Mac Rebennack, a.k.a. Dr. John, first introduced Maria Muldaur to the frisky, risqué songs of New Orleans’ Blue Lu Barker. During sessions for the self-titled debut album that features Muldaur’s first national hit, “Midnight at the Oasis,” Rebennack suggested she cut “Don’t You Feel My Leg.”
Barker recorded the original version of the bawdy blues classic—co-written with Danny Barker, her larger-than-life musician husband—in 1938. “Don’t you feel my leg,” she sings with a mix of hesitation and desire. “’Cause if you feel my leg, you’ll wanna feel my thigh. And if you feel my thigh, you’ll wanna go up high.”
From her home in the San Francisco Bay area, Muldaur tells OffBeat how, in the early 70s, recording artists signed to major labels could easily book their favorite musicians for sessions. “Dr. John was one of my favorites,” she says. “So, one day, Mac comes in the studio and says, ‘Hey. I gotta a song for ya.’ He pulls out a cassette and plays Blue Lu’s ‘Don’t You Feel My Leg.’ Mac put a great arrangement together and we cut the tune.”
Muldaur’s appreciation for American roots music dates to her youth in Greenwich Village. During the 1950s and ’60s folk revival, she steeped herself in blues, jazz, gospel and old-time country music. After singing with the Jim Kweskin Jug Band through much of the ’60s, she wanted her major label solo debut to be both rootsy and eclectic. She never expected to record a hit. “A goofy little song about a camel,” she says. “We weren’t looking for a hit by any means, but to our surprise, ‘Midnight at the Oasis’ became a huge hit.”
The song achieved hit status, but people also loved the album track “Don’t You Feel My Leg.” A national survey of radio stations conducted by Muldaur’s label, Warner Bros., found that listeners requested “Don’t You Feel My Leg” more than “Midnight at the Oasis.” The label considered releasing “Don’t You Feel My Leg” as the album’s second single.
“But in the end,” Muldaur says, “and to show you how times have changed, Warner Bros. figured that, if they released that song as a single, I’d be pigeonholed as a ‘red hot mama.’ They asked me if I wanted that. Innocent idiot that I was, I said, ‘Oh, no! I want to be known as a serious artiste.’”
Although “Don’t You Feel My Leg” didn’t get a chance to be a hit single, the song has always been an audience favorite. “It’s still the song people respond to most when I perform,” Muldaur says. “More than ‘Midnight.’”
To Muldaur’s surprise, her 1973 album debut sold millions of copies. “So, the songwriters were due royalties,” she says. “Warner Bros. had to dig around to find the publishing company for ‘Don’t You Feel My Leg.’ When they found them, they told Warners Bros., ‘Oh, that song’s writers are deceased. Send the royalty check to us.’”
Muldaur wisely brought the matter of the Barkers’s royalties to Rebennack’s attention. “Mac said, ‘Deceased! The f— they are. I just seen ’em two weeks ago down on Bourbon Street.’ With Mac’s help,” Muldaur says, “we found Blue Lu and Danny and sent them the first of many big royalty checks. They were already in their 60s, living down in New Orleans again. And we sent them a gold album, which they proudly displayed on their living room wall.”
On tour in 1974, Muldaur invited the Barkers to her New Orleans show. “We were great friends from that point forward,” she says. “It was an honor to know them. They were both so charming and cool, and such unique, soulful people.”
Muldaur’s Grammy-nominated forty-first album, Don’t You Feel My Leg—The Naughty Bawdy Blues of Blue Lu Barker, features more songs from the Barkers’s catalog. She’ll perform selections from the album during a Blue Lu Barker tribute on April 27 at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Muldaur’s all-star New Orleans band at Jazz Fest will include pianist David Torkanowsky, drummer Herlin Riley, and bassist Roland Guerin, all of whom appear on The Naughty Bawdy Blues of Blue Lu Barker.
The tribute album evolved from a Blue Lu Barker tribute concert Muldaur performed, during the 2016 Danny Barker Banjo and Guitar Festival. With that show in mind, she searched for and found many songs by the Barkers that she hadn’t heard before. “They’re equally naughty and bawdy and funny (as “Don’t You Feel My Leg”), slightly risqué, but never vulgar,” she attests.
Following that 2016 Blue Lu Barker tribute, members of the Palm Court Café audience swarmed Muldaur’s merchandise table, expecting to find an album featuring the Barker songs that Muldaur had just performed. But Muldaur hadn’t recorded the project yet. “It took me a couple of years to pull it together, but I finally made the album last June down in New Orleans,” she says. “I hope the fun factor comes through on the recording. We had a ball making it.”
Saturday April 27
Blues Tent, 4:05 p.m.