Tim McMullen's Missives and Tomes

Monday, September 21, 2009

Another One-Sided Conversation with Maury

Twenty-five years after writing "Second-String Songman," I decided to put together a collection of Maury’s songs, including all the songs from Gingerbreadd, plus Maury’s song, “Salon and Saloon” that Croce sang on his last album and other Croce songs that seemed clearly influenced by Maury’s songwriting style. I decided to look for a picture to put on the cover of my cassette, and I stumbled across a fan site, Jim Croce: The Tribute Page, by Tom Orrechio. The group had just had a twenty-fifth anniversary “gathering” to honor the passing of Jim and Maury. They had visited Maury’s grave; they had met with members of the Croce and Muehleisen families; they had met with the duo’s producer, Tommy West; and they had passed the guitar around playing songs by or about Jim and Maury. Suddenly, I realized that here was a group that might actually appreciate the song that I had written twenty-five years earlier.

I posted the lyrics to my song and its accompanying intro, and I immediately received a request to show the song to the Muehleisen family. A few days later I received a lovely letter from Maury’s sister, Mary, thanking me for the song and saying that they would really love to hear it. Unfortunately, I had never made a recording of the song; however, my desire to allow Maury’s family to actually hear my song impelled me to try to record it. I went to Bino Espinoza, the husband of Sandra Espinoza, our high school choirmaster. A couple of years later, Bino won an Emmy for sound engineering. We recorded two songs, “Second-String Songman,” my song about Maury, written, in part to emulate Maury’s “A Song I Heard,” and “Favorite Song,” which I had consciously created to have a Croce-Muehleisen feel. These two recordings were the impetus for recording the rest of my album, I Could Write You A Song, recorded and produced by my best friend, Tim Clott. Tom Orrechio then put the song on his website; a year or so later, when Mary created her webpage for Maury, she also included the song.

I offered this reminiscence to the Jim Croce fan site—Jim Croce: The Tribute Page. http://www.jimcrocefans.com/

Someone asked the website forum “if anyone had ever seen Jim and Maury perform. What follows is my answer.

I had the opportunity to see Jim and Maury perform only once. They came to the LA area in '71 or '72 and played in a theatre in the round; the circular stage actually rotated during the entire performance. Having played in a lot of different venues myself during that time (but never on a revolving stage), I'm guessing that it was a slightly strange experience for them, especially since Jim's form of storytelling and performing was so intimate. A constantly moving target must have been slightly disconcerting....

Needless to say, Jim and Maury's performance was nothing short of amazing. I have seen hundreds of acoustic performers—pretty much every major folk performer who hit LA from 1965 to 1985, and anyone of significance who has come through since then. But Jim and Maury's performance is still vivid in my memory after 35 years. Jim's stories and introductions were awesome. Not until I saw Cheryl Wheeler perform in the mid-nineties had I seen anyone offer such an inspired mix of trenchant story telling and brilliant song writing.

Croce's persona on stage was both hilarious and spellbinding. However, when they began to play, Jim's identity was merged into Maury/Jim, the wizard songsters. Jim was a very good guitar player with a strong baritone, fun and interesting; Maury, however, was pure magic. He was everywhere in the song: rhythm, lead, syncopation, percussion, and incredible harmony vocals. Put simply—he was mesmerizing. Then, Jim would launch into the next intro, and Maury would sit, quietly bemused until the next downbeat when his flying fingers would reassert his remarkable authority in the musical mix.

Despite the billing, watch any of the videos, and you see that Jim and Maury sat side by side. They were a duo, a dynamic duo if ever there was one. The lack of acknowledgement on some of the Croce releases notwithstanding, it is quite clear that Jim and Maury regarded themselves as musical partners whose aesthetic empathy surpassed any that I have ever seen. Not even David Lindley and Jackson Brown, David Bromberg and Jerry Jeff Walker, Jesse Ed Davis and Taj Mahal had that perfect a connection.

The only guitar player I have ever seen who might have matched Maury's intuitive complement to his partner was Brownie McGee with Sonny Terry. His hands never stopped. He really didn't play chords at all, or rather, he played bass runs, lead runs, and constant chord progressions intermittently throughout a song. Maury is the only other guitar player that I have seen who had that intuitive, eclectic approach to completing a song. (This may seem strange and self-serving, but if you heard him, you would agree—the only other person I have ever heard with that kind of full-service sound was my younger brother, Tucker McMullen, when he played with Bob Ward and the Cigar Band in the late 70's, and his inspiration clearly came from David Bromberg, Amos Garrett, Jesse Ed Davis, and especially, Maury Muehleisen).

It would be nice to have the opportunity to see more of Jim and Maury's work, and perhaps more footage will be uncovered in the future. Also, I add my voice to those hoping that Maury's album will again become available. Though always regarded as a jewel, my vinyl recording is not as pristine as I would like.

Hopefully this little reminiscence hints at the wonder that was Jim Croce and Maury Muehleisen.

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