Although she’s probably best known for the massive 1974 pop hit “Midnight at the Oasis,” Maria Muldaur is also a highly prolific and versatile recording artist. Over a career that currently spans 40 albums, she’s tackled folk, bluegrass, hard rock, soul, jazz, blues, country, gospel, show tunes and children’s music along the way.
Born Maria D’Amato in Greenwich Village in New York City in 1943, she attended Hunter College of Music. Not surprisingly, by the early 1960s she had become engrossed in the local folk music and cultural scene and began performing in cafes with the likes of John Sebastian and Stefan Grossman. By the middle of the decade, she had joined Jim Kweskin and his Jug Band, where she played violin and was an occasional vocalist. In the late 1960s, she and her then husband Geoff Muldaur (a Jug Band alum) began performing and recording together. It wasn’t until 1973 that she embarked on a solo career. Her first album—Maria Muldaur—started things off very well indeed, as it contained her million-seller, “Midnight at the Oasis” After several major-label releases, she fell in with Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, as they often shared the stage and studio.
By the 1980s, Muldaur’s landscape had broadened as she began exploring other “rootsy” musical avenues with a series of album releases. Along the way were even forays to New Orleans’ Ultrasonic Studio. She recorded Louisiana Love Call for local Black Top label in 1992, returning two years later to lay down Meet Me at Midnight. Recent highlights of her career include a Grammy nomination for the album Sweet Lovin’ Ol’ Soul in 2005. Last year, she was a Blues Music Award nominee for best female vocalist.
To celebrate/commemorate her 52nd anniversary in the music business, as well as the 40th anniversary of “Midnight at the Oasis” (not to mention the 20th anniversary of Meet Me at Midnight), Muldaur is embarking on the aptly named “Well Past Midnight” tour with her Bluesiana band. The tour will stop in nearly two-dozen cities and will end November 14 on Frenchmen Street at Snug Harbor. We were lucky enough to catch up with Ms. Muldaur via telephone on a rare day off after a stop in Cleveland, Ohio.
How did you develop your obvious affection for New Orleans music?
I first visited the French Quarter in 1964, way before it became a theme park. I went to Preservation Hall and saw Sweet Emma, George Lewis and Papa Celestin. Back then, red beans and rice was a dime and a Jax beer was a quarter. In the ’70s, I had moved to the West Coast and started up a long musical association with Dr. John [who was living in L.A. at the time] and we toured for a while. He got me addicted to that rolling, greasy New Orleans sound. In later years I visited and recorded there a lot. In all the bands I’ve had, I asked the musicians to listen to New Orleans music and to study that sound. I visited so much, people thought I had moved to New Orleans—and I almost did at one point. I even call my band Bluesiana—I thought that was clever when I thought of it, but I found out later John Mooney used that same name and Dr. John used it in the title of an album. I like to say, ‘My furniture is in the Bay Area, but my heart is in New Orleans.’
Who are your favorite New Orleans artists?
A lot of the artists you’d expect—Irma Thomas, Johnny Adams, all the Neville Brothers and of course the older Dixieland musicians. It was Dr. John that turned me on to James Booker—I thought Booker was a god. I’ve collected all of his bootleg CDs that have come out over the years.
One of my favorite New Orleans musicians is David Torkanowsky. We get along real well, maybe because we have the same birthday. He’s just got it—jazz, funk, blues—Tork can play it all. He directed a Peggy Lee tribute album I did in New Orleans called Steady Love.
My other favorite musician is Cranston Clements. He’s really got a gift on the guitar. Several times I’ve tried to hire him and get him to move to the Bay Area, but he’s got a family and he said he couldn’t take the job.
What do you recall about those Black Top albums you recorded here?
That was Nauman and Hammond Scott’s label. That label was a large part of keeping the blues out there back then [1990s]. They had quite the roster of artists then. Nauman was a real articulate guy. Hammond was more of a character. The first album Louisiana Love Call had a lot of great New Orleans musicians on it. In addition to Tork, Cranston and Dr. John, the late Herman Ernest played drums. The title track was a duet with Aaron Neville—that was a dream come true for me.
Are you reflective of your career at this point, or do you still feel that there are still new bridges to cross?
A little of both. I was writing a check earlier this year and I looked at the date on the check. I thought to myself, “Gee it’s been 40 years since ‘Midnight At the Oasis’ came out.” Time sure flies by when you’re having fun. I’ve done an album a year since then and every time one came out I toured and featured material from that album on my shows. People at shows would always ask me to do some of my old numbers. But I’d say something smart-assed on stage like, “Oh, go pull out your old vinyl.”
Before I get to the 41st album though, I thought I would put together a show that reflected my career up to this point. Some of these songs I’m doing I haven’t done in 20 or 30 years. The band had to learn them, so in a way it’s like learning new material. I put the show together, which is a first for me. I’ve always had a writer or a producer. I joke that my company should be called “Seat of My Pants Productions.” The current show now is musical and visual. We dug up a bunch of old photos going back to when I played violin. And, of course, we do a lot of the older material.
So far the reaction from the audience has been great. It’s really taken me by surprise. People come up all the time and tell me what they were doing when a certain song I did came out, which is a real blast.
But I’m still looking forward to future projects. I’m blessed that my voice has held up this long, and I still enjoy exploring roots music. I’ve been nominated for six Grammys, but I’ve never won one yet. Before I hang up my rock-and-roll shoes, I want to win one of my own.
Obviously the music business has changed radically since you got your foot in the door, but what kind of advice can offer a youngster who is interested in pursuing a career in music?
I’m not the best person to ask that question. When I got started, the word “career” wasn’t in my vocabulary. I didn’t look at music as a career until 10 or 15 years ago. I just followed my passion—old-timey, Dixieland, blues and gospel music. I had a hit, which was a matter of right-place, right-time. I also worked with some great musicians along the way like the ones I mentioned and people like Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt and Benny Carter. That helped a lot.
I will say this—music better be in your blood because it’s a ruthless business today. And being on the road isn’t for sissies, believe me. It’s like B.B. King once said, “They pay me to travel. The music I do for free.” But if you got some talent and a little bit of luck, you just might have a hit.
Do you have a set formula set down for making albums?
I approach each one differently. But, about 20 years ago, an engineer told me about Pro Tools. I said, “Oh I’m not interested. Analog has always worked for me.” Finally, he convinced me to try it and guess what? Since then, I’ve recorded three albums in my living room. I always hire the best musicians that I can afford. Believe me, the budget on a blues recording these days is less than a shoestring budget. I don’t write, but I feel like I’ve got a pretty good ear and can pick a good song.
What have you been listening to lately?
I had a birthday party recently and Taj Mahal came by. He gave me a box set of his complete recordings, which has given me hours and hours of listening pleasure. Then there’s the old standbys—James Booker, Memphis Minnie and old Dixieland and gospel.
Looking forward to stopping here again?
Always do. Going to visit a lot of old friends and eat some fabulous food. A lot of times you do the gig in the city and get back in the bus right away. But this time I’ll have some time. Tork plays at Preservation Hall on Tuesdays, so I’ll be there. The last time I was in Preservation Hall, they pulled Sweet Emma’s megaphone out of its case and let me sing through it. Definitely see lots of music. Certainly any place Tork and Cranston are playing, I’ll be there.
You have a “mission” that’s close to your heart that’s directed at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
Yes I do. My 40th album was a tribute to Memphis Minnie [Lizzie “Kid” Douglas]. Memphis Minnie was born in Algiers, Louisiana . I’ve taken that little ferry across the Mississippi to see the historic marker there paying tribute to her. Memphis Minnie was a prolific blues woman who recorded over 250 songs and played the hell out of the guitar. But not too many people know about her. I’d like to replicate that album at the festival. A few years ago I did a tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s album. Quint Davis heard it. He flipped out and booked us. We did the Sister Rosetta Tharpe tribute out at the Fairgrounds. George Wein was so taken that at one point he pushed Tork off the piano stool and started playing. Everybody involved in the project [guitarists Del Ray and Rory Block] said they’d jump at the chance to do these songs on stage. If there’s any “heritage” left at the Jazz Fest, I think they should let us do this tribute out there.