"Remember Me" - Paul deLay

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Cascade Blues Association
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Original Halibut's
The Heathman Hotel
New Seasons Market
Portland Powder Coating
Delehoy College Counseling
Trail's End Saloon
Designer Visuals

Thursday March 8, 2007

Paul deLay, the larger-than-life Portland bluesman who redefined the harmonica and its musical potential, died Wednesday morning at Providence Portland Medical Center from end-stage leukemia diagnosed just days before. He was 55.

"He set the standard for harmonica players when he was 20 years old," said guitarist Jim Mesi, "and he got better from there." Mesi first played with deLay almost 40 years ago in Portland's seminal electric blues band, Brown Sugar.

"I've lived in Boston, New York and Austin, and I've played all around the states and in Europe, and everywhere I've been, I've met Paul deLay fans," said Seattle musician and author Kim Field. "His soulful singing, his brilliant chromatic harmonica playing and his unique songwriting made him renowned worldwide as a musical luminary . . . who made important new contributions . . . and helped give the blues a new lease on life."

"What I learned from Paul was to never settle for a cliche; he was rigorous about that," said Louis Pain, who played organ with deLay for 10 years. "He was so funny, and so original and he had such a wit, both in his playing and his personality."

Paul deLay recorded a dozen albums in his four-decade career, won several music awards and was nominated for a W.C. Handy award. He and his band toured constantly, and his last show was just last Saturday -- a benefit show at Klamath Fall's Ross Ragland Theater.

"What amazes me is the energy he brought to that show," said guitarist Pete Dammann, who worked with deLay for the past two decades. "He wasn't pirouetting onstage, but he was joking and yakking with the crowd and he played hard. We did two long sets, and nobody had any idea anything like this was going on."

Neither did deLay. After the show, Dammann said, deLay felt under the weather, presumably from bronchitis he'd suffered on the band's recent jaunt to Mexico for several shows. But doctors found that deLay was suffering from leukemia so advanced that his organs began shutting down, and he lapsed into a coma from which he never recovered.

DeLay was a big man whose driver's license listed his height as 6 feet and his weight as 400 pounds, and he had recently developed type II diabetes, so he'd had health issues. He also battled alcohol and cocaine addiction in the late 1980s -- and was busted for trafficking in 1990 -- but by all accounts, deLay had been clean and sober for more than 15 years. He even named his music publishing company after his new drug of choice: French Roast.

The leukemia diagnosis was a complete surprise, said Dammann. "This is really beyond my ability to process right now. Of all the dozens of different things we worried about happening to Paul, of all the ways the scenario could've played out, this was completely off the radar."

Paul Joseph deLay was born Jan. 31, 1952, in Portland, where he lived all his life. In the early 1970s, he, Mesi and then-drummer Lloyd Jones formed Brown Sugar and played to eager crowds up and down the West Coast -- and laid the foundation for Portland's reputation as one of the country's great blues towns.

In 1976, deLay and Mesi formed the Paul deLay Blues Band, which toured hard for more than a decade in a couple of different lineups. The band recorded albums such as "Teasin' " and "American Voodoo" during occasional breaks from the road. But deLay's alcohol and cocaine problems worsened with the isolation and the itinerant lifestyle of touring. In January 1990, he was busted for cocaine trafficking and eventually served time in federal prison in Sheridan.

Before serving that sentence, deLay cleaned up and for the first time started writing and recording his own music with his new band. He released two fine albums of original material, "Paulzilla" and "The Other One," which established his artistic bona fides like nothing in the previous two decades had.

When deLay went into prison for 41 months, his band played on as the No Delay Band and was waiting for him when he got out. They went on to record such groundbreaking albums as "Ocean of Tears" and "Nice and Strong," while Evidence Records released his two post-bust albums as "Take it From the Turnaround" -- evidence that whoever said there are no second acts to American lives hadn't heard of Paul deLay.

He's survived by his wife, Megan Gill deLay, two sisters, and a daughter from a previous relationship. Plans for memorial services or concerts have not yet been announced, but bet that a lot of songs in the foreseeable future will be dedicated to our big man of the blues.

"He was the best harmonica player in the blues world," said bassist Jimmy Lloyd Rea from Baker City, "His big body, mind, heart and soul was in every note he ever played."

John Foyston: 503-221-8368; johnfoyston@news.oregonian.com

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