Cover photo © 2018 Bob Kieser
In This Issue
Marty Gunther has our feature interview with blues legend Paul Oscher. We have 6 Blues reviews for you this week including new music from Delta Moon, Bryan Lee, Catfish Keith, Watermelon Slim, Travellin’ Brothers and Rich Hope.
Our video of the week is Paul Oscher
We have the latest in Blues society news. All this and MORE! SCROLL DOWN!!!
Video Of The Week – Paul Oscher
Paul Oscher performing “Honey Bee” by Muddy Waters live.(Click image to watch!)
Featured Blues Review – 1 of 6
Delta Moon – Babylon Is Falling
Jumping Jack Records 12018
11 songs – 41 minutes
Since their beginnings in the clubs and coffeehouses around Atlanta about 20 years ago, Delta Moon have consistently enthralled audiences with a double-barreled mix of bottleneck slide and lap steel guitar and tunes that are both topical and thought-provoking. That winning mix continues with this pleasing collection of five originals and six freshly reworked covers.
Blending Southern rock and roots, the band took their name after watching the moon rise above Muddy Waters’ home on Stovall Plantation in Mississippi. They’ve been touring relentlessly after bursting into prominence in 2003, when they represented the Charlotte (N.C.) Blues Society in the International Blues Challenge and captured top honors.
A veteran four-piece unit, this is their tenth release, and several tunes in their catalog have made appearances in the soundtracks of shows on Showtime, the Food Network and more.
They’re fronted by Tom Gray, the 2008 Roots Music Association songwriter of the year. A multi-instrumentalist who contributes vocals, lap steel, keys and harmonica, he and longtime slide guitarist partner Mark Johnson have penned all of the originals here. An in-demand tunesmith, Gray’s work has included Cyndi Lauper’s “Money Changes Everything” and material recorded by a wide range of artists, including Manfred Mann, Carlene Carter and Bonnie Bramlett.
Recorded by Jeff Bakos, Spencer Garn, Marlon Patton and Vic Stafford at Bakos Ampworks and Diamond Street Studios in Atlanta, the lineup features Franher Joseph on bass and three percussionists: regular drummer Stafford, Marlon Patton and Adam Goodhue.
A haunting chord and spare rhythm opens the Hill Country-flavored “Long Way To Go,” which offers a shoulder to lean on for the long journey ahead. Although never specifically mentioned in the lyrics, it could refer to social upheaval and the struggle for racial equality. It ties in neatly with the title song, “Babylon Is Falling.” Not to be confused with a tune of the same name recorded by Slightly Stoopid, this one’s a funky, modern remake of a traditional gospel number and features call-and-response from Gray answered by Johnson and Joseph.
Next up is “One More Heartache,” a tune written by the Miracles and a 1966 hit for Marvin Gaye. Stripped of its Motown feel, it’s dramatically different from the original with its rootsy, bluesy rearrangement, but the emotions – and tears – come through loud and clear. The medium-fast shuffle “Might Take A Lifetime” continues the theme forward before a rollicking take on R.L. Burnside’s “Skinny Woman” and Tom Petty’s “Louisiana Rain,” which remains faithful, but comes across as more of a love ballad than the original.
Slide lovers will be drawn to the original “Little Pink Pistol,” which features Gray and Johnson trading licks. They’re powerful, but sweet in their understatement. The medium-paced shuffle describes a lady who’s both decent at target practice and no one to mess with if she’s uninterested in your advances. As the lyrics state: “She can make you happy/She can make you hurt.”
Two more covers — the traditional “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” first recorded in 1927 by Blind Willie Johnson, and a funky, rock-steady version of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Somebody In My Home” – get 21st Century updates before two more originals – the uptempo rocker “One Mountain At A Time” and the swamp-flavored “Christmas Time In New Orleans” – close the set.
Available from most major online retailers, Babylon Is Falling melds blues and roots into a pleasing package. If that’s your bag, you’ll definitely love this one.
Blues Blast Magazine Senior Writer Marty Gunther has lived a blessed life. Now based out of Charlotte, N.C., his first experience with live music came at the feet of the first generation of blues legends at the Newport Folk Festivals in the 1960s. A former member of the Chicago blues community, he’s a professional journalist and blues harmonica player who co-founded the Nucklebusters, one of the hardest working bands in South Florida.
Featured Blues Review – 2 of 6
Bryan Lee – Sanctuary
Ear Relevant Records
11 Songs, 61 minutes
Born in Wisconsin in 1943 and currently based in New Orleans, Louisiana, Bryan Lee is one of those guys who’s been around forever, making solid records and playing all over the world. Legally blind since the age of 8, he’s also known as the “Braille Blues Daddy,” and has been a fixture on Bourbon Street since the early 1980s.
His deep interest in rock and blues music was fostered through the 1950s by the sounds he’d heard over the airwaves on Nashville-based WLAC-AM, where he first encountered classic blues artists such as Elmore James, Albert King and Albert Collins, along with the early progenitors of rock and roll.
By his late teens, Lee was playing rhythm guitar in regional bands, covering the music of Elvis, Little Richard and Chuck Berry. During the 60s, Lee’s interest shifted to Chicago blues, and he soon found himself immersed in that scene, opening for some of his boyhood heroes. In 1979 he released his first album, Beauty Isn’t Always Visual. Since then, he’s gone on to release more than a dozen albums, and continues to perform in New Orleans, while also touring throughout the U.S., and more recently venturing out to Europe and South America.
In 1995, Bryan shared his stage with a then 13 year old Kenny Wayne Shepherd. Lee was so blown away by the young Shepherd’s guitar playing that he invited him to play on his two Live from The Old Absinthe House CDs in ’97 and ’98. Shepherd also made a guest appearance on Lee’s 2009 CD My Lady Don’t Love My Lady, along with Buddy Guy. In 2007, Shepherd reciprocated by having Lee appear with him as the musical guest on Jay Leno’s The Tonight Show, helping to expose Lee’s work to a larger, younger audience. In 2010, Lee was nominated for a Grammy Award for his work on Live! In Chicago with Kenny Wayne Sheppard and Friends; the album went on to win a Blues Music Award for Best Rock Blues Album.
Lee’s latest effort, Sanctuary, is something of a departure from his earlier releases in that it infuses his usual, electric blues with a rather large dose of Christianity and Gospel music. “This is the blues-gospel record I always wanted to make,” said Lee. “The good Lord gave me this gift and I want to share it with you.” From the very first track, “Fight for the Light,” a deep, funky New Orleans groove gives you the sense that for Lee, Christianity is a joyous thing. This track sets the tone for the rest of the album, from the rollicking shuffles of “The Gift” and “Jesus is My Lord and Savior” to more Gospel-y, organ heavy numbers like “Sanctuary” and “Only if You Praise the Lord.” “U-Haul” brings yet more New Orleans funk, with a catchy second line beat powering Lee’s all-too-true message about mortality and worldly possessions: “I ain’t never saw no U-Haul behind a hearse.”
“The Lord’s Prayer” is a track that was recorded in Norway in 2011, and served as the cornerstone of this album. As Lee tells it, the arrangement for this reading of the “Our Father” came to him in a dream, and he went out and performed it the very next day. It’s a Gospel-infused reading of the prayer, featuring mostly piano and organ, and Lee’s sincere, soulful vocal. Lee’s voice is a rich, relaxed tenor, somewhat reminiscent of Curtis Salgado’s, (and there ain’t nothing wrong with that). Another track that had its origins in that Norway trip is the album’s closer, “Jesus is My Lord and Savior.” Musically, it’s a an up-tempo swing shuffle, but with a compelling message of redemption and learning how to become a better person. Other standout tracks include “I Ain’t Gonna Stop” and “Jesus Gave me the Blues.”
Album personnel include Lee on guitar and vocals; Deidre Fellner on backing vocals; Marc Spagone on guitar; Jack Berry and David Kasik on bass; Matt Liban on drums; Jimmy Voegeli on keyboards; Greg Koch on dobro; Steve Hamilton on percussion; Hamilton also co-produced this album with Lee.
Bottom line? Sanctuary is a collection of infectious Gospel-tinged (and downright funky) grooves, solid songwriting, artful performances, Lee’s tasty, stinging guitar licks, and Lee’s understated yet soulful vocals, all in service of his love of his Christian faith. But you don’t have to be a Christian to dig these grooves. These tracks all withstand – and even encourage – repeated listening. And rest assured, even at 75, Bryan Lee has let us know that he’s definitely still “got it goin’ on!”
Reviewer Dave Orban is a technology marketer by day, musician/artist/educator by night. Since 1998, Orban has fronted The Mojo Gypsies, based in the greater Philadelphia area. http://www.mojogypsies.com
Featured Blues Review – 3 of 6
Catfish Keith – Reefer Hound
Fish Tail Records
16 tracks/63 minutes
Catfish Keith is Iowa’s top dog when it comes to roots and acoustic blues. Here with his 17th album he presents old school viper music with a few of his own tunes mixed in. He takes blues and swing tunes from the 20’s and 30’s (or in that style) about weed and turns them into solo acoustic tunes in a spectacular manner. His precision with his various guitars is impeccable and authentic. His vocals are strong and equally authentic. Here is a quick summation for each tune…
“Walk Across The Ocean” aka “Reefer Man” opens the weed set. Cab Calloway and Hos Orchestra did this in 1930 as a jump blues. Keith dials the pacing down and turns it into more of a Delta Blues. The bass adds a nice backing and Keith delivers a good slide performance on his National Duolian. “Blotted Out My Mind” is banjo player Doc Boggs inspired country blues and Keith lays out a great groove and picks sweetly on his National Radio Tone Bendaway as he sings with aplomb. The title cut to Keith’s 2011 “Put On A Buzz” is a cool original Keith brings to this CD. His finger picking is amazing and his gritty vocals are so cool; from the album of the same title. “Lotus Blossum” is done with a 12 string guitar and the sound is big and dramatic. The mood and feel is dark and it’s just very cool stuff!
“Texas Tea Party” is a Jack Teagarden song and it’s quite fun as Keith sings with gusto as he strums some wickedly interesting stuff. Trixie Smith’s “Jack, I’m Mellow” is bouncy and fun, far from mellow but well done. Catfish is such a greater picker. Bea Foote’s “Weed” is next, dark and intense enough to get a contact high from it. “Willie The Chimney Sweep” is up, a cut from Ernest Rogers. Keith tells the story well.
“Cool Can Of Beer” is from his “Pepper In His Shoe!” sessions. There is some fancy finger picking here. “Weed Smoker’s Dream/Why Don’t You Do Right?” blends two versions of the same song in a cool manner. The former is Kansas Joe McCoy and the Harlem Hamfats and the latter a re-arrangement for Lil Green; Peggy Lee later recorded it and it was a hit with her and the Benny Goodman Orchestra. Django Rinehart and Stephane Grappelli’s “Back In Nagasaki” is a jumping and fun number. The title cut follows, a Curtis Jones tune. Catfish is back on 12 string and the big sound emanating from it is again amazing. The vocals are hot and quite cool.
“Getting Away With Something” is a bouncy and sweet original, inspired by the great Blind Blake. Keith whispers and sings out as he blazes on the acoustic guitar. Jazz Gillum’s “Reefer Head” is some pretty blues about a guy’s woman who sleeps all the time due to her reefer use. “Mr. Crump Don’t Like It” follows with Catfish singing with authority. He plays with similar authority and gives another fine performance. Keith concludes with “Knockin’ Myself Out,” another Lil Green song. He starts out with some elegant finger picking and then gets into delivering some well done lyrics about knocking himself out gradually with weed.
I must say I was impressed. When I saw 16 reefer tunes I thought, “Really?” but he pulls it off and then some! He plays a variety of guitars and I daresay few could make them sound as he does. He does some stuff I was trying to figure out how it was humanly possible to do. He’s amazing. This will be one of the top acoustic albums for this past year. Most highly recommended!
EDITOR’S NOTE: Catfish Keith’s Refer Hound is nominated for a 2019 Blues Music Award in the Acoustic Blues Album Category
Reviewer Steve Jones is president of the Crossroads Blues Society and is a long standing blues lover. He is a retired Navy commander who served his entire career in nuclear submarines. In addition to working in his civilian career since 1996, he writes for and publishes the bi-monthly newsletter for Crossroads, chairs their music festival and works with their Blues In The Schools program. He resides in Byron, IL.
Featured Blues Review – 4 of 6
Watermelon Slim – Church Of The Blues
Northern Blues – 2019
14 tracks; 57 minutes
Watermelon Slim’s thirteenth career album finds him in good company with a host of guests. As always, Slim’s distinctive vocals and slide/harp playing are at the heart of the material which is a blend of originals and covers from some of his greatest influences – Mississippi Fred McDowell, Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf amongst others.
Slim handles vocals, slide guitar and occasional harp, with John Allouise on bass and Brian Wells on drums. However, most tracks add guests: Bob Margolin (3 tracks), Albert Castiglia (2), Ike Lamb (2), Chris ‘Wick’ Hardwick (2), Nick Schnebelen and Joe Louis Walker (1 each) are on guitar; Red Young (6 tracks) and Chris Wiser (3) are on keys and John Nemeth (2 tracks) and Sherman Holmes (1) add vocals. The ‘Church Of The Blues’ horn section of Matt Blagg (trumpet), Chris Hicks (sax) and Kevin Webb (trombone) plays on three tracks; Chris was also the producer of the project.
I could find no information on the writers of the first two songs: “St Peter’s Ledger” is credited to Ron L Meadors and is a good start as Slim asks St Peter to check his books and not send him down to purgatory, Slim and Bob Margolin’s guitars meshing well to give a nice, thick sound; Tom W McFarland is credited as the writer of “Tax Man Blues” and it dovetails well with the previous track as Slim complains about how hard it is to make a living playing music, the lyrics seeming to relate to the 70’s as the author had to take a day job when disco took over the scene in San Francisco. “Gypsy Woman” features Bob Margolin’s Muddyesque slide work but also plenty of Slim’s high-pitched harp.
The horns put in their first appearance on Slim’s “Post-Modern Blues”, a strong song with Nick Schnebelen on slide and Slim recognizing that he is something of a dinosaur: “I’m obsolete, living my life in the twentieth century. I’ll never be post-modern, there’s stuff that’s false and fake. The plan is to dumb us down so we are just good consumers”. The horns definitely add to this one, making it one of the standout cuts. Sherman Holmes and John Nemeth join Slim in a three-pronged vocal attack that works well on Allen Toussaint’s “Get Out Of My Life Woman”, a track that marks Bob Margolin’s final contribution on slide.
Slim’s passionate advocacy of ‘green’ issues is evident on “MNI Wiconi – The Water Song” and he pulls no punches as he discusses the waste of water on our planet: “if we don’t care about our water we don’t care who we kill”, set to an attractive tune with Joe Louis Walker’s distinctive, almost discordant, guitar attack set against bubbling bass and Red Young’s gentle organ work. Bringing things back to personal relations Gene Barge’s “Me And My Woman” has a funky backdrop with Albert Castiglia’s guitar and Slim’s busy harp work before another classic, Howling Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning”, gets a country blues makeover featuring Slim’s resonator. The country feel carries on into “That Ole 1-4-5” with producer Chris on guitar and Slim goes all the way back to the origins of the blues with “Holler #4”, acapella apart from a background footstomp. This autobiographical holler runs to six minutes!
The closing four songs are all strong. Fred McDowell was an early influence on Slim and here he covers “Highway 61” in the only straight trio performance on the album and it’s a good version with plenty of Slim’s distinctive slide work. “Too Much Alcohol” is often associated with Rory Gallagher though Rory always correctly credited it to JB Hutto; here Slim and Albert Castiglia go toe to toe on slide – shame it is not a longer track! “Charlottesville (Blues For My Nation)” is Slim’s indictment of recent political events and it’s a bitter reflection of what was seen in Virginia in 2017, John Nemeth adding to the chorus. “Halloween Mama” lightens the mood with the horns and some odd, retro organ sounds from Chris Wiser as Slim sings of an unfortunate girlfriend: “My baby’s so ugly, just like Frankenstein’s daughter. She don’t need no costume when she’s out on Halloween, she takes off her mask, scares people like you never seen”. Amusing stuff, if not very PC – perhaps that is why it’s dubbed a ‘bonus song’!
Long-term fans will enjoy Watermelon Slim’s latest.
Reviewer John Mitchell is a blues enthusiast based in the UK who enjoys a wide variety of blues and roots music, especially anything in the ‘soul/blues’ category. Favorites include contemporary artists such as Curtis Salgado, Tad Robinson, Albert Castiglia and Doug Deming and classic artists including Bobby Bland, Howling Wolf and the three ‘Kings’. He gets over to the States as often as he can to see live blues.
Featured Blues Review – 5 of 6
Travellin’ Brothers – 13th Avenue South
CD: 10 Songs, 43:39 Minutes
Styles: Jazz-and-Soul-Influenced Blues, 1950s-Style Blues, Ensemble Blues
13th Avenue South, the eighth release from Bilbao’s Travellin’ Brothers, contains the perfect music for ringing in the New Year. Its jazzy, peppy ‘50s style will get revelers on the dance floor in no time, and its overall atmosphere is one of celebration. From the opener with a Bo Diddley beat, to a gospel tune smack in the middle, to the lyrical aftermath of Peggy Sue Got Married, this CD is a forty-three-minute party. Some blues fans may want less glitter and more grit, but if so, they should pop an album from one of the old masters in their stereo instead. Without a doubt, front man Jon Careaga and company offer the best of good times. Featuring nine original tracks and one cover (“Last Fair Deal Going Down”), the Travellin’ Brothers’ latest is luscious.
The band has earned several notches in their blues/jazz championship belt, including a victory in the 2015 European Blues Challenge for Best European Band, and a slot as a finalist in the 2015 International Blues Challenge. They’ve also shared the stage with such legends as Buddy Guy, Koko Taylor, Canned Heat and Ike Turner. In their continuous desire for improvement and continuous growth, they decided to bet heavily on this recording, armed with great compositions and a state of unbeatable form. After their last two-year tour and 130 concerts in 15 countries, they traveled in November of 2017 to Nashville, known as Music City, ready to record the best record of their career.
Complementing lead vocalist Jon Careaga are Aitor Cañibano on electric, acoustic and lead guitars; Eneko Cañibano on electric and upright bass; Isi Redondo on drums, washboard and percussion; Alain Sancho on soprano, alto, tenor and baritone sax, and Mikel Azpiroz on piano, Hammond M3, Wurlitzer and vibraphone. Guest stars include Earl Thomas and Alex Schultz on lead vocals and lead guitar, respectively. Other featured musicians are Etta Britt on backing vocals; Steve Conn on accordion; Jamison Sevits on trumpet and tuba; Josh Scalf on trombone; and Brad Jones on harp.
It’s nigh-impossible to pick the three best songs from the Brothers, but here goes everything.
Track 01: “The Spur” – What’s a spur used for? To urge a horse (and, metaphorically, a person) to giddy up and go. One might even want to do the Hand Jive during Numero Uno. The lyrics are a stream-of-consciousness hodgepodge from a traveling troupe: “Sax master, let’s have a last, just a quick one very fast. Last bar to hotel door; downstairs it started to pour…Sounds like a plan to me, my friend. I’ll be your sideman in your dyslexic nuffy band.” ‘Nuff said, eh?
Track 02: “A Better Day” – Gorgeous harmonies warm the soul like rays of sunshine on this loping, easygoing number. Earl Thomas takes the lead on vocals here, and Jamison Sevits plays terrific trumpet and tuba. This song’s definitely in keeping with the New Year theme, because all of us want to say, “Well, I’m on my way to a better day.”
Track 06: “Peggy Sue Got Divorced” – There are often two sides to marriage: tying the knot and severing it. Track six showcases a sultry sax intro and gregarious guitar from Alex Schultz. “Life has its ups and downs,” Careaga tells this song’s subject, “and Peggy Sue, you know it better than anyone else. Forget what he said; you are beautiful in so many ways.” So is this ditty.
As 2019 begins, take a tantalizing trip down 13th Avenue South with the Travellin’ Brothers!
Reviewer Rainey Wetnight is a 38 year old female Blues fan. She brings the perspective of a younger blues fan to reviews. A child of 1980s music, she was strongly influenced by her father’s blues music collection.
Featured Blues Review – 6 of 6
Rich Hope – I’m All Yours
Planned Obsolescence Recording & Novelty Inc.
10 songs – 40 minutes
I’m All Yours is the fourth album from Vancouver blues-rocker, Rich Hope, and it’s an exhilarating slice of primal blues-rock. The black and white cover of the CD depicts guitarist-singer Hope in a classic rock pose: legs akimbo, hair greased back, laying into his Les Paul guitar, looking like a misplaced member of the Clash. And the opening track on the album, “It Come Alive”, is a riff-driven rock song that suggests there may not be too much blues on display. In fact, although there is a lot of rock on the album, I’m All Yours is a steamy gumbo of rock, blues, soul and pop. It is also played with such verve, abandon and utter conviction, that it is a delight to listen to.
Backed by the rock-solid rhythm section of Adrian Mack on drums and backing vocals and Erik P.H. Nielsen on bass and backing vocals and Matt Kelly of keys, Hope leaves nothing out there on these performances, expertly captured by Felix Fung of Little Red Sounds studio in Vancouver. There is an atavistic thrill in listening to primal rock music played with such attitude and I’m All Yours is one of the most exciting albums heard by this reviewer recently. The core band is also supplemented at various times by Scott Smith’s pedal steel guitar, Jerry Cook’s saxophone and Derry Byrne’s trumpet.
“It Come Alive” is followed by the joyous Beatles-esque rock of The Flamin’ Groovies’ “Golden Clouds” with its descending arpeggio guitar patterns, before the overcast threat of “Creepstone” and the discordant modern blues-rock grind of “La Iguana” (with a fine solo from Kelly). The magnificent country-rock-pop of “Blow Away” contains the infuriatingly catchy chorus of “Let the Heavens fall all around us. We were lucky that they never found us. I was drunker than a Lord and so were you.” It is worth commending the backing vocals throughout, which are outstanding.
Hope, Nielsen and Mack wrote or co-wrote eight of the 10 songs on the album. The two covers are “Golden Clouds” and Juke Boy Bonner’s “Runnin’ Shoes” (perhaps most famously covered by the Fabulous Thunderbirds on their 1980 classic What’s The Word?). The originals lose nothing in comparison to the hallowed covers. The guitar/keyboard riff of “5 Cents A Dance” again recalls 1960s garage band rock, while the funky pop-soul of “Some Kind Of Love” contains one of Hope’s most vulnerable and endearing vocal performances.
Hope’s charisma shines through every aspect of I’m All Yours, begging the question why he isn’t more well-known. A fine guitar player, he may lack the undisguised virtuosity of a Nick Curran, but he plays and sings with a similar full-bore, flat-out attitude. His slow blues, “Paranoia Blues” has a hypnotic quality that subtly disguises the smart dynamics and mature use of space and restraint.
Although it’s at the rockier end of the blues-rock spectrum, I’m All Yours is a thrillingly visceral album. It oozes grease, grime, excitement and passion. If you enjoy the likes of Steve Conte, Johnny Thunders or the rockier side of Nick Curran, you will want to check this out. It’s what rock’n’roll should be.
Reviewer Rhys Williams lives in Cambridge, England, where he plays blues guitar when not holding down a day job as a technology lawyer or running around after his children. He is married to an American, and speaks the language fluently, if with an accent.
Featured Interview – Paul Oscher
When 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.
“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.
“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.
The 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!”
A 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.
“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.
“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!
Blues Blast Magazine Senr Writer Marty Gunther has lived a blessed life. Now based out of Charlotte, N.C., his first experience with live music came at the feet of the first generation of blues legends at the Newport Folk Festivals in the 1960s. A former member of the Chicago blues community, he’s a professional journalist and blues harmonica player who co-founded the Nucklebusters, one of the hardest working bands in South Florida.
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Crossroads Blues Society – Rockford, IL
Monthly shows on the second Saturday of each month at Hope and Anchor English Pub on N 2nd St in Loves Park, IL. They are 2/9/18 Mike Wheeler Band, 3/9/19 John Primer, 4/13/19 The Cash Box Kings and 5/11/19 Corey Dennison Band. All shows 8 PM to 11:30 PM.
First and Third Friday’s feature the Blues at the Lyran Society Club on 4th Avenue in Rockford and a great fish fry, too! The schedule is 2/1/19 Sistah Beth Blues, 2/15/19 Recently Paroled, 3/1/19 Hobson’s Choice, 3/15/19 Milwaukee Slim with Billy Flynn, 4/5/19 Dave Fields and 4/19/19 Oscar Wilson and Joel Patterson. No cover, 7 pm to 10 pm.
Chillicothe Public Library District – Chillicothe,IL
Legendary blues artist John Primer and the Real Deal Blues Band will present “The Blues According to John Primer,” a high-energy Chicago blues show, at 2:00 p.m. Sunday, February 10, at Chillicothe Public Library, 430 N. Bradley Ave., Chillicothe, IL 61523. The concert is free (donations appreciated). Attendees are encouraged to stay for a post-concert talk and Q&A with Primer about his musical life and experiences.
John Primer is a legend among blues artists: a two-time Grammy nominee, he helped to build the sound and style of Chicago blues over his decades-long career with his strong traditionalist blues phrasing, seasoned rhythm and blues vocals, and lightning-fast slide guitar techniques. Having played or recorded with a “Who’s Who” of blues greats, Primer’s personal accolades, including a Lifetime Achievement Award, reflect his countless contributions to the history of Chicago blues.
For more information, please visit www.chillipld.org or call 309-274-2719.
Prairie Crossroads Blues Society – Champaign, IL
Prairie Crossroads Blues Society continues holding two Blues Jams each month. Thanks to Pipa’s Pub, 604 S. Country Fair Dr. in Champaign for hosting these jams held the 2nd Sunday of each month from 4 to 7 pm and the 4th Wednesday of each month from 7 to 10 pm. The host band plays the 1st set and then it’s open to all the jammers in the house.
In February the Blues Deacons will host and Sunday March 10, we welcome back Robert Kimbrough Sr. Robert is the youngest son of Junior Kimbrough and put on an amazing show at the 2018 Prairie Crossroads Blues Fest. Bring your instrument. For more info visit: www.prairiecrossroadsblues.org.
The Illinois Central Blues Club – Springfield, IL
The Illinois Central Blues Club has announced the line-up of talent for Blue Monday live performances held every Monday night at the Alamo, 115 North Fifth, Springfield, IL from 8:00pm to midnight. Additional information on any performer listed below is available upon request.
Jan 28 – Billy Galt & the Blues Deacons, Feb 2 – David Lumsden, Feb 18 – Emily Burgess, Feb 25 – The Rockin’ Jake Band, March 3 – The Nick Schnebelen Band For more information visit www.icbluesclub.org.
The Charlotte Blues Society – Charlotte, NC
The Charlotte Blues Society proudly announces its February Blues Bash on 10th February, 2019, featuring Lipbone Redding. A one-man band, Lipbone has shared the stage with many of the greats and is sure to entertain. Note that the date has been set back one week so the Super Bowl wouldn’t have to face the competition
The event will be held at the Rabbit Hole, 1801 Commonwealth Ave., Charlotte, NC 28205. Doors at 7:00, music at 8:00, to be followed by an open blues jam. Admission is free for current members with a card and just $5.00 for non-members.
Like last year, we continue to collect non-perishable foods and household supplies for Loaves and Fishes. 1 Can? I Can!
Great Northern Blues Society – Wausau,WI
To celebrate 20 years of the Blues Café, we will be kicking off the weekend by hosting a 20th Anniversary Party, Friday, March 8 at the Rothschild Pavilion (near Wausau, WI). Doors will open at 5:30 pm, with Howard “Guitar” Luedtke getting things started at 6:30 and Reverend Raven & The Chain Smokin’ Altar Boys taking the stage at 8:30.
Friday admission can be bought the night of the event for $5 and is included with all Saturday Blues Café ticket, which will be available to purchase at Friday’s event.
Saturday’s Blues Café lineup includes the Mark Cameron Band at 1 pm, the Ivy Ford Band at 3 pm, the Cash Box Kings at 5 pm, the Danielle Nicole Band at 7 pm, and Ronnie Baker Brooks at 9 pm. Doors will open at noon. We hope you can join us for a weekend of great music, and to celebrate 20 years of good times at the Blues Café. For more information, visit gnbs.org.
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