"Remember Me" - Paul deLay

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Paul deLay: Groovin' In Limbo
by John Foyston (Part 1)

[cover story in Blues Access, Fall 1991]


Some rooms are tougher than others. Ask Paul deLay. In two decades of touring the Northwest's circuit of smoky roadhouse blues venues, he's played some pretty tough ones. For every dream gig such as Seattle's Bumbershoot, the San Francisco and Portland blues festivals, or opening for blues greats such as B.B. King and John Lee Hooker, there've been hundreds of others. The kind where the crowd appears not to care that they're hearing one of the world's great harmonica players, especially since he won't play "Stormy Monday."

The toughest room of all was likely a tavern in rural Washington state on the rainy January night in 1990 when deLay thought he was having a heart attack on stage.

It was the kind of no-nonsense place where the sign outside simply reads: Tavern. Inside, the big-screen television is tuned to monster-truck racing, and Michael Jackson uneasily cohabits the jukebox with George Jones.

The deLay band filled the triangular stage that Saturday night. Paul Jones played drums for nearly his last time with deLay, ending 10 years with the band. It resembled the end of a long, rocky marriage­ which it may have been. deLay and Jones didn't talk much by then.

He doesn't remember talking to deLay at all during the weekend, and doesn't remember deLay faltering during the Saturday night set, but he recalls deLay sitting at the bar later, looking pale and ill. And he overheard deLay saying that he might miss his usual Sunday night jam session and get some rest instead. That deLay would pass up the $50 he could earn at the jam session surprised Jones. Something must have happened.

Something did.

deLay went out to the the van during a break. He probably had a taste of the pipe ­he'd been freebasing cocaine for a year or two before he got busted and now he was in trouble, and knew it.

He couldn't catch his breath. His left arm had gone numb. His hand tingled, he could hardly feel the harmonica he was holding. His heart stuttered in his rib cage like a blowout at 80 miles an hour. At about six feet tall and 300 pounds, deLay knew it could happen to him.

The eventuality didn't seem especially remote that night, but he kept playing through the fear and the pain. It made him mad and he sang all the harder. If he ignored the pain, it would eventually go away.

Guitarist Peter Dammann remembers that part. It might have been in the middle of a James Brown tune, "Signed, Sealed and Delivered:" "You couldn't really tell how sick deLay was. He sort of went into this crouch, like he was determined to blaze his way through it. He never did say anything to the rest of the band."

Maybe he had a heart attack that night, maybe not. He never did go to a doctor. Two days later on January 23, he was recuperating at home in his Portland apartment, and answered a knock at the door. That knock proved to be the FBI and deLay's own private shell burst in the war on drugs: five federal charges alleging that deLay and his wife, Peggy, possessed and distributed five kilos of cocaine.

"My head's hurtin' for certain / From bangin' it against the wall."
"Merry Way" by Paul deLay

That night, deLay played an even tougher room: a tiny cell in the Multnomah County Detention Center in the middle of downtown Portland. As he was moved into the drunk tank next morning, a guard gleefully held up a copy of The Oregonian. deLay had made the front page at last. Indeed, film clips of a handcuffed deLay being paraded up Southwest Broadway were a common sight for at least a week on local news channels.

It's a sad story ­p; the fall of Portland's premier blues musician. And it's not over yet, a year and a half after the bust. When deLay does go to trial, he faces 25-40 years in federal prison ­p; and tough new sentencing guidelines don't leave the judge much room to cut him any slack.

Despite that sentence hanging over his head , or because of it. deLay is living and creating with a vigor little short of astonishing, especially to all those who despaired of finding a way to motivate the man. For the first time in 20 years he's clean and sober. For the first time in 38 years, he looks ready to unlock the potential of his considerable gifts.

With the release in early December of a new album, his sixth entitled The Other One, he's crossed the great divide in the music business. Where before he was a talented interpreter of other people's music, the 11 original songs on The Other One ­p; and the new material he continues to write ­p; signal his arrival as a mature artist. He's singing and playing better than he ever has, and fronting a band of uncommon sensitivity and power.

deLay's battles with alcohol, cocaine and inertia ultimately, with himself, are little different than the battles many of us face at one time or another. The difference, of course, is the glare of publicity.
Since deLay's battles are now an intensely public spectacle, fairness dictates that we look at the rest of the man's story. And if deLay is forging his travail into the beginnings of some sort of personal redemption, then his triumph is our own.


deLay is important for a couple of reasons. He is unparalleled as a player and a singer, and, as a professional musician who's never held another job, he's been a central figure in the Northwest blues scene since there's been a Northwest blues scene.

It's not like he hasn't had some competition. This is the same area, after all, that spawned Grammy award -winner Robert Cray ­p; who back in the late '70s used to open for deLay. Soul\blues screamer Curtis Salgado fronted Roomful of Blues for a year after leaving Cray's band. Now he heads his own blues-pop crossover outfit, the Stilettos, who have a new album due out late this year.

Come to that, a pretty good argument can be made that it was the Blues Brothers who first turned a lot of young ears toward the blues. Belushi and Ackroyd got the idea from Salgado in Eugene, Oregon, during the filming of Animal House.

A decade earlier, the blues just weren't cool. When deLay and guitarist Jim Mesi and then-drummer Lloyd Jones put Brown Sugar together, the rock 'n roll guys told them it wouldn't last six months. But Portland's blues scene has grown from zero to one of the most vibrant in the nation in the 20 years since.

Bands such as the Switchmasters, the Blubinos, Lloyd Jones' Struggle, Back Porch Blues and the Terraplanes regularly set the night afire. Whole squadrons of earnest young players make the Sunday night sojourn between Mesi's and deLay's jam sessions. The Cascade Blues Association boasts a membership in the hundreds, and the fourth annual Waterfront Blues festival just attracted about 60,000 people to four days of nothing but the blues.

Hubert Sumlin was one one of the headliners. As he walked offstage he had a few thoughts on the Portland scene: "I wonder if people know how good they've got it." he said. "I think this town could be the next home of the blues."

Paul deLay is squarely in the center of it all, singing and playing like nobody else.

Talk to anybody who's ever played with deLay, talk to any knowledgeable listener, and you'll likely find a deLay fan. Just ask Sumlin. In the late '70s he and deLay toured together with legendary Chicago pianist Sunnyland Slim. The young harp player made a big impression on the Wolf's former guitar player. As he said after a recent reunion with the deLay band : "He's the best in the world, man. I gotta say it. In my book, he's the best."

deLay brings a jazzy sensibility and a melodic fearlessness to an axe that can quickly become a cliche' in less talented hands.

His work on the diatonic harmonica is amazing enough, but musical barriers really begin to tumble when he picks up a Hohner chromatic harmonica. The chromatic is far more flexible than the smaller harmonica. It spans four octaves and has two sets of reeds. A button enables the player to jump up and down a half-step allowing a complete scale instead of just major and blues scales.
deLay calls it pulling the trigger and few are his equal. Most don't even attempt it, and the chromatic has never been a staple of the blues. deLay doesn't care. He makes it sound like everything from Charlie Parker's alto saxophone to an accordion in the hands of some gently soused, but inspired ­Parisian boulevardier.

His singing transcends barriers for the same reason; he sounds neither white nor black ­p; his voice is completely free of affectation, managing to convey emotion with perfect economy and clarity. And if his phrasing recalls that of blues great B.B.King, the admiration is mutual, as a photo of Paul clasping hands with King proves. "I think the Paul deLay Band is great," King wrote across the bottom.

deLay's playing impelled Ray Varner to move from Chicago. Varner helped found the Washington Blues Association and runs one of Seattle's favorite blues spots, the Owl Cafe. He heard deLay in 1973, playing in Brown Sugar ­p; then one of Portland's most popular bands ­p; and decided that the Northwest blues scene rivalled that of legendary Chicago's.

He went on to produce deLay's first album and gained an appreciation for deLay's musicianship. deLay's not a schooled player, but he has what musicians call big ears ­p; the intuitive ability to hear and play the perfect line. And he won't quit until he gets what he wants, either. On one album track, deLay recorded 54 different harmonica solos before finally getting the sound he wanted.

No living blues player matches deLay's melodic complexity, Varner says. Both deLay and Dammann refer to that complexity as "being out over the skis." That's where deLay likes to stay, even if he risks leaving his audience behind.

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