Paul deLay, 1952 – 2007

One of my favorite modern harmonica players died this week, from leukemia at the age of 55. Paul deLay never made it big, although no harmonica player in the country worth his salt hasn’t heard of him. Unlike so many tired recyclers of riffs and songs from the 1950s, deLay wrote his own songs, played in a distinctive style, and sang wonderfully in his own voice and accent.

And he had a lot of blues to sing about. He was a heavy drug user in the 1980s, spent some time in federal prison in the early 1990s, and after his release produced a brilliant series of redemptive albums, most notably Ocean Of Tears, released in 1996.

In the mid-1990s, when bobhowe was living in Eugene and I was making all-too-frequent business trips to Seattle, I took a weekend and drove down to Portland, deLay’s hometown. I bought a huge pile of books at Powell’s and then went out that night to see deLay. It was a small club and I sat by myself at the bar, and introduced myself in between sets. He showed me his extensive setup, built into a briefcase, and we talked harp for a little bit. He was pleasant and funny and welcoming to a complete stranger.

He sang about himself, about his love for his wife and how he wouldn’t have gotten through his prison stint, about being free and clean and writing, about the daily struggle to make it. He was exuberant and honest and likeable and very open about the mistakes he’d made. His blues were his own and more importantly, so were his joys. He rarely came east, and I only saw him play twice, once at that club in Portland and once at a blues festival, at which I took these photos.

(Bottom photo: deLay with Paul Damman, guitar, and Louis Pain, keyboards, both outstanding musicians who co-wrote quite af ew songs with him.)

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