Featured Interview – Paul Oscher

paul oscher photo 1When folks catch Paul Oscher in concert today, they see a gregarious entertainer and gifted storyteller skilled on guitar, harmonica and keyboards with a style that rings true for any lover of old-school blues.

But few are aware of how important a figure he is in blues history. Like the title of his latest CD infers, the veteran road warrior with bushy beard is a Cool Cat. But he’s far, far more than that.

He’s a trendsetter. A record breaker. The first white musician to shatter the color barrier as a member of a major black Chicago blues band – and he did it with Muddy Waters…when he was only 17!

Sure, it’s true that Paul Butterfield and Charlie Musselwhite had already had formed integrated groups in the Windy City back then. But in an age of cultural revolution, for a man of color of Muddy’s stature to believe any young white man was good enough to work regularly at his side…that was something else entirely.

With Oscher, things were different. And, as he insists, Waters deserves all the credit. After all, he was the one who actually tore down that wall.

The first time Waters heard him play, he knew Paul was something special. The second time he heard him, he snatched him off the streets of New York to tour with him on harp in a position previously occupied by a succession of musicians blues lovers recognize as gods today: Little Walter, Junior Wells, Big Walter Horton, James Cotton and George “Harmonica” Smith, who’d recently gone off on a solo career.

As Waters said at the time: “Paul Oscher plays the soul I feel.”

Now a multiple Blues Music/W.C. Handy Awards winner, Paul proved himself to be an inspiration to several young stars – including Rick Estrin, Paul DeLay, William Clarke and others – in a stint that lasted from 1967 until 1971.

But the talents he developed along the way on six-string and keyboards are equally prodigious – so much so, in fact that authors Tony Glover, Scott Dirks and Ward Gaines stated in their Little Walter biography, Blues With A Feeling, that Oscher “channels the guitar sound of Muddy…piano sound of Otis Spann…the deepest harp tone this side of Big Walter” in addition to praising his skill as a songwriter.

Most of Oscher’s playing partners in Muddy’s group moved on to the big band in the sky decades ago, but Paul remains a stellar entertainer at age 68, still “young” in blues terms, as he carries their work forward in the 21st Century with absolutely no sign of slowing down.

A Brooklyn native, he’s been based in Austin, Tex., where he fronts an all-star, six-piece band, since 2012, and he’s working on what’s shaping up to be one of the most colorful blues autobiographies ever, as the words that follow will show.

Oscher caught the blues bug at age 12 when an uncle gifted him a Marine Band harmonica. He was playing the harp a while later when he caught the ear of Jimmy Johnson, who’d enjoyed a long career playing harmonica in medicine shows across the South.

Thanks to Johnson’s tutelage and constant practice, Paul’s skills improved rapidly. He was only 15 when he started playing professionally behind guitarist Little Jimmy Mae, a fixture in clubs across Brooklyn and Long Island. They were together in 1966 when Oscher met Muddy for the first time.

Oscher had accompanied Mae, who was a friend of Muddy’s band, to the Apollo Theater for a gala that included Lightnin’ Hopkins, T-Bone Walker, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Jimmy Reed and John Lee Hooker. He was standing on a staircase backstage blowing a tune when he caught the attention of Luther Johnson. Known by the nicknames “Georgia Boy” and “Snake” and one of two men of the same name who played guitar behind Waters, Johnson was bass on that tour.

paul oscher photo 2“He went back and got Muddy,” Paul recalls. “He brought him to hear me and said: ‘Listen to this white boy. He’s got a sound.’”

Waters listened, but didn’t say a word, but must have heard something he liked.

Paul tagged along later that night when Mae joined the band after the gig at the Hotel Theresa to drink and shoot dice.

A year later, Waters returned to New York without a harp player, playing at Smalls Paradise, another legendary showroom on 138th Street and Lennox Avenue.

“Snake called me up,” Paul recalls. “He says: ‘Come on down and sit in.’ Muddy called me up, and I played two numbers, ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’ and ‘Blow Wind Blow.’

“Afterwards, Muddy was sittin’ against a wall and beckoned me over. He said: ‘Can you travel?’ I said: ‘Yeah!’ So he says: ‘Meet us at the Albert Hotel in The Village in the morning.”

The indoctrination that Oscher received that day is classic.

“I get there, and they’re checkin’ out,” he recalls. “Muddy had a green Volkswagen bus like the ones hippies used to paint with flowers. It had two benches facing each other, and the driver. So I get in and Otis Spann is sittin’ on the bench next to me. Across from him is his wife, Lucille. Right across from me is S.P. Leary, the great drummer. And up in the driver’s seat is Bo, Muddy’s valet and driver.

“So Spann says to Lucille: ‘Baby, gimme my shit.’ Lucille reaches in her bra and hands him this little .25 automatic. He checks it and puts one (bullet) in the chamber and puts it in his pocket. No holster. Then he says to S.P.: ‘Gimme a taste.’ S.P. had a pint of Gordon’s gin, gave it to Spann, and Spann took a drink. Then Lucille. Then they passed it to me.”

The bottle made its way back to Leary for a swig before he handed it to Bo. “He took a lo-o-ong drink and said: ‘Ooooo, I feel good,’” Oscher recalls. “’I see the moon, and the moon sees me. God bless the moon, and God bless me!’

“I said to myself: ‘Dammit, I’m in it now! The real deal!’”

Welcome to the blues.

He learned quickly that Muddy was truly special as a musician and singer, too. “It was like you were playin’ behind all this weight,” Oscher recalls. “His vocals were so-o-o heavy. And no matter who came before or after us, Muddy would cut all of ‘em. Not even Wolf could touch him.

“In ’69 at Ann Arbor (Mich.), Wolf drove up on stage in a little scooter and stayed on for an extra half an hour, and Muddy was left with only half an hour. But we kicked his ass!”

His timing, Oscher says, was impeccable. He had the ability to draw out a phrase vocally that kept the audience hanging on every word with timing all of its own. When the band kicked in again, however, everything reverted to its normal meter.

paul oscher photo 3“The only one who could give Muddy a little run for his money was John Lee Hooker,” Paul says. “Hooker’s voice was just really incredible. But his bands couldn’t follow what he was doin’ because he stuttered a lot.

“When he was singin’, he’d have the words at the tip of his tongue, but they weren’t comin’ out. That really controlled where he made his chord changes. But his voice was so strong and he had such a presence that it got him over no matter what the band was playin’ behind him.

“All he had to do was open his mouth.”

During the five years Oscher backed Waters, he lived in Muddy’s basement at 4339 S. Lake Park, sharing three rooms with Spann and Lucille. The front entrance opened directly into Paul’s bedroom and led to a common space with a piano in the middle, where Oscher regularly watched him practice. That’s where Paul learned the timing and phrasing that folks often mistake his play as sounding like Otis’ today. Spann’s room was in the rear, and he had his own entrance off an alley.

“We never rehearsed,” Oscher says. “We just did it. Muddy never told you what to play. If you played somethin’ wrong, he’d cut his eyes at you and scratch his head. And you know that you should try somethin’ different next time.”

The only practice session Paul ever had with Waters took place in that middle room when Willie Dixon wanted to teach the band the song “I Am The Blues,” which the band recorded in 1969 for the After The Rain LP.

“During the rehearsal, Marie — Spann’s first wife, a tough girl with a big scar on her face – knocks on the door and says: ‘I gotta speak to Spann,” Paul recalls. “So they went into the back and started arguin’. About five minutes later, Marie come out with a butcher knife with a blade about 12-in. long. She says: ‘I’m gonna kill that m—–f—–!’”

Oscher can still picture Dixon, a huge man, standing off to the side molding into his bass and shaking his head as if to say: “No way!”

“Marie left, and Spann came out,” Paul remembers. “He said: ‘That bitch cut me!’ The palms of his hands were all cut up from holding ‘em up to defend himself.”

Some experts credit Oscher with inventing the now-popular overblow technique on harmonica, a claim that Paul refutes. He used it in the song “Screamin’ And Cryin’,” he says, but only for an blow note to create a minor third above the normal tuning on the six hole.

“The fun thing about it is, when I discovered it, I said: ‘Holy, shit! This is amazing,” he says. “But I never really liked it. I didn’t like the intonation of the overblows. I just used it in that one lick.”

And he never learned how to do an overblow draw.

paul oscher photo 4The true inventor, Oscher says, was Blues Birdhead, who did it in the ‘20s. And he points out that Toots Thielemans used the technique two years before he did during his recording of the title tune for the 1967 film In The Heat Of The Night, which was composed by Quincy Jones.

It’s quite possible, however, that Paul was the first to do it with amplification because Coleman and Thielemans both played acoustic.

No matter. Oscher’s harp stylings back then were just as important. The licks and runs he played then are still being covered today because they’re part of some of the most important tunes in blues history, having appeared on the Chess LP “Live” At Mr. Kelly’s and other classics records. More exist on records he cut during that period as a sideman with Spann, Snake and Johnny Young.

Paul’s run with Muddy ended late in 1971 when he came down with a bout of pneumonia that left him unable to play temporarily. Carey Bell replaced Oscher in December, and Mojo Buford, Jerry Portnoy and Cotton took turns in the harmonica chair until Waters’ death.

But Muddy always maintained a warm spot in his heart for Oscher, inviting him to rejoin him in 1980 after Paul returned to New York.

“I planned to go back with him,” Oscher recalls. “He was playing at the St. Regis Hotel in ‘72, and Scott Cameron (Muddy’s manager) told me to come down and talk with him.”

But the timing couldn’t have been worse.

During his time off, Paul had come to the conclusion that there had been a major problem in the way he’d been playing. As a tongue-blocker, he thought, he’d been bending the reeds so severe that, to his ear, they were sounding flat. In that era, he says, he ordered harps from Hohner pitched to 445 hertz, an unusual tuning when most bands – including Muddy’s — played at the concert standard 440.

Back in Brooklyn, Paul decided to abandon tongue blocking entirely and revert to simple lip play, the technique virtually all harp players use when they pick up the instrument for the first time.

“After I did it – when Muddy came to New York — I couldn’t play a lick,” he remembers.

It took Oscher the better part of two years to regain his former skill, during which he formed the band Brooklyn Slim, borrowing the name from Brooklyn & Slim, a club on Rogers Avenue. The moniker came to him like a lightning bolt because the lighting was broken for the ampersand on the joint’s sign.

“I said: ‘Shit, that’s me, man!’” he says, “’cause, back then, every once in a while someone would call me ‘Brooklyn’ and somebody else would call me ‘Slim’ because I was really skinny when I was with Muddy.

“Besides, I didn’t want people to know that a Muddy Waters Band member was playin’ in the dumps that I was!”

paul oscher photo 5A large group that included a horn player, they worked regularly at The Pink Pussycat and other clubs until the mid-‘70s, when disco and rap, which originated in some of the places he played, ruined everything for working musicians.

During that period, Oscher recorded for legendary singer Victoria Spivey. Most famous for the song “TB Blues,” her career began in 1913 and endured until her death in 1976. Her independent record label featured releases by many of the biggest names in blues and jazz, including guitar great Lonnie Johnson, with whom she first recorded in the ‘20s. But she also nurtured young talent, including Oscher, Sugar Blue, Bill Dicey, John Hammond and Lefty Dizz – and she was the first person to record Bob Dylan.

Paul laid down five cuts for the compilation, New York Really Has The Blues! Vol. 1. He was on hand when the acetate was cut to guarantee that the record was a faithful representation of his sound. He approved it unaware that the engineer hadn’t turned on the woofers in the studio.

The end product, he says, sounded as if he was underwater. Shortly thereafter, Spivey cut a 45 — “Stormy Monday” backed with “Driving Wheel” – to accompany the LP and display Oscher in a more accurate light. It was the only 45 she ever produced.

“Victoria was somethin’ else!” he says, noting that they lived about six blocks apart. “She used to come on stage in gowns covered with frogs and snakes, all kinds of stuff, pinned to it. She used to start her shows: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, what did the head say when it was rollin’ down the street?’ Then she’d sing: ‘I-I-I-I-I ain’t got no-body…’ She had a great sense of humor.

“She liked to drink a lot, too, and locked herself out of the apartment one time. I had to go up the fire escape and go through the window to get the key so she could unlock the door from the outside.”

In addition to their own gigs, Brooklyn Slim backed Spivey, Big Walter, Big Joe Turner, Doc Pomus and Johnny Copeland for area gigs, and Paul also accompanied Louisiana Red on a European tour. But he walked away from music entirely for a day job in the early ‘80s.

It was bad enough that disco had taken such a toll, but many of the other clubs he played regularly, including Manny’s Car Wash, were hiring rock acts instead of blues.

In the early ‘90s, he began a live-in relationship with future ex-wife and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Susan-Lori Parks and started recording songs at home onto tape, which resulted in a trip to Sanford, Fla., for a session at Bob Greenlee’s Kingsnake Studios. The tunes remained in the can for years after Greenlee’s death, and some of them appear on Paul’s 2004 Electro-Fi release, Alone With The Blues, a CD that earned four BMA nominations.

Paul eventually hooked up with a pair of his former New York bandmates — drummer Candy MacDonald and bassist Johnny Ace — and two sensational keyboard players – Bostonian David Maxwell, who idolized and sounded a lot like Spann, and, later, New York R&B legend Bob Gaddy – and started playing out again, taking time out to tour nationally with Jimmy Rogers as a member of the Muddy Waters Tribute Band.

Back in the studio, he recorded multiple albums on Lollipop and Mojo before earning a W.C. Handy nomination in 1997 for Knockin’ On The Devil’s Door on Viceroots. The decade concluded with the release of the well-received The Deep Blues Of Paul Oscher on the Blues Planet imprint and work as a sideman on recordings by Hubert Sumlin, Mos Def and Muddy’s son, Big Bill Morganfield.

Anyone who’s seen Oscher perform a solo acoustic gig recognizes his ability to play harp in a rack while accompanying himself on guitar. He developed that talent after losing both his guitarist and the band’s transportation – the guitarist’s van — when the 21-year-old got busted for DUI.

“I had to cancel 13 gigs,” Paul recalls. “Then I got a call from a woman to play at a festival in Marietta, Ohio. I told her: ‘I got no band and no way to get there.’ She said: ‘Why don’t you come out and do it solo?’ I told Susan about it, and she said: ‘Yeah. I’ll go with ya.’

“We took the Greyhound bus. I rigged up this neck rack with an Astatic microphone and copper tubing. The only problem was that it was all taped up, and you couldn’t change it. You could only play in one key – two or three if you use different positions – and you couldn’t change it if something went wrong with the harp.

paul oscher photo 6“But I did very well. I sold 65 CDs after my first show. So I said: ‘Fuck this shit! I don’t need no band!’”

When he and Susan relocated to Los Angeles for her new job, his new skill – and an improved rack system — came in handy. He started busking on the boardwalk as he worked on his act.

“I did it early in the day,” he says, “because I didn’t want to hear any other musicians. I wanted to practice. People were still walkin’ by, so you still had a live audience. I’d make $100 an hour – selling three CDs and making $40 in tips. It was good economically, and it gave me a way to develop the solo show, too.”

Oscher relocated to Austin in 2012 following his divorce. As he details at length on his website, the move proved magical from the jump.

“It was like fate led me here,” he says.

He drove from L.A. and followed a tractor-trailer because he was unable to see the lines in the road at night. When lost the truck at a stoplight, he drove on and quickly found the trucker waiting to lead him into town.

A few days later, Oscher was standing beside a moving van as movers unloaded his belonging. A black Volkswagen bug pulled up, and the driver shouted: “Hey, Paul! WTF you doin’ here?” It was James Cotton behind the wheel, and Paul quickly discovered that he lived just three doors away!

For the next year, Oscher played only out-of-town gigs even though he was living in a city with the motto “The Live Music Capital Of The World.” He started playing locally only after accompanying Cotton and his wife to dinner one night at The Railroad BBQ. He was invited to perform there on a regular basis after asking one of the owners if they ever had any live music.

Paul’s solo act filled up the joint on Tuesday nights after word spread that Muddy’s former harp player was appearing and that Cotton frequently was dropping by to sit in. The gig came to an end a few months later when the property was sold and the bar owners lost their lease, but Oscher quickly found a new home.

A friend hooked him up with Steve Wertheimer, owner of the legendary Continental Club, who’d just opened C-Boy’s Heart & Soul, a large establishment with ‘50s roadhouse ambiance. A smart businessman, Wertheimer knew that Oscher would draw. But he was unhappy that the audience was drowning out Paul’s music and the stories he told between songs. Oscher needed a band, he said.

It proved to be a great decision. Paul assembled a crew of top Austin musicians and took the bar by storm, and the club eventually was honored as the best music room in the city. They held the regular Thursday night spot there for five years, a run that ended last summer.

Despite his success there, Oscher hadn’t released an album since Bet On The Blues in 2010 until Cool Cat hit store shelves a few months ago.

Recorded primarily at Jimmie Vaughan bass player Billy Horton’s Fort Horton Studio in Wildwood, Tex., and Kid Andersen’s Greaseland Studios in California, it’s an old-school extravaganza that features one Waters cover with all of the rest of the material gathered, as usual, from Oscher’s real-life experiences.

Delivered in full band format, the roster included Tom Robinson on sax, Mike Keller on guitar, Russell Lee on drums and Johnny Ace on bass, all of whom have worked with Paul regularly in New York or Texas through the years, as well as legendary Austin bassist Sarah Brown, who’s been a member of his C-boys ensemble.

The title song and its accompanying spoken-word prologue are based on a character Oscher knew from sitting outside the house during his days with Muddy.

paul oscher photo 7“There was a wino that used to come by once a week,” Paul recalls. “He kinda looked like Dick Gregory with a white beard when Gregory was old. He had matted hair and wore a tweed overcoat in the middle of the summer. He’d have either a pint bottle or a quart of wine in his coat pocket.”

He strolled the street with a cat tied to his waist with a rope. The cat sported a sock that resembled a beret on its head and a pair of red child’s sunglasses held on by an elastic band.

“I said: ‘What’s the name of your cat, man?’” Paul recalls. “He said: ‘That’s Cool Cat!’

“He (the wino) was a cool cat, too. He used to play the wooden instrument you played in school – a recorder…like a flute. If Muddy was there, he’d say: ‘Hit it, man!’ – and he’d play ba-ba-bap-bada-ba-ba…the beginning of ‘Work Song’ (a 1960 hit for jazz cornetist Nat Adderley). When Muddy wasn’t there, he’d play something else.

“All the kids in the neighborhood would run behind this guy like he was the Pied Piper, clappin’ and dancin’, followin’ him all the way down to the one-stop market on the corner of 43rd and Lake Park.

“I wish I had a video camera, man! What a sight!”

Paul used the memory to write an instrumental he copyrighted decades ago as “Summer Jam,” a Ramsey Lewis-style groove, when he left Chicago for New York. It sat on the back burner until he visited Andersen’s studio about two years ago. They recorded it with Kid on bass and West Coast superstar June Core on drums, leaving spaces for future instrumental solos, which were laid down in Texas.

Now entitled “Cool Cat,” there are two versions of it on the disc – a jazzy four-minute version with spoken introduction and a 10-minute R&B version that serves as the album’s closer.

Other highlights are “Ain’t That A Man,” Paul’s loving tribute to Cotton, and “Dirty Dealin’ Mama,” a risqué double-entendre that features a guest appearance from Miss Lavelle White, an 89-year-old crowd pleaser who’s been based in Austin for decades in a career that’s featured stops in New Orleans and Chicago, where she was headliner at the Kingston Mines in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

But it wouldn’t mean anything without his fans, he says, noting: “I’ve been playin’ the blues all my life, and without listeners, the blues ain’t nothin’. So listen to my records — and come to my gigs!”

You won’t be disappointed.

You can sample some of Cool Cat by visiting www.youtube.com. But be sure to visit his website – www.pauloscher.com. It’s chock full of great stories from his past, a host of photos from that era, recent videos and recordings as well as a must-see 17-minute documentary that includes footage of Muddy on stage with young Paul at his side! And check it out for updates about his upcoming autobiography, which should be a killer!

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