the performances on this album. In many ways, it reminds me a lot of your first album.
Well when I first started listening to all of these other recordings of Blue Lu, I noticed that she didn't have a loud, belting, deep voice like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Memphis Minnie or Sippie Wallace or many of my other musical heroes. She had a very light, lilting voice. Listening back now, in retrospect, it's something like the young voice I had when I was recording my first solo album. I just bet something about that voice back then reminded Mac [Rebennack, aka Dr. John] of Blue Lu, which is what probably made him suggest that song.
It was a perfect match.
It really was. When you consider these songs emerged in New York City in the early '40s, as did I, then it's no surprise that I have a natural affinity for the sound. A song like "Down In The Alley," even though it was recorded in the '40s, is sort of a jump-blues precursor to the rock and roll of Bill Haley and the Comets. She was way ahead of her time.
At times, it seems that you are almost channeling her spirit.
I didn't try to copy her, but I noticed that she had a crisp, slightly coy, very understated way of singing. She didn't go on and on and there are no big vocal histrionics or belting. It was almost droll, the way she naturally sang the lyrics and even though it's blues, there's a good sprinkling of jazz. As we worked on it, I really could feel myself channeling the recordings. And the band was great, we had some of New Orleans' finest players. It was just a fun record to do, which is what I think you're hearing.
Speaking of channeling, it's really cool to know that Danny's actual guitar was being played on the sessions.
Oh, that was such a gift. We felt like the spirits of Lu and Danny were really coming through on this record. I wanted to feature the band and let everyone express their unique selves through their solos and just interpret it as they wished. The real cool horn parts, we lifted almost entirely from the original recordings because we wanted to keep that original sound. But we also wanted to infuse it with the whole New Orleans sound. I actually think our versions of these songs might have a more high-energy vibe than the originals. Not that they're better but they're just more akin to what people are used to hearing nowadays. For the modern ear, you know.
This is one of those great records where the band is playing live in the studio and the vocalist is right there in the middle of the mix.
Yes! A real band, playing together. What a novel concept, right? There's no click track. There's no 'fixing it in the mix.' You can hear that [legendary jazz drummer] Herlin Riley was in the center, and he was the whole backbone of the thing. He just gets so full of irrepressible joy. All of that stuff that goes on during some of the songs, the ad-libbing, it's all purely off-the-cuff. We'd shout back and forth as we were recording and you couldn't write that stuff even if you wanted to. It was just irrepressible spontaneity.
That's a real jazz performance.
I just let the band shine and then mixed them up, way loud. Some female singers might want the band mixed in the back with the vocal up front, but I really took pains to make all the instruments as present as possible. People were doing such interesting stuff.
Are you bringing the band from the album along with you on the road?
Oh in my dreams! I could never afford to take those guys on the road. They're like the triple A-team of New Orleans. But will have my wonderful Red-Hot Bluesiana Band with me. Chris Burns, on keyboards and bass, has been with me for over twenty-five years. He plays like Dr. John with his right hand and kicks funky bass with his left hand. He's my MVP. A wonderful guitarist and vocalist Craig Caffall, a great trumpet player named Lizzy Stanton and Adam Goodhue, a drummer we've worked with before out here. We were very sad when he moved to Atlanta. But we're happy to have him on tour because he really specializes in this kind of drumming. Harlan Riley from the band on the album, is his personal drum hero. He's become quite popular in Atlanta, but I first heard him when he was in a vintage swing band out here. He's my go-to guy for capturing this sort of old-timey-but-greasy New Orleans syncopated sound.
After all these years, it's great to know that you've retained the Bluesiana name. It's so descriptive of your sound.
I made that word up years ago to describe the kind of New Orleans-flavored R&B, what we call swamp-funk, that we like to play. One of my [most recent] studio albums was called Steady Love. I did that in New Orleans, too and that was about as swamp-funky as I got. But I've recorded quite a few albums in that genre.
We've been talking about the whole blues and New Orleans mystique, but it seems that you've always been influenced by - and even drawn to - the music of the south, though you grew up in the folk scene of New York.
Yeah I fell in love with old-timey music, and this is a gal growing up in New York City, right? A young Italian-American gal. I grew up in Greenwich Village which was becoming the epicenter of what they were calling the folk music scene. Now I can call it roots music, because folk music conjured up images of wispy gals with long hair, sitting on a stool, strumming a nylon-string guitar and singing about her feelings. I like the word "roots" much better. I was also an avid bluegrass aficionado as I was growing up. Not too many people know about this, but I was in a bluegrass band called Maria and the Washington Square Ramblers with David Grisman when we were both teenagers.
You were at basically ground zero of the New York folk scene.
Yeah, you could put it that way. I was into bluegrass, I was asked to join a jug band. I was in the Jim Kweskin Jug Band for a number of years. Maybe it's because my folks are from the southern-most tip of Italy and I'm from the southern-most tip of Manhattan, but I've been naturally drawn to the music of the American South. All of our greatest music emanated from there. So when we get to the Red Light, we're really gonna mix it up. We're gonna do a tribute to Allen Toussaint and a lot of songs from the new album.
And you can't forget the old favorites.
No matter how many records I put out - and an artist is always excited about the new album, as you know - but we've learned that there are certain tunes we'd better perform no matter what else is going on or what new album I might have out. The guys in the band call them "the big three." It's "Midnight At The Oasis," "Don't You Feel My Leg," and "It Ain't The Meat, It's The Motion." So the show is gonna be funky, it's gonna be greasy and it's gonna be fun.
It's gonna be great!
Well thank you, but that's up to you to say. But I will say, I don't know how many more of these tours I'm gonna be doing, so people better come out and see me while they can! Now, I do realize coming out to hear live music is so different that listening to music on whatever geeky little device you have, your earbuds or whatever, it's very different. People need to get out in real life and just back away from their computer screens and laptops and the daily onslaught of bad news. Physically come together in the same space in community and enjoy some uplifting music. That's what it's all about. No matter how good a record you make, it's not the same as the impact you can have when you're all in a room together, enjoying the live music experience.
It is interesting you're coming out with "Don't You Feel My Leg," during the #MeToo movement. In many ways, it's a very strong anthem of female empowerment.
Yeah, I've thought about that, too. I think Blue Lu was just way ahead of her time. Because in the song, while it's suggestive and playful, she's basically telling the guy, 'You might take me dancing and buy me a glass of wine, but I know you got something else on your mind. You say we'll have a ball and a lovely time, but what I've got is mine all mine.' She's saying, 'Yes you can take me out, you can buy me drinks, you can buy me dinner and we can go dancing. But don't just assume that because you've done that, you can have your way with me.' Basically she's saying that you're not gonna feel my leg until I give you my sweet permission. It's gonna proceed only when I say it can and will. It's very clearly stated with no victimization. I think the musicians of that age were hip beyond their time. They told it like it still is, so I think it's the perfect song for today. I thank God every day that I'm able to bring some moments of joy like that to the people who still want to hear it.
Maria Muldaur performs Saturday, October 6 at The Red Light CafĂ©. Doors open at 7, showtime is 8 p.m. For more information, please visit redlightcafe.com.