Arts

Bawdy blues artist earns Grammy nomination with tribute album

Maria Muldaur, the jug-band chanteuse who scored a surprise pop hit with 1973’s “Midnight at the Oasis,” released her 41st album last September, a 13-track disc that pays overdue homage to the late New Orleans–born singer Blue Lu Barker.

More good news for both Maria and Blue Lu: Don’t You Feel My Leg: The Naughty Bawdy Blues of Blue Lu Barker has been nominated for a 2019 Grammy Award for Best Traditional Blues Album.

Born Louisa Dupont in New Orleans, Louisiana, Blue Lu married guitarist Danny Barker in the late-1920s when she was still a teenager, and they both worked as entertainers in Harlem.

After a decade of marriage, Blue Lu wrote a slightly suggestive tune and Danny put the words to music. She sang, “Don’t you feel my leg ’cause if you feel my leg you’re gonna feel my thigh, and if you feel my thigh, you’re gonna go up high.” Such candid lyrics were somewhat shocking in the 1930s, but the blues tradition had always been rife with ribaldry.

“Imagination is always the best aphrodisiac.” — Maria Muldaur

So-called “dirty blues” ditties date back to Buddy Bolden’s “If You Don’t Shake It, You Get No Cake” circa 1900, Tampa Red’s “It’s Tight Like That” from 1928, and Blue Lu’s Manhattan-based contemporary, Lucille Bogan waxed the unforgettably explicit “Shave ’Em Dry” in 1935.

Blue Lu Barker, accompanied by Danny Barker’s Fly Cats, first recorded the song under the title, “Don’t You Make Me High,” on Aug. 11, 1938, according to Decca Records archives. Produced by Arkansas-born blues songster J. Mayo Williams, “Don’t You Make Me High” became a national hit, opening the door for Blue Lu to make appearances with Cab Calloway and Jelly Roll Morton.

Thirty-five years after it was first waxed, Maria Muldaur, then a 29-year-old veteran of the Even Dozen and Jim Kweskin jug bands, brought the song back to life when Mac Rebennack (a.k.a. Dr. John) suggested she record it for her first solo album for Reprise in 1973. A terrific trio, with Rebennack on guitars and piano, Klaus Voorman on bass and Jim Keltner on drums, laid down the track, which ended up as the first song on side two of Muldaur’s self-titled LP.

While “Midnight at the Oasis” became a Top 10 smash single, “Don’t You Feel My Leg” remains one of the most requested songs over Muldaur’s impressive 50-year career in American roots music.

Maria Muldaur: Grammy-nominated chanteuse will make a summer tour stop in Clayton.

“‘Don’t You Feel My Leg’ was considered quite risqué in its day,” Muldaur observed. “But compared to the over-amped, kinetic, frenetic, bumpin’, grindin’, booty-shakin’, in-your-face, X-rated explicit lyrics that prevail in today’s music, I find its playful, sly, tongue-in-cheek innuendo to actually be a much sexier approach. Imagination is always the best aphrodisiac.”

In the late-1980s, Maria and Blue Lu formed a friendship that lasted until Blue Lu’s death in 1998. In 2016, Muldaur was invited to New Orleans to perform a tribute to her old friend. While researching material for the tribute, she was surprised to discover that the Barkers had written and recorded dozens of songs equally bawdy, witty and clever as “Don’t You Feel My Leg.”

“I put together a wonderful ‘all-star’ band of stellar New Orleans players, and we had a blast performing this fun material to a sold-out audience,” Muldaur recalled. “The response was overwhelming, and after the show people swarmed up to the CD table all clamoring to buy a CD of the sassy, naughty, bawdy material they had just heard. At that moment we all realized that this delightful collection of songs needed to be recorded and shared with the world.”

The disc features prominent New Orleans musicians such as pianist David Torkanowsky, bassist Roland Guerin, drummer Herlin Riley, guitarist Chris Adkins, trumpeters Kevin Louis and Duke Heitger, reedman Tom Fischer and trombonist Eric Trolsen. For an extra authentic touch, guitarist Steve Masakowski loaned out Danny Barker’s guitar for use on the sessions. As a result, Don’t You Feel My Leg remains true to the spirit and soul of New Orleans and Blue Lu’s material.

Most of the Barkers’ blues were recorded in New York City in the late 1930s and early 1940s with some of the finest jazz players on the NYC scene, such as trumpeter Henry “Red” Allen. While the lyrics made her chuckle, Muldaur found herself mesmerized by Blue Lu’s delicate, high-pitched vocals.

“Besides the wonderfully funny, suggestive lyrics, I was really struck and quite charmed by Blue Lu’s delivery of these tunes,” Muldaur said. “Her singing is droll, sly, full of sass and attitude, yet understated, a bit girlish and coy. Her cool nonchalance and crisp ladylike diction in contrast to the naughty lyrics made them smolder with innuendo all the more. These were songs by hipsters, for hipsters.”

The new disc’s baker’s dozen tracks include “Georgia Grind,” “Loan Me Your Husband,” “Scat Skunk,” “Nix on Those Lush Heads,” “Bow Legged Daddy,” “Trombone Man Blues,” “Handy Andy,” “Never Brag About Your Man” and, of course, “Don’t You Feel My Leg,” which clocks in here at four minutes and 20 seconds.

“These are all basically hip, fun happy songs,” she said, “and I think we could all use a big dose of happy right about now.”

Blue Lu’s biggest hit, “A Little Bird Told Me,” also graces the Grammy-nominated CD. “A Little Bird Told Me” was released by Capitol Records in 1948, reaching the Billboard chart on Dec. 18, 1948, where it remained for 14 weeks, peaking at number 4.

The Barkers moved back to New Orleans in 1966, where Danny led the Fairview Baptist Church Brass Band, which was pivotal in producing generations of new talent, including Wynton Marsalis, Leroy Jones, Tuba Fats and Lucien Barbarin.

Blue Lu was inducted into the Louisiana Blues Hall of Fame in 1997, three years after Danny’s death and one year before she passed in New Orleans, at age 84.

CBS will air the 61st Grammy Awards ceremony on Sunday, Feb. 10, 8 p.m., on WTVH-Channel 5. And it’s a good bet that Muldaur will perform “Don’t You Feel My Leg” during her July 18 concert at the Clayton Opera House, 403 Riverside Drive, Clayton. Tickets are $20, $25 and $30. Call (315) 686-2200 or visit claytonoperahouse.com for information.

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