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Paul deLay: Groovin' In Limbo
by John Foyston (Part 2)
[cover story in Blues Access, Fall 1991]
TO THE DELTA BORN
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.
PLAYING IN A TRAVELLIN' BAND
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
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
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."So I'm staying out of trouble, playin' it very cool,"
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 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
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
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.
- "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
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."