David Maxwell, R.I.P.
Peter Wolf is a driven verbalist. The former frontman of the J. Geils Band and WBCN deejay of “Woofer Goofer” legend had a memorable way of describing the easy access that he and his peers enjoyed with the great bluesmen who began playing clubs and coffeehouses around Boston in the mid-60s. In his recollection of Muddy Waters’s appearance at the alcohol-free Club 47 for the 1979 publication, Baby Let Me Follow You Down: An Illustrated History of the Cambridge Folk Years, Wolf recalled, “Between shows, I walked into the men’s room of the 47, and there was [James] Cotton, [Otis] Spann, and S.P. Leary all gathered around a pint. They’re all passing it around. They are my idols, so I picked up my cue real good and ran out and scored a couple of pints, and after the next show they were all over me.”
In that mix of peers was David Maxwell, the Waltham native who died on February 13 at the age of 71. For nearly a half century, Maxwell embodied the piano blues and boogie-woogie tradition that was centered in Chicago in the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s. David’s link to that lineage was Otis Spann, whom he first heard in 1963. At the time, Maxwell was in Paris, spending his junior year abroad studying at the National School of Music of Paris. He’d begun taking classical piano lessons in Washington, D.C., when he was nine, continued through his teenage years after his family moved to Lexington, and then at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music.
Maxwell had begun to immerse himself in a wide variety of music when he was in his teens, partly through the influence of his friend Alan Wilson, the Arlington native who would go on to found Canned Heat. Wilson’s interests were wonderfully varied, including the music of India and the Near East. Maxwell recalled in the essay he wrote for his 2011 release, Conversations in Blue, “We would go into record stores in Cambridge and Boston that had listening booths, grab a handful of records, and listen. We listened to everything: Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, Cecil Taylor, Lambert, Hendrix & Ross, Monk, Bird, Bill Evans and all kinds of diverse sounds from the world of jazz, ethnic, and contemporary classical music.”
Blues wasn’t prominent in the Maxwell mix during high school. When he expressed an interest in the blues tonality he heard in Andre Previn’s 1959 recording, “Like Young,” his teacher chided him, “Don’t waste your time on that stuff.” But Previn and all those listening booths prepared David for something different, and when Wilson sent him a copy of The Best of Muddy Waters at college three years later, he remembered playing “that record over and over again. I was completely consumed with the way Otis Spann played the piano and how he was such an integral part of Muddy’s band.”
The following year in Paris, Maxwell attended an American Folk Blues Festival concert at the Olympia Theater. Muddy and Spann were on the bill, and even from a nosebleed seat in the second balcony, he “was completely overwhelmed” by what he saw and heard. “Spann’s rapid, right-hand flurries, his completely bluesy, soulful, right-in-the-gut playing” set him up for a different musical course. Maxwell’s blues mastery developed over the next few years, and eventually brought him into the company of Spann, whom Peter Wolf recalled becoming “sort of a superhero. He got friendly [with us] and we’d pick him up after the Club 47 shows and he’d play and jam. David Maxwell would organize jams over at MIT, and all the piano players would come around to listen to Otis and play with him.”
“Spann and I started a friendship,” Maxwell said. “In those days, acts were booked for a week at a time. In the afternoons, these guys were looking for something to do. So us young fans would hang out with them, walk around town, have a few drinks, socialize and play music. Spann never taught me a piano lesson. I would just watch and maybe show him something and ask for advice.”
Muddy soon took note of David’s developing skill and invited him to sit in at the Jazz Workshop in Boston on a fall night in 1967. Maxwell saw it as a “turning point. I was then 24 and had begun to explore playing blues here and there…Wow, what a feeling!” Two years later, when he spelled the ailing Spann for a night at the Workshop, he asked Muddy what he thought of his playing. “Yeah, you’re okay. You don’t need to jump around so much. Just stay more in one place.” Maxwell knew in an instant “that that’s what gave Muddy’s band its character.”
Spann’s illness was liver cancer and it claimed his life on April 24, 1970. By then, Maxwell had played around the Boston area with the Colwell-Winfield Blues Band and the J. Geils Blues Band (before Peter Wolf transformed them from a blues to r&b band), and with some of the other great bluesmen coming through town. John Lee Hooker took David on a tour in 1969 that included an appearance on a pilot for the Dick Cavett Show. In a 2010 interview with the Boston Blues Society, Maxwell said, “Hooker was great any time he came to town. He stayed at the Lenox Hotel in Copley Square and used to hold court in his hotel room. The talk and action between us was mostly about women, one old dog to one aspiring young dog.” Maxwell’s 1997 recording Maximum Blues Piano included this tribute from John Lee. “I don’t think anyone could be tighter playing the blues on the piano than David Maxwell. He plays the blues like it should be played. He plays low down dirty funky blues. You hear the piano ring.”
Maxwell went on to play and tour with Freddie King, Bonnie Raitt, Louisiana Red, Luther “Guitar Jr” Johnson, Hubert Sumlin, James Cotton, and many others. When he wasn’t on the road, he was a fixture on the Boston scene, playing with and encouraging players ten or more years younger than himself, among them Bob Margolin, Babe Pino, Ron Levy, Ronnie Earl, John Nicholas, Michael “Mudcat” Ward, Anthony Geraci, Mike Welch, and Troy Gonyea. Here he is with King in 1973 playing “Have You Ever Loved a Woman,” a slow blues showpiece for the guitarist that featured Maxwell during his time on the road with The Texas Cannonball.
Of the many occasions on which I heard David, among the most memorable were nights when he sat in with the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Archie Shepp. I used to pester Kim Wilson of the T-Birds with requests for Jimmy Rogers’s Money, Marbles, and Chalk. The T-Birds usually obliged, never more memorably than on a summer night in 1979 at Sandy’s in Beverley, MA, when they asked Maxwell to join them on the Chess blues classic that originally featured pianist Eddie Ware. The following year, when I played a part in an Archie Shepp booking at Harvard, I persuaded David, who’d come by to hear the tenor saxophonist, to sit in. He and Shepp played a blues so moving that it got special mention in the following week’s Boston Phoenix.
A couple of weeks ago in this blog, I recalled my youthful experiences of seeing Luther “Georgia Boy” Johnson, a former Muddy Waters sideman, at the Highland Tap in Roxbury. Johnson fronted a heavy band, but it may have been Maxwell who impressed me the most. I’d never seen Spann in person, but only a year after his death I encountered for the first time the player who more than any other kept his sound alive for the next 44 years. Like Spann, Maxwell’s attack featured a continuous flow of melodies, thunderous rolling basses, and a jackhammer right hand.
Like his old friend Alan Wilson, Maxwell was a thoughtful seeker, an intellectual who remained fascinated by Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor as well as the contemporary classical composers Ligetti, Morton Feldman, and Stockhausen. He traveled to Nepal in the 1970’s, and maintained an interest in world music ranging from Balinese Gamilan to Japanese Gagaku to Iranian classical. He said he could hear the blues in all of it.
But it was the downhome blues and boogie woogie of Spann, Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis, Pete Johnson, Big Maceo, Professor Longhair, and Pinetop Perkins, Spann’s successor with Muddy Waters, that remained his passion. His essay about Spann for Conversations in Blue captures as clearly and beautifully as any I’ve ever read what it was that drove that passion not only for Maxwell but for the audience of whites that discovered the blues in the 1960s. “Everything in Spann’s playing seemed to have a purpose and everything was laid out in such a way as to draw the listener into Spann’s own world. And he was inviting you in. Spann revealed a blues style that seemed to tap into a universal truth: a world that was soulful and sophisticated at the same time, both in his playing and in his vocal delivery.”
“That world was just so complete and so masterful to me. He wasn’t trying to emulate anybody because he was simply who he was…I think his music addressed some kind of alienation and pain that many of us feel in our lives, particularly when we are young. And when this blues feeling came along in Spann’s music, it was accessible…His music satisfied a deep emotional need…It showed me a way that I could express myself– my feelings, universal feelings– to audiences that are receptive to those feelings.”
Here’s Maxwell with Irma Thomas, Ronnie Earl, Mudcat Ward, and Levon Helm with a medley inspired by Bobby Bland and Ray Charles.
Click here to read the obituary of David Maxwell (1943-2015) published in The Boston Globe on February 16.