How a “Gesture of Gratitude” Helped Maria Muldaur Score a Hit with “Midnight at the Oasis”

We’ve all heard stories about songs that became hugely successful even though they were added to an album—sometimes begrudgingly—at the last minute. One of the biggest hit singles of 1974 was one of these late add-ons. However, Maria Muldaur’s inclusion of “Midnight at the Oasis” on her self-titled debut album didn’t stem from outside pressure to create a big-selling single or a desire to placate a disgruntled band member. The last song added to her album made the track listing because it was a way for Muldaur to thank a songwriter who had helped her during a difficult time.

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We would likely have never heard of “Midnight at the Oasis” if not for Muldaur—who got her start in a couple of Greenwich Village jug bands—crossing paths with the composer and guitarist David Nichtern. Here is the story of how the song became an unlikely inclusion on a hit album, and how it paved an unusual career path for both its singer and composer.

The Origins of “Midnight at the Oasis”

In an interview with Songfacts, Nichtern said he wrote “Midnight at the Oasis” before he had begun collaborating with Muldaur. He started composing it in a setting that was, by his account, fitting given the racy lyrics he wrote. Nichtern said “the details are a little bit intimate, but let’s just say there was “a girl, a waterbed, feta cheese, and grape leaves, and a Martin 000-18 nearby.”

Meanwhile, Muldaur’s music career was at a crucial juncture. She was in the process of divorcing her husband Geoff Muldaur, whom had previously been her bandmate in Jim Kweskin & the Jug Band. The divorce meant the end of the Muldaurs’ music collaborations as a duo that resulted in a pair of albums, Pottery Pie (1969) and Sweet Potatoes (1972).

In the aftermath of her separation from her husband, Muldaur began working with Nichtern. She initially had difficulty transitioning into a solo career, and Nichtern offered her some much-needed encouragement. Muldaur told Songfacts, “He was very encouraging and told me, ‘You can do this.’ I was just sobbing and I was a mess. We had a little talk and he would say, ‘Look, people still know you from the Jug Band, and if I can get work in these little coffee houses, you can, too.’ And so we put together a few tunes, and he got us some gigs. … He was just a very supportive little brother to me.”

When Muldaur recorded her self-titled album in 1973, she included her version of Nichtern’s “I Never Did Sing You a Love Song.” By the time she was making the album, she had already heard Nichtern play “Midnight at the Oasis,” but she had no plans to record it or any other tune written by him.

Just the Right Tempo

Nichtern not only contributed “I Never Did Sing You a Love Song” to Maria Muldaur, but he also played rhythm guitar—both electric and acoustic—on several tracks and produced the song “Mad Mad Me.” Unbeknownst to him, he had one more contribution to make. As the sessions for the album were winding up, co-producer Lenny Waronker asked Muldaur if she had a mid-tempo song she wanted to record that would balance out the faster and slower numbers. 

Muldaur recounted her response in her interview for Songfacts, saying, “So David was standing right there, and just off the top of my head, kind of as a gesture of gratitude to him because he had been so supportive to me, kind of holding my hand through all of this, which was very overwhelming, you know, I’d never been in that position before of being a solo artist and trying to make my way through an album that was all about me. And I said, ‘Well, David has this song. It’s a funny little song, really, but it is medium tempo.’”

That funny song with the medium tempo, naturally, was “Midnight at the Oasis.” It not only got included on Maria Muldaur but was released as the lead single.

The Impact and Aftermath of “Midnight at the Oasis”

“Midnight at the Oasis” still stands as Muldaur’s most popular song. It went to No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 and ranked 13th on Billboard’s year-end Hot 100 for 1974. With more than 11 million streams, it is Muldaur’s most listened-to song on Spotify. “Midnight at the Oasis” was nominated for Record of the Year and Song of the Year at the 1975 Grammy Awards. The song catapulted Muldaur’s self-titled album to No. 3 on the Billboard 200, and it remained on the chart for 56 weeks.

Muldaur’s follow-up album Waitress in a Donut Shop did well too, going to No. 23 on the Billboard 200 and spawning a pair of chart hits in “I’m a Woman” and “Gringo en Mexico.” While her last Billboard 200 entry was her 1978 album Southern Winds, she went on to place 10 albums on Billboard’s Blues Albums chart, with Heart of Mine: Maria Muldaur Sings Love Songs of Bob Dylan going all the way to No. 1.

Nichtern continued to perform as a studio musician, but that only scratches the surface of his work. He wrote the score for the 1989 film The Big Picture, and he was the principal composer and music producer for the ABC daytime series One Life to Live from 1990 to 2011. Nichtern wrote music for another daytime drama, CBS’ As the World Turns. He also founded Nudgie Music LLC, which is the parent company for the record labels 5 Points (which released Lana Del Rey’s first album) and Dharma Moon. Nichtern has toured with renowned kirtan singer Krishna Das for several years, and he co-produced Das’ All One album with the late Walter Becker of Steely Dan, Jay Messina and Das.

Nichtern’s “funny little song” was merely the start of a prolific solo career for Muldaur, but it’s the song she has been associated with for 50 years and counting. For her part, Muldaur doesn’t mind, and she has said she still enjoys performing it. Its inclusion on Muldaur’s solo debut may have started off as a gesture of kindness, but it has turned out to be a gift for millions of music listeners.

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Photo by David Redfern/Redferns

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