"Remember Me" - Paul deLay

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Paul deLay: Groovin' In Limbo
by John Foyston (Part 2)

[cover story in Blues Access, Fall 1991]


deLay's been serious about the blues ever since he first heard the Paul Butterfield band play "Good Mornin' Li'l Schoolgirl," on an album entitled "Folk Songs '65." It caused deLay to hurry home from junior high school and sit entranced before the record player, playing the cut over and over. Once he could eke out a few of his own bluesy notes on a harmonica, that was it p; deLay the bluesman was born.

deLay was born on the last day of January, 1952, at Emanuel Hospital in Portland. He grew up in a home filled with music and art. Paul was a music man right from the start. His father still has a photograph of Paul at age three, with just his head and shoulders sticking out from underneath a roll-around speaker stand where he had crawled to be closer to the music.

He listened to all kinds of music from his folks' huge record collection of classical, jazz, swing and Dixieland. He remembers going to sleep to the sound of his mother playing the piano.

deLay has always been exactly who he is, a friend remembers. Always big, he never played sports in junior high or high school. Painting, drawing, photography, and music interested him much more. His father gave him S&H Green Stamps, and deLay pasted them into books and took them to the redemption center for yet another shiny Hohner chromatic harmonica. Which he would eventually drop in the sand at Boy Scout cam p; with demoralizing effect upon all that German precision p; after carrying it with him everywhere.

His father supported his ambitions, allowing his first band, Mixed Blood, to practice in the living room, and buying him a 1948 Packard hearse in which to ferry equipment around. Allan deLay used to take his son with him on photographic assignments such as his annual coverage of the Forest Grove barbershop quartet competition. Even at age 10, Paul could hear and identify the complex vocal harmonies, things the elder deLay could never hear.

School held less and less interest. He worked in the darkroom and took photos for the yearbook, but found classes increasingly pointless. An acquaintance has two images of deLay's high school years: Paul sitting in front of the school on the lawn, playing his harmonica, and Paul sitting in English class, staring out the window.

Towards the end of high school, everything else p; including the art projects p; became less important as he got deeper into music, and began to drink and experiment with drugs.

Shortly before graduation in 1969, deLay dropped out and joined the musicians union. While his former classmates were renting tuxedos at Nudelman's, deLay entered the smoky, nighttime world of the professional musician.


Lloyd Jones and Mesi jammed with deLay, and they formed Brown Sugar. They practiced for months, and came down the chute as one of tightest bands this town had heard, and went on to become a regional legend.

Brown Sugar worked hard until the mid 1970's, breaking up, as many bands do, under the strain of living on the road. deLay left town for several months, touring with Sunnyland Slim and Hubert Sumlin.

1976 saw the formation of the deLay band Mk I, with Mesi, Brown Sugar drummer Bob Lyons, and Fred Coyner on bass. That lineup eventually metamorphosed into the Mk II deLay band: deLay on harmonica and vocals; Dave Stewart p; late of Cray's band p; keys and vocals; Jim Mesi, guitar; Don Campbell, bass and vocals; and Paul Jones on drums.

In the 1980s the band played about 200 nights a year over a circuit that included Portland, Seattle, Utah, Montana, Colorado, California and Idaho. The fact that deLay got his hair cut regularly in Salt Lake City conveys the essential looniness of their schedule.

Jones calls that band "roadworthy." They once scheduled a Saturday night gig in McCall, Idaho, followed by the Mayor's Ball in Portland p; 500 miles away p; at 2 o'clock the next afternoon. They'd play 16 or 17 days before taking a day off, and stay on the road for a month p; you can't sit still out on the road. When Clair Bruce took over keyboard duties from Dave Stewart in 1984, he showed up for the first gig with a packed suitcase He didn't see home again for six weeks.

They grabbed for the brass ring. With natural frontmen such as deLay, Stewart and Mesi, they worked those shows like a travelling blues revue. The band cut three albums on their own Criminal Records label during this period: Teasin' in 1982, 1984's American Voodoo, and Paul deLay, in 1985. They opened shows for national blues acts including more than two dozen for B.B. King.
The albums started selling in Europe with American Voodoo and Paul deLay placing in the top 25 on Italian blues charts. European successes continued later with a headline spot at the 1988 Ravenna Blues Festival and the current success of "You're Fired!," a best-of collection on compact disc on England's Red Lightning label.


The personnel changed over the years, and deLay kept drinking. The two are not unconnected. A fondness for cheap wine in the early days escalated through the mid-1980's. He began by getting musician friends to buy him the large economy-size bottles of wine when he was still too young to legally purchase the stuff.

Friends remember the landing to his first-floor walkup apartment jammed with empty bottles. Or giving him a ride home from a gig and having a contentious deLay standing in front of his apartment asking, "Are you gonna give me a ride home, or aren't you?"

The drinking made him more combative, but it didn't erase deLay's underlying sweet nature. A friend hadn't seen him for years since high school and walked into Jekyll and Hyde's, where Brown Sugar was playing. deLay recognized him immediately and p; though right in the middle of a tune p; stepped away from the microphone and said "Hi bub."

They went out later, ate Chinese food and talked for hours. The friendship resumed as if the years had never intervened. And yet, the drinking took its toll. The same friend remembers Brown Sugar opening for the Johnny Otis Review. deLay played his butt off, and then headed for the bar and partied too hard. Later, when he had a chance to sit in with Otis, he played well, but he'd lost that earlier edge. He'd blown a good chance.

The drinking got worse in the 1980's. When the alcohol started to screw up his stomach lining, deLay switched from rum to vodka and chocolate milk.

He talks about living alone in his Northwest Portland apartment : "I'd wake up, chug a pint of vodka, and go back to bed p; I was inflammable."

A bandmember remembers coming back from California once. deLay wanted to stop at a liquor store in Chico. He bought a fifth of vodka and a quart of chocolate milk, and drank both in the next hour. As he got drunker, he became more emphatic, punctuating his conversation by punching the driver's right shoulder, emphasizing points clear only to deLay.

Finally p; mercifully p; deLay passed out, before they reached the border. The driver was mad. As they wound down the gently undulating highway into Ashland with deLay sloshing around, unconscious, in the passenger seat, he realized he could just ease the door open and send deLay tumbling into the canyon.

No one would ever know.

He'd never wanted to kill anyone so bad.

Today, he's glad he didn't. He loves and respects deLay more than any of the hundreds of musicians with whom he's played, but the story illustrates what it was like to live with deLay the drunk.

The undercurrents of dissatisfaction were plain. The rest of the players formed a clique that excluded him. They'd decided that they worked with him, but didn't necessarily like him. "I had this running nightmare that these guys wouldn't talk to me." He later found out that band members referred to him among themselves as "Big Opie."

One day, he just quit drinking. Like that. No program, no treatment. He stopped cold. He quit around 1987. Paradoxically, it signalled the last part of the slide.

"Couldn't buy a shine with the money I see."
p;"Worn Out Shoe," by Paul deLay

People working on their own recovery will tell you that quitting drinking is not the whole answer. If you don't work on the underlying issues, you haven't fixed the problem. You might even begin to abuse other drugs.

Both were true for deLay in the last years of the 1980's. He controlled neither his life nor his band. The fact that deLay freebased cocaine by the late 1980s wasn't unknown to the band. He talked briefly with at least one band member about the pipe getting to be a real problem. They both agreed that deLay had to do something about it, but the discussion went no further.

Guitarist Peter Dammann thinks they screwed up by not saying "Hey, this is out of control," as they had with his drinking. But deLay posed a bigger problem as a drunk than he did as an addict. The addiction just wasn't that visible, thanks to the rigid compartmentalization that deLay has always applied to his life.

Earlier band members had some heavy brushes with cocaine. Guitarist Jim Mesi left the band in the mid-'80s to clean up, after throwing away a fair bit of money and a few of his beloved guitars to feed a habit that got out of control. Keyboardist Dave Stewart p; who left in about 1984 p; sold a pound of coke to a DEA agent, and went away for a four-year prison term in 1986.

He's out now, working on a degree at Gonzaga College, and fronting a great band again. Mesi has been clean for four years. He's sounding great, has more guitars than ever and a fine band that's making a name for itself in the region.

The band itself never partied that hard. The rigorous touring schedule meant that members generally would have a few drinks after getting off work at 2 a.m., play poker, or watch the band VCR. More likely, they'd sleep in order to be ready to pull out of town at 7 a.m.

And whatever deLay did behind the "do not disturb" sign on his motel room door, or at the house he shared with Peggy on Southeast 81st Avenue, he still showed up for jobs on time, as he always had. Jones can't remember him blowing a gig in 10 years.

Of course, nobody is going to talk about the trafficking charges. Not the federal prosecutor, not deLay's friends, not the lawyers, not anybody. Judge Helen Frye will decide that question sometime in the next year when prosecutor Ken Bauman opens the case of the United States versus Paul and Peggy deLay.

He will allege that wiretap evidence gathered in a case against Lonnie Lee Baker indicates the deLays bought and resold several kilograms of cocaine from Baker, who was convicted of trafficking and is now serving an 11-year sentence at a federal prison in Arizona. deLay's lawyer, Susan Reese, filed a motion to suppress the wiretap evidence, and a ruling is expected late this summer.

Whatever the outcome of the hearing and the trial, deLay's musical associates are sure of one thing: deLay was no drug lord. If he dealt cocaine, he didn't do it to make thousands of dollars, he was an addict who transferred kilos from Baker to another buyer, raking an ounce off the top of the deal as his profit.

deLay didn't own a car. deLay didn't own a watch. He lived with friends so he wouldn't have to pay rent. deLay had holes in his shoes. He owned his clothes and a bag of broken harmonicas. Not making money at it is no excuse for dealing cocaine, of course. If he did traffick in the stuff, the point is simply that deLay appears to have been more clueless than ruthless. He's one of the least predatory people on the planet.

"So I'm staying out of trouble, playin' it very cool,"
- "Ain't That Right" by Paul deLay

Today's Paul deLay is worlds away from the man who thought he was dying on stage in Brush Prairie. His sister Laura says the change means having her little brother back again p; the monster is gone.

The change affects his whole life, but, as always, it's most evident in the music. His gigs are triumphant these days, as they should be: had the bust not brought things to a shuddering halt, few of his friends or family expected him to live much longer. To see him alive and happy is to realize the possibility of redemption exists for us all.

To hear him lead the most fully-realized deLay band ever renews the faith in the creative spirit. Assembled after the bust, the new band sounds great. deLay's harmonica swirls and swoops over Louis Pain's jazzy Hammond organ. Ex rock n roller Dan Fincher honks his heart out on tenor saxophone while Peter Dammann's Chicago-inspired guitar licks chunk like an axe sinking into seasoned oak. And under it all, John Bistline and drummer Jeff Minnick keep things on the boil.
Which would all be for nought if they didn't have deLay's new tunes to play. Now that he's finally writing original material, he's passed one of the big hurdles of his career. A bigger hurdle than any sentence, by the way: anyone can do time, but few can write a good tune. And the new material is really good, the kind of playing and singing you'd expect from a world-class bluesman.

The guys in the band use words like "profound" when they talk about deLay's songs. Typically, he's more self-deprecating. "Oh, I'll just come up with a hook or an idea for a groove, and then go to my files and get four verses of 'she done me wrong,' past tense."

But he has no questions where the inspiration comes from: "Sobriety. It's just the sobriety, man. It's such a lovely buzz."

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