Paul Oscher with Pinetop Perkins & Willie Smith – Rough Stuff
CoolStreme Music Services
13 songs – 43 minutes
When Paul Oscher succumbed to COVID-19 a few weeks after his 74th birthday in 2021, the world of blues lost a truly unique talent. A master harmonica player and storyteller who spent five years as the first-ever white musician in a black blues band when he played with Muddy Waters, he was also a master guitarist and piano player, too, having been schooled by Mud himself and Otis Spann – with whom he shared living quarters in Waters’ basement.
All of those skills come to the fore on this long-out-of-print reissue disc, which first saw the light of day in the early ‘90s on Lollipop Records, but never gained traction because the label went belly-up soon after. Lovers of old-school blues can rejoice, however, because this lovingly remastered effort shines like a diamond.
A Brooklyn, N.Y., native who spent his final years in Austin, Texas, and served as a major influence to both Jerry Portnoy and Magic Dick of the J. Geils Band, Oscher began studying the instrument after receiving one as a gift from an uncle at age 12, when he caught the ear of Jimmy Johnson, a longtime performer in medicine shows, who taught him how to play.
He was so proficient that he worked regularly at age 15 with Little Jimmy Mae, a fixture in the borough and across Long Island. Mae introduced him to Muddy. After sitting in with him at Smalls Paradise two years later, Waters hired him on the spot to fill the chair vacated by Cotton who’d launched his solo career.
Recorded in New York when Oscher was working locally under the name Brooklyn Slim, Paul plays all three instruments – and accordion, too – here and provides vocals on 12 of the 13 tracks, which include seven solo performances and six others with pianist Pinetop Perkins and drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, his former bandmates in Muddy’s band. Sax player Willie Bridges and an unidentified bassist appear on one cut.
The Muddy original, “Iodine in My Coffee,” opens the action with Paul doubling on guitar and racked harp with Pinetop on keys, interspersing train-inspired runs on the reeds with six-string runs that strongly resemble Muddy. His warm, mid-range voice is pleasantly behind the beat throughout. Perkins yields the stool for Oscher and Smith joins the action for a sprightly cover of Big Joe Turner’s “Wee Wee Baby” next, and Paul’s light touch and two-fisted action on the 88s would have made Otis – who passed in 1970 – smile.
The solo original bluesy ballad “Debra Lou,” a tribute to “the sweetest gal I ever knew,” follows with Paul on guitar and harp before he reinvents country giant Roy Acuff’s classic, “Wabash Cannonball,” retitled “Cannonball Rock” and aided by Bridges, the bassist and probably Smith on brushes, although he’s uncredited. The sound changes dramatically for the original “DownTrack,” which finds Oscher back on the 88s with Big Eyes in tow. It’s a jazzy, urban, stop-time blues penned to honor a professional three-card Monte player friend with spoken lyrics throughout.
A traditional take on Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Sloppy Drunk” follows with Paul tag-teaming guitar and harp before Oscher covers two Mississippi John Hurt standards, turning to accordion to deliver “Louis Collins” – which describes a mother mourning her gunned-down son – and just harmonica for the familiar “Liza Jane.” Top and Willie join the action together for the only time in the set with Paul on slide for a sprightly all-instrumental reworking of the traditional “John Henry” before a country-blues, guitar-harp take on Turner’s Kansas City classic, “B&O Blues” follows.
Another unhurried, spoken-word original, “Mississippi,” finds Oscher on guitar and Willie on skins, before Paul delivers another tune from Hurt’s songbook, “Make Me a Pallet.” A sweet, finger-picked stunner, it precedes a take on James Carr’s “Blues Before Sunrise,” which features Pinetop at the top of his game to conclude the set.
Paul Oscher was an excellent student of the blues and absolute monster artist, too. If he slipped under your radar during his life, give this a listen and you’ll understand why his talent was appreciated so greatly by his peers. Strongly recommended.