Maria Muldaur’s musical roots run as deep and varied as Greenwich Village, the place she was born and raised. Bluegrass, folk, blues, jazz and gospel were all around her, but her very first musical influences in the early ‘50s were from the records of country and western singers that she would hear coming in faintly over the airwaves from a little station in New Jersey - Hank Williams, Kitty Wells, Hank Snow and Ernest Tubb.
“I was a Me girl trapped in the urban jungle and the magic of radio opened up the world of country music to me,” Maria recalls. When she was five years old, her Aunt Katie would play piano as young Maria would sing Kitty Wells’ “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels”, complete with appropriate voice cracks and yodels. As a teenager, Maria tuned into the black radio stations way at the end of the radio dial and became an avid fan of early rhythm and blues - Fats Domino, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Little Willie John, Clyde McPhatter and Ruth Brown - she loved them all. She also became interested in the girl groups of the time. The Shirelles and The Chantelles were favorites, and in high school, Maria formed an all-girl doo-wop group, The Cashmeres. And when Elvis was drafted into the army and singers like Pat Boone started covering Little Richard songs, Maria was turned off. Pop radio was becoming watered-down, offering nothing of the vital, soulful rhythm and blues that had originally inspired her. In response, she tuned out and turned on to the wealth of American roots music that was being rediscovered right in her own backyard. On any given day, one could stroll through Washington Square Park in the Village and hear blues, jug band, gospel and old time music being played by enthusiastic young musicians. Soon Maria was hanging out and joining in on nightly jams and song swaps called Hootenannies.
In the Village, Maria soon became involved with The Friends of Old Timey Music, a group of people who traveled to the rural South to find legendary artists like Doc Watson, Bukka White, Skip James and Mississippi John Hurt, then bring them north to present them in concert to urban audiences. These fans were beginning to create a scene in Washington Square Park and in little neighborhood coffeehouses. With fiddles, guitars, harmonicas, banjos and other acoustic instruments, aspiring young musicians like John Sebastian, Bob Dylan, John Hammond, Jr. and Maria were both pursuing and creating a significant new wave in American roots music. Maria recalls, “We were all playing the ‘basket houses’, you know, the places where they would pass the basket and people would throw in some coins or whatever. Along with the Washington Square performers, I was on the same circuit as Richie Havens and Jose Feliciano. If we made six or seven bucks in an evening, we’d consider it an incredible night.”
“When I got out of high school, I moved into a loft not far from Washington Square Park. We used to have after hours jams on Saturday nights. Blues legends like the Reverend Gary Davis would come over, tell stories and play and sing. We’d stay up all night, then drive him up to Harlem, and without getting any sleep, he’d deliver a sermon. I found myself sitting at the feet of not only the Rev. Davis, but Mississippi John Hurt, Son House and blues diva Victoria Spivey. It was an incredible time.” At one point, deeply inspired by the pure mountain music of Doc Watson and the Watson Family, Maria left the intense New York scene and traveled to North Carolina to learn fiddle from Doc Watson and his father-in-law, Gaither Carlton. During her extended visits with the Watson family, Maria soaked up Appalachian music and culture from the nightly gatherings on Doc’s back porch. She attended many fiddle conventions, learned clog dancing, and added a wealth of Appalachian songs to her growing repertoire.
Meanwhile, back in New York and Boston, an old form of American music was reemerging into the fringe of alternative pop culture. “In the 1920s and ‘30s, jug band music had been the rural area’s answer to the more polished New Orleans blues and ragtime jazz emanating from radio,” Maria explains. “Musicians were not able to afford some of the more expensive instruments, so they would improvise, creating their own bass sounds on jugs and washtubs, substituting a washboard played with thimbles to recreate the percussion of a drum kit, and simulating the Dixieland sounds of trumpets and clarinets with kazoos and harmonicas. Mandolins, guitars and banjos completed the jug band sound.”
After returning to New York from one of her visits to the South, Maria was approached by John Sebastian, David Grisman and several other musical buddies who had formed a jug band and were about to record for Spivey Records, which was owned by Victoria Spivey. The savvy Spivey suggested to the eager youth, some of them still in high school, that while their musicianship was certainly not in question, the band definitely needed some “sex appeal.” To that end, she encouraged them to add Maria to their Even Dozen Jug Band.
In preparation for the recording, Maria and band mates pored through hundreds of old blues and jug band 78s, looking for good songs, absorbing as much as they could from these soulful and spirited genres. They drew their repertoire from bands like the Memphis Jug Band, The Beale Street Sheiks and Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers. “This was my first exploration of early blues, and it was during this time that I first heard the early recordings of Memphis Minnie,” Maria recalls. “I was deeply moved and influenced by her raw, soulful sound, To this day she remains one of my main musical inspirations. I avidly listened to a lot of the early women blues singers, and added many of Bessie Smith’s and Ma Rainey’s bawdy songs to my repertoire. Before I knew it, Victoria Spivey took me under her wing and with her encouraging tutelage, I was singing the blues!”
The young folk label, Elektra Records, caught wind of the burgeoning jug band craze, and just prior to Even Dozen’s studio time, bought their contract from Victoria Spivey. “We were paid $65 each for the record and played all of four gigs - two of them were Carnegie Hall, one was in a church and the other, “ she says , “ on the TV show, Hootenanny. “ Most folk clubs could not afford the unwieldy thirteen-piece Even Dozen Jug Band, so after our auspicious beginning, the band soon dissolved, with the boys going to college and me migrating to Cambridge, Massachusetts, another hub of the American folk scene.”
Not long after her arrival in 1964, Maria joined The Jim Kweskin Jug Band, and soon married her fellow band mate, blues vocalist/washboard player, Geoff Muldaur, her music and life partner until 1972. Her first recorded song with them was “I’m A Woman”, the anthem of feminine power and joyful sexuality. It has been her theme song ever since. The Kweskin Band recorded three important albums for Vanguard Records, one for Reprise Records, and did extensive festival dates and touring of college campuses all over the US and Canada. Maria took only a few weeks off to give birth to a lovely daughter, Jennie May Muldaur.
When the group disbanded in 1968, Maria and Geoff remained with Reprise Records, recording two acclaimed albums, Pottga Pie and Sweet Potatoes. The couple by this time had migrated to Woodstock, New York, where they became part of a new musical community that included Bob Dylan, The Band, Janis Joplin’s Full TiIt Boogie Band, Paul Butterfield and many other notable artists. These musicians had already made the transition from acoustic folk music to a more full-blown contemporary (and lucrative) electric sound. The musical environment was fertile and led to creative collaboration. “During numerous all-night jam sessions, musicians like Paul Butterfield and Rick Danko encouraged me to express myself with the raw power and energy that would equal the intensity of their playing.” Ironically, it was Geoff who joined Butterfield to form Better Days, thus dissolving the musical and marital partnership with Maria.
“We had a friendly breakup, but I was left weeping in the driveway in Woodstock, a young woman with a five-year old kid. I went to our manager, Albert Grossman, and asked him for a job as a waitress in one of his restaurants. I really had no vision of carrying on as a solo artist because for most of my adult life, my career had been tied to Geoffrey as the musical mastermind. I was just a cooperative team player.”
A dear friend, guitarist David Nichtern, encouraged Maria to keep singing. They put a duet together to play small clubs, at times augmented by Bonnie Raitt’s bassist, Freebo. As fate would have it, on a return visit to New York to purchase a “goodbye” present for Geoff at Brooks Brothers, Maria ran into Reprise Records president, Mo Ostin. Maria informed him that the duo act that he had signed to his label no longer existed. Instead of disappointment, Ostin’s reaction was to offer Maria the opportunity to make her first solo album.
Maria’s musical path led her away from chilly Woodstock to the sunny climate of Los Angeles. She began recording her first solo album with producer Lenny Waronker at the helm. Finding herself collaborating in the studio with peers Dr. John, Ry Cooder, Jim Keltner, David Lindley, Ray Brown, Amos Garrett, Richard Green, and Clarence White went a long way in validating Maria as an independent musical force. But the album needed one more song. As a gesture to her supportive friend, David Nichtern, Maria gave the nod to the little ditty he offered up. It was “Midnight at the Oasis”.
Her 1974 Warner Brothers debut album, Maria Muldaur, went platinum in two years. “Midnight at the Oasis” remains to this day, a staple song on multi-formatted radio, has entered the hallowed halls and elevators of Musak, given guitarist Amos Garrett his place in the pantheon of the Top 25 Guitar Solos of Rock ‘n’ Roll (Musician Magazine) and forever enshrined Maria in the minds of baby boomers the world over. Four WB albums followed, including her acclaimed second disc, Waitress in a Donut Shop, which contained her next hit single, a remake of “I’m A Woman”. She continued to invite her friends to join her in these musical adventures, and the list is a who’s who of the true lasting greats in American music - Dr. John, Ry Cooder, Paul Butterfield, Lowell George, Linda Ronstadt, Stevie Wonder, Jr. Walker, James Booker, Benny Carter, J.J. Cale, Kenny Burrell, Hoagy Carmichael and Doc Watson, to name but a handful.
In the eighties, Maria continued her musical odyssey, recording two critically-received jazz albums, two gospel albums and one album of swing tunes for “kids of all ages”. Sweet and Slow, her 1984 duet album with longtime collaborator, Dr. John, featured songs by Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and another of Maria’s blues heroines, Sippie Wallace, who had personally pitched her “Adam & Eve Got the Blues”. It was a song that Sippie had recorded with Louis Armstrong fifty years previously. (Maria has first recorded with Sippie in 1968, when she and members of the Kweskin Band coaxed the venerable blues legend out of retirement, brought her to New York, presented her in concert and produced an album for her.) Maria’s 1986 release, Transblucency, garnered the New York Times Pop/Jazz Album of the Year Award.
Always eager to expand her versatility, Maria also delved into a logical outgrowth of her powerful stage performances - that of musical theatre when she was asked to join the stage production of the hit musical “Pump Boys and Dinettes. “ One year later, she replaced Linda Ronstadt in the touring company of “Pirates of Penzance”. Maria laughs, “It was real hard work and was also quite an acting job playing a 21-year-old Victorian virgin, but I did it!” The result of three months of this intense and challenging vocal workout was a stronger, deeper, much more supple voice. She returned to touring with her band, incorporating her new found vocal strength into her growing fondness (thanks to Dr. John) for New Orleans music. Maria was delivering high energy shows to audiences all over the world. She dubbed this gumbo of straight ahead blues, R&B and Louisiana music, “bluesiana”.
In 1992, Maria signed with Black Top Records. Louisiana Love Call, recorded in her beloved New Orleans, came at a time when American roots music began to experience a gigantic worldwide surge in popularity. The album featured guest appearances by Dr. John, Aaron and Charles Neville, accordionist Zachary Richard and guitar guru Amos Garrett. Instantly embraced by critics and fans alike, with impressive accolades coming in from everywhere, Louisiana Love Call was hailed as the best album of her career. Rolling Stone, People, Entertainment Weekly and Billboard, adult alternative radio and blues radio raved. The album was awarded Best Adult Alternative Album of the Year by the National Association of Independent Record Distributors. She also garnered a nomination for Outstanding Blues Album from the Bay Area Music Awards. The album now holds the distinction of being Black Top’s best-selling album to date.
In 2000 Maria finished up a long time project, Richland Woman Blues, for Stony Plain Records. This was a project close to her heart and features many old friends like Taj Mahal, Bonnie Raitt, Roy Rogers and Alvin Youngblood Hart. This album was not only nominated for a Grammy, but also for two W. C. Handy Awards in 2001.
Recording for more than 30 years, Maria Muldaur has moved from jug-band music to Tin Pan Alley pop, blues, and jazz. It is the latter two genres that have most defined her output since the 1980s. A Woman Alone with the Blues, from 2003, was Muldaur’s tribute to jazz vocalist Peggy Lee, and she’s followed that with this set of ten thematically linked odes to love. It’s a testament to the subtle dramatics of her voice that she is equally convincing when singing of love on the rise, or of its melancholy demise. Smartly sequenced and warmly arranged, the disc moves gracefully from the sunshine to the moonlight. From dreamy anticipation to heartache, this is a portrait of the varied and elusive faces of love.
Sweet Lovin’ Ol’ Soul (2005) finds Maria Muldaur returning to her roots and paying special tribute to Memphis Minnie. Assisted by such notables as singer-guitarist Taj Mahal and guitarist Del Rey, Muldaur really excels on the vintage material and in this acoustic setting. Rather than sounding like a revivalist, her sensitive and witty vocals show a real understanding for the music and make her sound like a veteran of the era even though she is about 50 years too young!
Maria states on her web site that her goal is “. . . to continue growing and improving as a singer of soulful songs all of my life.” It’s a single point of focus that has steered her long career through some tricky twists and turns and has provided an anchor for a remarkably consistent recording career. Love Wants to Dance (2004) is an elegant, swinging celebration of love in song played to a soundtrack of jazzy blues and sleek R&B. This is a gorgeous record, one that in its subdued, classy presentation showcases the totality of Muldaur’s considerable gift.
Maria Muldaur's roots are in the Folk revival of the early '60s, a time when figures like Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan were making bold statements about the civil rights movement, Vietnam, and other burning issues of the day. More than four decades later, in the face of political and social issues in which the stakes are equally high, Muldaur assembles a group of legendary female performers to lend their voices in a critical examination of where we are as a nation and where we're going. The guest list on Yes We Can! (2008) features The Women's Voices for Peace Choir and The Free Radicals, including Bonnie Raitt, Joan Baez, Phoebe Snow, Odetta and Jane Fonda.
Maria Muldaur, returns to her original roots - Jug Band Music - with Maria Muldaur & Her Garden of Joy (2009)! Maria first recorded in the early ‘60s with both The Even Dozen and The Jim Kweskin Jug Bands. She has reunited with several of her former jug band mates and recorded many tunes from the classic jug band era (early ‘30s), as well as two hilarious newly penned gems by Dan Hicks. Special guests include John Sebastian, David Grisman, Taj Mahal, Dan Hicks, Fritz Richmond and sensational discovery Kit Stovepipe. This is happy, lighthearted, “Good Time Music for Hard Times” indeed!
Maria Muldaur returns to her much beloved New Orleans and collaborates with her favorite Crescent City musicians to produce Steady Love (2011), a high energy album of blues and swamp funk, full of soul & grit, bad to the bone, and played with reckless abandon. Working with some of NOLA’s best players including members of the Neville Bros. band, the subdudes, and Boz Scaggs’ band, the sessions were recorded with keyboard legend David Torkinowski as music director. Guests also include Maria’s daughter Jenni Muldaur and Rick Vito (Fleetwood Mac). Steady Love is a soulful album of raw bluesianna material by a vocal master.