It was a couple of years ago when Maria Muldaur was shopping for clothes at a favorite store when she heard “the most beautiful vintage jazz” of the ‘20s and ‘30s playing over the speakers. And though she couldn’t peg the artist, the interest of the woman who’s been called “The First Lady of Roots Music” was piqued immediately.
Imagine her surprise when the shop owner told her that the band was Tuba Skinny, an act made up of young players from New Orleans who had put out a few CDs, but mostly performed on the streets of the Big Easy. Still not convinced about their age, Muldaur insisted the shop owner show her pictures of the group. And so the woman with a 55+ year career singing blues, jazz, and folk (along with the occasional pop hit) was even more intrigued.
Soon, Muldaur began going to see Tuba Skinny on the Royal Street and in clubs while in New Orleans recording her last album. Until finally, washboard player Robin Rupuzzi recognized her. She and the band were introduced and ended up playing a one-off collaborative gig in January 2020 Folk Alliance Conference in New Orleans. Things went so well that they recorded an entire album together, and the result is Let’s Get Happy Together (Stony Plain Records).
“I was a fan from the first few notes I heard, and would play their music in the car or while I was cleaning. It just made me happy,” the 77-year-old Muldaur says from New Orleans. “They invited me to sit in. I live in California most of the time, and when [the Folk Alliance] show came up, I couldn’t afford to bring in my regular band. But the light bulb went off and I thought Tuba Skinny could do it! We only had one quick rehearsal, but if felt so comfortable immediately.”
Soon, a record project was floated, and Muldaur and the band went into New Orleans’ Marigny Studio. The dozen tracks on Let’s Get Happy Together are all covers of vintage (and mostly obscure) Dixieland and hot jazz songs, both lively, uptempo tunes and ballads.
They were originally written and/or recorded by the likes of the Goofus Five, Frankie “Half Pint” Jackson, Irving Berlin, the Boswell Sisters, Annette Henshaw, Sweet Pea Spivey, Lil Hardin Armstrong (the first wife of trumpet master Louis Armstrong), and two from Valaida Snow, who Satchmo himself called (with some mischievous humor) “the second best trumpet player in the world” and “the female Louis Armstrong.”
“It was hard to whittle the potential song list down, but it was also like a treasure hunt through uncharted territory, sifting through the rich legacy of music we have in this country,” she says.
Maria Muldaur today.
Photo by Alan Mercer/Courtesy of Mark Pucci Media
“And just when you think you know all the old cool blues and jazz artists, you can find something you never heard before on the back alleys of the internet. I fancy myself to know a lot about this music, but even I had never heard of Valaida Snow! She sang and played and was shapely and a sharp dresser. And when I saw [film footage] I wanted to sing like her—but I also wanted that outfit she was wearing!”
Let’s Get Happy Together was recorded during lockdown, but with everyone staying socially distant and usually masked, though Muldaur is happy to see those days recede.
“The album is coming out sort of when we’re crawling out of hibernation and trying to reconnect to the world at large,” she offers. “The musicianship is incredible, and it’s so joyful and uplifting, it’s perfect for the times, and the title couldn’t be more timely.”
Let’s Get Happy Together marks the 43rd solo record in Muldaur’s discography, but at the beginning of her career she was part of the Even Dozen Jug Band (with later Lovin’ Spoonful front man John Sebastian), and the Jim Kweskin Jug Band (with former husband Geoff Muldaur). She was also a very active part of the ‘60s Greenwich Village folk scene, often crossing paths with Bob Dylan. And she was a backup singer for the Grateful Dead and later a member of the Jerry Garcia Band.
Muldaur says that she, her then-boyfriend (bandmate/producer John Kahn), and Garcia would spend hours listening to gospel music from the couples’ record collections, which excited the man known to many as Captain Trips. “Jerry loved gospel music, and I think a lot of that exposure came from John, where he found a lot of songs. We did ‘Sisters and Brothers’ by the Sensational Nightingales and ‘Ride the Mighty High’ by the Mighty Clouds of Joy and others,” Muldaur says. “Jerry always picked really traditional and soulful gospel tunes.”
The connection has continued, as last year Muldaur co-produced and performed on Spirit, the debut album by The Garcia Project, which bills itself as “the only nationally touring tribute to the Jerry Garcia Band” and recreates live specific shows from the ‘70s-‘90s. Its core is made up of couple Mik Bondy (guitars/vocals) and Kat Walkerson (vocals), along with Dan F. Crea (bass).
From all this experience stretching back decades, Muldaur has gotten used to the intense attention to detail and minutiae fans of the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia have. “If you know anything about Deadheads, some of them know and can recite every particular song played on a particular day at the blah-blah theatre and what order they came in,” she laughs. “It’s quite phenomenal!”
Finally, even if you haven’t heard any of Maria Muldaur’s roots music, you probably have heard her coo “Midnight at the Oasis.” The sultry, sexual fantasy involving the son of a sultan, a harem, camels, tents, sand dunes, and cactus plants (the last something that doesn’t actually grow in the Arabian desert….) hit No. 6 on the Billboard chart in 1974. It was written by her then-guitarist, David Nichtern.
As to her relationship with that song today, Muldaur is anything but dismissive about it. “I get on my knees and thank God every day for that song! Without it, I would have remained in the dark recesses of underground roots music!” she laughs.
“But it was very hiply written, and many jazz artists have recorded that tune. So it’s not a bore or a chore to sing it every night. People want to hear it, and I’m not going to be spoiled rock star who complains about how tedious it is to sing their hit! I always put it at the end of my show with ‘Don’t You Feel My Leg” and ‘It Ain’t the Meat, It’s the Motion.’ My band calls them ‘The Big Three!’”
Maria Muldaur and Tuba Skinny will screen a free, pre-recorded concert at 8 p.m. on Friday, May 7 on the Facebook pages and YouTube accounts of Maria Muldaur, Tuba Skinny, the Dew Drop Social and Benevolent Hall, and Offbeat.
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