David Maxwell, 71; blues master in rhythm, soul
When Bonnie Raitt lived in Cambridge in the early 1970s, her first keyboard player was David Maxwell, whose virtuoso skills in blues music would take him to global stages and a Grammy Award.
“David added tremendously to my band. I was blessed that David was in Boston. We were kindred spirits,” Raitt said, adding that “nobody I ever heard could play like him in style, scope, ability, and soul. He was a tall, lanky guy who had a big reach on the piano. And he had real soul.”
A pillar of the Boston blues community for half a century, Mr. Maxwell played on James Cotton’s “Deep in the Blues” album, which was awarded the 1997 Grammy for best traditional blues album, and he contributed a track to the Mississippi Fred McDowell tribute “Preachin’ the Blues” that was nominated for a 2003 Grammy in the same category.
“There’s just something about the overall sound of the blues,” Mr. Maxwell told the Globe in 1995. “It’s emotional in a way that’s very immediate, and playing it can be a real catharsis. But there’s also an incredible richness and complexity to the music as well.”
Mr. Maxwell, who lived in Concord, had been ill with prostate cancer for several years, but “he preferred to keep it private,” said his younger sister, Tania of Cambridge. He was 71 when he died last Friday in Massachusetts General Hospital.
Just two months ago he married Martha Coughlan. They met at Scullers jazz club in Allston three years ago and the spark was instant. “We knew it wasn’t going to be a long-term relationship, but I didn’t care. I was headlong into it,” she said. “And days before he died, I told him I wouldn’t have done anything differently.”
His friend Bob Margolin, a guitarist and alumnus of the Muddy Waters band, suggested that in the tradition of blues players Mr. Maxwell admired, he elected to keep his illness quiet so as not to jeopardize gigs.
Mr. Maxwell won two Blues Music Awards for best acoustic album: in 2010 for “You Got to Move,” a collaboration with Louisiana Red, and in 2012 for “Conversations in Blue.” The awards, presented by the nonprofit Blues Foundation, formerly were called the WC Handy Awards. Mr. Maxwell also was nominated for this year’s Pinetop Perkins Piano Player of the Year and in the past won two Boston Music Awards for best blues act.
A dedicated student of Chicago blues, Mr. Maxwell idolized Otis Spann, the late pianist for the Muddy Waters band.
“David was a pleasure to the blues, a world-class musician,” Cotton wrote in an e-mail. “He played piano in my band for many years. I could always depend on him to bring the style of his piano mentor, Otis Spann, to every song. When needed he could improvise with ease and help us all compose a new song. He deserved every music award he won.”
Over the years, Mr. Maxwell performed or toured with a blues who’s who that along with Cotton included Freddie King, Otis Rush, Ronnie Earl & the Broadcasters, John Lee Hooker, Big Mama Thornton, and Hubert Sumlin. He also was in the house band at Nightstage in Cambridge during the 1980s, coordinated shows at the House of Blues in Harvard Square, and performed with musicians who visited the area. He also backed up Keith Richards and Eric Clapton on “About Them Shoes,” a 2005 tribute CD to Sumlin.
Renowned for his facility with styles ranging from boogie-woogie to jazz and world music, Mr. Maxwell said in the 1995 Globe interview that “the idea of being tied down to one band never really appealed to me. I guess I just get tired of doing the same old stuff, and that doesn’t happen as much if you’re always going out on the road with different people.”
Ron Levy, a Boston blues piano luminary who toured with B.B. King, said Mr. Maxwell “always sounded like he had three giant hands ripping and running up and down the keys on every song in every key.” Levy added that as rivals, they challenged “each other for almost 50 years. I will sorely miss him.”
A Waltham native, Mr. Maxwell attended Lexington High School. He was the son of Emanuel Maxwell, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the former Lee Katkow.
Mr. Maxwell was a childhood friend with Alan Wilson of Arlington, who later played with Canned Heat at Woodstock and sang on their hit “Going Up the Country.” He and Mr. Maxwell combed record stores in Cambridge looking for obscure blues and jazz albums.
“Alan turned him on to Muddy’s records,” said Mr. Maxwell’s other sister, Judy of New York City.
Mr. Maxwell attended Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester in New York and spent his junior year in Paris, where he first heard Spann with the Muddy Waters band in 1963.
“I was sitting way up in the second balcony, but was completely overwhelmed by what I saw and heard,” he wrote in liner notes to his album “Conversations in Blue.”
“Otis Spann’s style of piano playing — his rapid, right-hand flurries and his completely bluesy, soulful, right-in-the-gut playing — was something I’d never heard before,” he wrote.
In 1966, he saw the band again at Club 47 in Cambridge and became friends with Spann. They began to jam together in an MIT student lounge, joined sometimes by singer Peter Wolf of the J. Geils Band. Mr. Maxwell had worked on some J. Geils demo tapes.
“Otis would bring some gin and we’d go all night,” Wolf said. “I remember David and Otis sitting at the piano going over their left-hand playing and working out runs.”
Wolf said he and Mr. Maxwell were “blues fanatics” who would also hang out in John Lee Hooker’s hotel room and bring him food.
“David was the quintessential stride blues player,” Wolf said. “And he became the go-to guy around town for blues playing.”
Insatiably curious, Mr. Maxwell read deeply about philosophy and history. “We’d be touring in Portugal,” said blues singer and harmonica player Darrell Nulisch, “and David would suddenly give me a history lesson on the country.”
Richard Rosenblatt, who put out two of Mr. Maxwell’s records on his local labels Tone-Cool and VizzTone, said the pianist was a generous spirit who over the years performed at many benefit concerts and assisted younger musicians.
“Someone also needs to say something about his headwear,” added guitarist Ricky “King” Russell, who performed with Mr. Maxwell. “He always had the wildest hats. He would go to South America to pick some of them up.”
A spring memorial celebration is being planned for Mr. Maxwell, whose last album, “Blues in Other Colors,” was an adventurous blend of blues and world music, much like his playing.
“I think the thing that makes my style different is the way I hit the keys and bunch different notes together,” he said in the 1995 Globe interview. “It produces a vocal effect that’s almost like singing.”