By Ray Shasho
Maria Muldaur interview:
MEMPHIS MINNIE (Lizzie Douglas) was born in Algiers, Louisiana. At thirteen years old, she ran away to Memphis, Tennessee playing her guitar at local nightclubs. In 1929, a Columbia Records talent scout signed Minnie and her new husband Kansas Joe McCoy to a recording contract which led to their hit song “Bumble Bee.”
Minnie became an American blues icon. Not only was she a female trendsetter, but also among the first musicians to play an electric guitar. Minnie was musically engaged between the 1920’s and 1950’s, accomplishing an incredible forty-year journey in show business as a disciple for the blues, an unimaginable undertaking for a woman and a blues artist during those times. She was very popular during the early Depression years through World War II.
Minnie combined her Louisiana-country roots with Memphis-blues, which transformed into electric urban- blues and helped pave the way for artists like Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Little Walter and Jimmy Rogers.
She was an exceptional singer, songwriter and virtuoso multi-instrumentalist. One of Minnie’s co-penned classics was with husband Kansas Joe McCoy, “When the Levee Breaks” (1929), a tune re-created by countless artists over the years including Led Zeppelin. A few other legendary compositions by Memphis Minnie include, “Nothing in Rambling,” “In My Girlish Days,” “Looking the World Over,” and “Me and My Chauffer Blues.”
Memphis Minnie died at the age of 76 in 1973.
The blues are probably the most important genre in American history, and yet there are still many pioneers of the genre that are either forgotten or unknown. And besides the fabulous Bessie Smith, early blues-women are rarely discussed … until now.
MARIA MULDAUR has rekindled the spirit of a legendary blues-woman on her latest release … First Came Memphis Minnie. The album is also a milestone for Maria, it being her 40th recording in an illustrious musical career.
Maria Muldaur began her melodious journey in the early 60s performing blues, bluegrass, and Appalachian “Old Timey” music with John Sebastian, David Grisman, and Stefan Grossman, as a member of the Even Dozen Jug Band. In 1963, she became vocalist for Jim Kweskin & His Jug Band and became part of a Greenwich Village scene that included legendary songwriter Bob Dylan. Maria married guitarist, composer, and fellow jug band member Geoff Muldaur.
When the marriage ended, she began a solo career. Maria’s self-titled first album was released in 1973. The album spawned the megahit “Midnight at the Oasis” (1974 hit #6 on Billboards’ Top 100). The seductive lyrics were evenly matched by Maria’s seductive performance. Maria performed the song on The Midnight Special and Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert. The song penned by music/television/ film composer David Nichterm earned the singer several Grammy nominations.
In 1974, Maria Muldaur opened concerts for Stephen Stills and The Grateful Dead, and also became a backup singer for ‘The Dead’ in the late 70s.
Maria Muldaur continues to sing, record, develop, produce, and amaze audiences by covering American Roots music. Her eclectic musical styles have included gospel, R&B, jazz, and big-band. Maria has also recorded several award-winning children’s albums. But it’s apparent that her favorite genre is the blues. The critically-acclaimed Richland Woman Blues album (2001) was nominated for a Grammy and by The Blues Foundation as Best Traditional Blues Album of the Year. Her follow-up album Sweet Lovin’ Ol’ Soul was also nominated.
In 2009, the album Maria Muldaur & Her Garden of Joy captured Maria’s 6th Grammy nomination.
In 2011, Muldaur returned to New Orleans (her “musical and spiritual home”) to record a contemporary electric blues album entitled, Steady Love. Maria calls her favorite music to perform “Bluesiana Music” … her brand of New Orleans-flavored blues, R&B, and “Swamp Funk.” Steady Love reached #1 on the Living Blues Radio Charts.
Her latest release First Came Memphis Minnie features an incredible lineup of legendary musicians including classic tracks by Phoebe Snow and Koko Taylor. Also new recordings by Bonnie Raitt, Rory Block, and Ruthie Foster … and previously released tracks that Muldaur recorded with Alvin Youngblood Hart, Del Ray, Roy Rogers, and Steve James. The recording is also produced by Maria.
The album is pure, down-home soulful blues at its finest …If you love the blues, you’ll love First Came Memphis Minnie -I’m giving it (5) stars!
Maria Muldaur will be performing live in Tampa at Skippers Smokehouse on Sunday, October 28th. Visit www.skipperssmokehouse.com or call 813-971-0666 for tickets and information.
I had the opportunity to chat with MARIA MULDAUR recently about the latest album and her incredible musical journey.
Ray Shasho: “Hi Maria, thank you for being on the call today … so where’s the band playing tonight?
Maria Muldaur: “I’m in Minnesota, drinking a nice cup of cocoa, but we can’t wait to be down in Florida.”
Ray Shasho: Yes, you’ll be here in Tampa at Skippers Smokehouse on October 28th.
Maria Muldaur: “I played there before and always remember the amazing seafood… nice kind of backyard casual atmosphere which is perfect for playing the blues and we’re looking forward to it.”
Ray Shasho: Well, the weather here in the Tampa Bay area has been consistently perfect.
Maria Muldaur: “Good! … Well tell them to hold that till we get there.”
Ray Shasho: First of all Maria, I want to say congratulations on the release of your fortieth album.
Maria Muldaur: “Thank you dear, yea, I couldn’t believe it when I counted it all up, some people think I’ve done forty three but my count said forty, so we’ll go with that.”
Ray Shasho: Would you say that your musical career has been a smooth journey?
Maria Muldaur: “I think it’s been an amazing journey and its unfolded one passion at a time, and I just followed where my passion has led me and it hasn’t stirred me wrong yet, Even though I’ve had a few huge Pop hits, but basically my career can be described as a long and adventurous odyssey through various forms of American roots. I started out falling in love with Appalachian “Old Timey” music and country blues, bluegrass, jazz, and all sorts of music and at various stages as the mood lent me, I began to explore different genres …and continuing to do that. It’s been fascinating; we have such an amazing, rich, musical heritage in this country and it’s something I never get tired of exploring.”
Ray Shasho: We are very lucky to be able to enjoy so many different styles of musical culture in America.
Maria Muldaur: “Like this fortieth album … a tribute to the late great blues artist Memphis Minnie. Except for one cut … it’s all early acoustic country blues. I travel around with my Red Hot Bluesiana Band … and “Bluesiana” is a word that I made up years ago to describe the kind of New Orleans flavored blues/R&B that we call “Swamp Funk” that we like to play.”
“I had been doing a string of albums for Stony Plains Records and three of them were nominated for Grammy’s in recent years. I got three Grammy nominations back in the days of “Midnight at the Oasis” and just in the last decade got three more Grammy nominations for a series of albums I’ve done for Stony Plains Records paying tribute to various blues legends and pioneers. And they’ve all been acoustic because the early blues were acoustic. My agent last year said, “Why don’t you do an album that reflects what you sound like live with your Bluesiana Band?” … and I thought that was an excellent idea. So I went down to New Orleans and hooked up with some of my favorite musicians down there and did an album called, Steady Love which I really loved doing, and love the songs that are on it. I’m happy to say it made it to #1 on the Living Blues Charts last year. So we’re coming to Tampa with a combination of material from the Steady Love album which is all very high-octane, high-energy, high-spirited Bluesiana music … as well as a lot of music from the Memphis Minnie album.”
Ray Shasho: When I received First Came Memphis Minnie in the mail … I thought it’s about time someone released a tribute album honoring a blues-woman. I commend you Maria for raising that awareness.
Maria Muldaur: “Well, thank you … as I travel around, I ask people in the audience … How many of you have heard of Bessie Smith? Almost everyone in the audience starts to clap. Then I go, okay … How many of you have heard of Memphis Minnie? Maybe two or three of the hipsters in the crowd will say they know who she is … and so that’s exactly why I did the album. She was a woman who started recording in the late 20s, and not only sang the blues, as a lot of the early blues-women did, but she wrote and recorded over two hundred of her own songs. She also played absolutely amazing guitar, and smart enough to marry … not one, but several guitar-playing husbands. She was a pioneer, a maverick, and created a career for herself that spanned several decades against all racial, social, gender, and financial barriers.”
"Despite the fact she was called Memphis Minnie, in the early 1930s she migrated up to Chicago and became the queen of the blues scene up there. In the early 1940s, she was one of the very first blues artists to plug in her guitar and go from acoustic country-blues sound to an electric Chicago-blues sound. She helped forge the sound that would become the electric Chicago-blues sound, which in the late 1950s morphed into R&B and rock and roll. So really, we owe Memphis Minnie a huge debt of gratitude and a lot more recognition that she’s gotten in past times.”
“So, I got together with several of my soul sisters in music that also love and revere her music and we put together this CD. And everyone picked whatever song resonated with them the most. The interesting thing is … here it is 2012, and most of these songs are supposed to be originally written in the 1920s and 30s, and yet they resonate today … very contemporary and universal. To me the very best songs are songs that are very universal and very personal. And Memphis Minnie’s music totally fits those criteria’s for me. She writes about things that really happened to her. Like the song, “In My Girlish Days” is a great example. I think Phoebe Snow’s rendition of it is just phenomenal.”
“Because she had such an interesting and adventurous life as an independent woman … the songs are very interesting and tell the stories of her adventures. At the same time, they’re the kind of situations that many a woman has gotten herself into … Both Bonnie Raitt and myself, Rory Block and Ruthie Foster whom I just adore, and Koko Taylor and Phoebe Snow. And so many other artist as well, love Memphis Minnie and appreciates what she did, and kind of like a role model for us. If I had the time and money there would be more people that I would have gotten on the album, but just the logistics of it … we reached out to Lucinda Williams who is another huge Memphis Minnie fan, and also Michelle Shocked.”
“Memphis Minnie wrote, “When the Levee Breaks” and even Led Zeppelin recorded their version of her song. So I wanted to shine a little spotlight on someone so unique, soulful, and such a great influence on the music that evolved from her day to today.”
Ray Shasho: Just about every American music genre evolved from the blues, and there were so many great blues artists that never got their fair share of credit or fame.
Maria Muldaur: “I’ve paid tributes on other albums to Mississippi John Hurt, Lead Belly, Mississippi Fred McDowell … and on that series as with this album, I’ve always enlisted the help of my fellow blues artists who share my passion for the early music. So I’ve been blessed to do duets with Taj Mahal, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Bonnie Raitt and so forth and so on. It’s a music that is very important to us and I’m hoping that it will endure. I think it will …people are loving the material.”
Ray Shasho: Well, my review is going to say … The album is pure, down-home soulful blues at its finest and if you love the blues you’ll love … First Came Memphis Minnie. I’m giving it five stars!
Maria Muldaur: “Thank you so much! “Each gal on the CD does their own interpretation, they make it their own and true to Memphis Minnie’s basic spirit and vibe, but each track sounds completely different. I think it’s very interesting on how that turned out.”
“When I designed the album cover, I wanted to make the cover like Memphis Minnie was shining down from blues heaven. All her energy and inspiration is shining down on us to this day. That was the idea behind it. And I slaved over the liner notes because the more I looked into it, the more of a complex story I was discovering and wanted to share with people, all in a space of a two inch, by two inch, little piece of paper that they stick in a CD anymore.”
Ray Shasho: Maria, I really like your version of “Crazy Cryin’ Blues,” that had to be a difficult tune to sing?
Maria Muldaur: “Thanks for noticing that! Ray, I’m here to tell you, I love the song; it’s a very haunting song the way she does it. The incredible guitar work on most of the cuts on the album were done by an amazing guitar player named Del Ray, and she loves and reveres Memphis Minnie as much as I do, and focused on Minnie’s guitar styles. And between us, when she’s playing and I’m singing, we pretty much channel Memphis Minnie into the room. But she kept telling me …you’ve got to do “Crazy Cryin’ Blues.” And I said are you kidding me, I could never sing that. So she worked out all the intricate guitar parts and nudged me into doing it. So I said …okay but I’m not promising anything. But in the end, I think it turned out okay.”
Ray Shasho: Maria you did a marvelous job on the song, I knew as soon as I heard it, that it must have been a relentless task.
Maria Muldaur: “It was one of the most challenging things that I ever had to sing …thank you Ray for noticing that. But who hasn’t been in a state of mind like that where you’re just so heartbroken and beside yourself, crying all night, you haven’t slept and in such a deep state of pain. And that’s what all that moaning is all about in the song. I rose to the challenge and I think I pulled it off.”
Ray Shasho: And I really liked Koko Taylor’s version of “Black Rat Swing” … cool song!
Maria Muldaur: “I thought it was so important… two people that are on the album that are no longer with us, I had been planning this project for awhile, and I saw Koko Taylor a little over two years ago because we usually end up at the blues awards in Memphis every year together. I told her I was going to do this project and she excitedly said she’d do it. But that song is done like a real straight ahead electric Chicago blues style. I thought that was such an important song to have on there for the fact that Minnie went electric and helped create that electric Chicago blues sound. And to have Koko Taylor … the queen of the Chicago blues scene for years and years and probably inherited the crown from Memphis Minnie when she was young. When I found out she recorded it for the last album she did, it was just a real blessing that we got the chance to include it on the Memphis Millie tribute album.”
“I met Phoebe Snow in 1970 and one of the first things we talked about was Memphis Minnie. She knew I was a fan because I had already touched “Chauffer Blues” with my husband Geoff Muldaur in 1969 …a quite different version than the version we have now. But Phoebe whipped out her guitar and started playing it right on the street while standing in front of a club in Greenwich Village, and I was just blown away. I had never heard anyone sing like that and then she played pretty damn good blues guitar as well. And so from that moment, Phoebe Snow and I bonded over our love of Memphis Minnie and became friends and sisters from that time forward. Phoebe had been planning a version of “In My Girlish Days” when she heard about the project and unfortunately should took ill, but we found this early version of it and I think it’s just stellar, it’s magical …I love it. What a singer …I miss her so much!”
Ray Shasho: Maria, I’m going to make a comment even though I know my wife is in the room … When I first saw you sing “Midnight at the Oasis” it may have been either on the Midnight Special or Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert around 1974. I was in high school and already had a thing for Linda Ronstadt, but Linda played second fiddle after I saw your performance. Both you and the tune were incredibly seductive and that was one good reason it was such a huge hit.
Maria Muldaur: “Oh my goodness … Linda and I and Bonnie Raitt were definitely the hot babes of the 70s. We palled around a lot and are still very dear friends. But I was just sort of a young hippie doing my little thing. It wasn’t like Madonna, who by the way, I really respect and admire a whole lot. Her sex appeal was kind of calculated and definitely embellished, and I was just out there with my little halter top, denim skirt, little bellbottom jeans … shaking my tambourine. I hear from people that it really got to them … so whatever works.”
“Several years ago, I should have been writing down all the stories that people would come up and tell me when I was signing their CD’s and so and so. All the little stories about what they were doing when they first heard my song …and I’m telling you, I would have quite the X-Rated book by now.”
“I still do those songs too because people love to hear them. At our show, not only will we be doing some of the Memphis Minnie material, and a lot of the Bluesiana material, but also the old favorites like “Midnight at the Oasis,” “Don’t You Feel My Leg,” “It Ain’t the Meat, It’s the Motion,” …so we aim to please and don’t disappoint anyone.”
Ray Shasho: A final question Maria … If you had a ‘Field of Dreams’ wish to sing or collaborate with anyone from the past or present, who would that be?
Maria Muldaur: “There are two. The one person I asked to sing with me said yes, but then he got called to do a performance at the White House, so it never worked out … I would love to sing with Al Green. I’ve sung with Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt, and Aaron Neville … which is a singers dream come true … I’ve sung with Hoagy Carmichael, Taj Mahal … you name it, but I’d love to sing with Al Green.”
“The other thing I’d like to do is collaborate with Bob Dylan. I have played with him kind of unofficially, but would love to do something with Bob Dylan.”
Ray Shasho: Maria… thank-you so much for being on the call today and more importantly for all the great music you’ve given to all of us through the years. We look forward to your appearance at Skippers Smokehouse in Tampa and the release of First Came Memphis Minnie.
Maria Muldaur: “Thank you Ray, I hope to see you at the show.”
Maria Muldaur official website www.mariamuldaur.com
Maria Muldaur will be performing live in Tampa at Skippers Smokehouse on Sunday, October 28th.
Visit www.skipperssmokehouse.com or call 813-971-0666 for ticket information.
Order Maria Muldaur’s latest release … First Came Memphis Minnie on Maria’s official website or at amazon.com
Special thanks to Jill Kettles of Mark Pucci Media www.markpuccimedia.com
Contact music journalist RAY SHASHO at email@example.com
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