Best known for her seductive '70s pop staple "Midnight at the Oasis," Maria Muldaur has enjoyed a long career as an acclaimed interpreter of just about every stripe of American roots music: blues, early jazz, gospel, folk, country, and R&B. Originally known as Maria D'Amato, she first found a nationwide audience as a member of Jim Kweskin & the Jug Band (beginning with 1963's Jug Band Music), and playing vintage folk and blues in an upbeat and entertaining style. After the Kweskin band split up, Geoff & Maria (who had married) recorded a pair of critically celebrated albums -- 1968's Pottery Pie and 1972's Sweet Potatoes -- that juggled folk, blues, jazz, and gospel influences. After the couple divorced, Maria Muldaur went out on her own, and her self-titled debut album in 1973 was a savvy blend of country, blues, and pop that earned her a major hit single with "Midnight at the Oasis." Muldaur dug deeper into the blues on 1974's Waitress in a Donut Shop, which included another successful single, "I'm a Woman," but her next several albums found her struggling to balance her own instincts with the expectations of her label. Muldaur returned to independent labels with 1980's Gospel Nights, a live album cut after she embraced Christianity. Muldaur returned to secular music with 1983's Sweet and Slow, a set informed by vintage jazz and blues, and over the next three decades, she would lend her talents to swing numbers (1998's Swingin' in the Rain), tough R&B (1994's Meet Me at Midnite), New Orleans grooves (1992's Louisiana Love Call), polished double-entendre blues (1999's Meet Me Where They Play the Blues), political activist songs (2008's Yes We Can!), and even children's music (2010's Barnyard Dance: Jug Band Music for Kids). Muldaur has tied her eclecticism together with the romantic sensuality that's underpinned much of her best work ever since the beginning of her career.
Muldaur was born Maria D'Amato on September 12, 1943, in New York. As a child, she loved country & western music and began singing with her aunt at age five; during her teenage years, she moved on to R&B and early rock & roll, and in high school formed a girl group called the Cashmeres. Growing up in the Greenwich Village area, she became fascinated with its booming early-'60s folk revival scene and soon began participating in jam sessions. She also moved to North Carolina for a while to study Appalachian-style fiddle with Doc Watson. Back in New York, she was invited to join the Even Dozen Jug Band, a revivalist group that included John Sebastian, David Grisman, and Stefan Grossman; they had secured a recording deal with blueswoman Victoria Spivey's label and Spivey wanted them to add some sex appeal. The young D'Amato got a crash course in early blues, particularly the Memphis scene that spawned many of the original jug bands, and counted Memphis Minnie as one of her chief influences.
Elektra Records bought out the Even Dozen Jug Band's contract and released their self-titled debut album in 1964. However, true to their name, the band's unwieldy size made them expensive to book on the club and coffeehouse circuit and they soon disbanded. Many of the members went off to college and, in 1964, D'Amato moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, home to another vibrant folk scene. She quickly joined the Jim Kweskin Jug Band and struck up a romance with singer Geoff Muldaur; the couple eventually married and had a daughter, Jenni, who would later become a singer in her own right. When the Kweskin band broke up in 1968, the couple stayed with their label (Reprise) and began recording together as Geoff & Maria Muldaur. They moved to Woodstock, New York to take advantage of the burgeoning music scene and issued two albums -- 1968's Pottery Pie and 1972's Sweet Potatoes -- before their musical and personal relationships came to an end, with Geoff going on to form Better Days with Paul Butterfield.
With Maria initially unsure about her musical future, her friends encouraged her to pursue a solo career, as did Reprise president Mo Ostin. Muldaur went to Los Angeles and recorded her debut album Maria Muldaur in 1973, scoring a massive Top Ten pop hit with "Midnight at the Oasis." Showcasing Muldaur's playfully sultry crooning, the Middle Eastern-themed song became a pop radio staple for years to come and also made session guitarist Amos Garrett a frequent Muldaur collaborator. Muldaur's next album, 1974's Waitress in a Donut Shop, featured a hit remake of her Even Dozen-era signature tune, "I'm a Woman." Three more Reprise albums followed over the course of the '70s, generally with the cream of the L.A. session crop, but also with increasingly diminishing results.
Around 1980, Muldaur became a born-again Christian; she recorded a live album of traditional gospel songs, Gospel Nights, for the smaller Takoma label in 1980, and moved into full-fledged CCM with 1982's There Is a Love, recorded for the Christian label Myrrh. However, this new direction did not prove permanent, and for 1983's Sweet and Slow, Muldaur recorded an album of jazz and blues standards (with longtime cohort Dr. John on piano) that evoked the mood its title suggested. Released in 1986, the jazzy Transblucency won a year-end critics' award from The New York Times. Muldaur spent the rest of the '80s touring, often with Dr. John, and began acting in musicals, appearing in productions of Pump Boys and Dinettes and The Pirates of Penzance. In 1990, she recorded an album of classic country songs, On the Sunny Side, specifically geared toward children; it proved a surprising success, both critically and among its intended audience.
Partly inspired by Dr. John's New Orleans influences, Muldaur signed to the rootsy Black Top label in 1992 and cut Louisiana Love Call, which established her as a versatile stylist accomplished in blues, gospel, New Orleans R&B, Memphis blues, and soul. The album won wide acclaim as one of the best works of her career, offering a more organic, stripped-down approach than her '70s pop albums, and became the best-selling record in the Black Top catalog. Her 1994 follow-up, Meet Me at Midnite, was nominated for a W.C. Handy Award. Muldaur next cut a jazzier outing for the Canadian roots label Stony Plain, 1995's Jazzabelle. She subsequently signed with Telarc and returned to her previous direction, making her label debut with 1996's well-received Fanning the Flames. Released in 1998, Southland of the Heart was a less bluesy outing recorded in Los Angeles, arriving the same year as a second children's album, Swingin' in the Rain, a collection of swing tunes and pop novelties from the '30s and '40s. Meet Me Where They Play the Blues, issued in 1999, was intended to be a collaboration with West Coast blues piano legend Charles Brown, but Brown's health problems prevented him from contributing much (just one vocal on "Gee Baby, Ain't I Good to You") and the project became a tribute instead.
Muldaur moved back to Stony Plain for 2001's Richland Woman Blues, a tribute to early female blues artists inspired by a visit to Memphis Minnie's grave. Featuring a variety of special guest instrumentalists, Richland Woman Blues was nominated for a Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album. The children's album Animal Crackers in My Soup: The Songs of Shirley Temple appeared in 2002. The next year saw the release of Woman Alone with the Blues, a collection of songs associated with Peggy Lee, on Telarc Records. Love Wants to Dance followed in 2004, also on Telarc. The mostly acoustic Sweet Lovin' Ol' Soul was issued by Stony Plain in 2005, followed by Heart of Mine: Love Songs of Bob Dylan on Telarc in 2006. Songs for the Young at Heart was also released in 2006. The following year, the last in the set of three albums that paid tribute to female blues singers of the 1920s '30s, and '40s, Naughty, Bawdy and Blue. The antiwar-themed Yes We Can!, which featured Muldaur singing with the Women's Voices for Peace Choir, was released in 2008. Muldaur next released another children's album, Barnyard Dance: Jug Band Music for Kids, in 2010, following it with the New Orleans-flavored Steady Love on Stony Plain in 2011. A Yuletide set, Christmas at the Oasis, was released in 2013, and in 2018 Omnivore Recordings reissued her two albums with Geoff Muldaur, Pottery Pie and Sweet Potatoes. Muldaur paid homage to her friend and influence Blue Lu Barker with 2018's Don't You Feel My Leg, a slyly sexy set of jazz and blues classics. ~ Steve Huey & Mark Deming