An Interview with Texan Paul Orta, a harpman with master degree from Antone’s "University of the Blues"

"There is a brand new generation playing blues these days and not just in the States. I heard bands from Brazil, Germany etc."

Paul Orta: Mr. Feelgood Blues

Paul Orta born in Port Arthur, Texas was first influenced by Louis Armstrong at the age of 7. After 9 years of playing the coronet in the school band, he quit because the band never played blues or Jazz. Within a half a year he picked up the Harmonica and in three months, he was in his first professional band (The Bayou Boogie Band) when he was 16. They played in Golden Triangle (southeast Texas) and Louisiana for three years.

In 1979 Paul moved to Austin, Texas and he won Kerrville Folk Festival in 1980. Later he formed The Backdoor Men. Afterwards he entered the “Antones the University of the Blues”. Playing with blues greats as Jimmy Rogers, Snooky Pryor, Eddie Taylor, Sunnyland Slim, Hubert Sumlin, Luther Tucker, Ted Harvey, Matt “Guitar” Murphy, Pinetop Perkins, Wayne Benett, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Henry Grey and Robert Lockwood Jr. Paul Orta has also toured and recorded with Texas Guitar Tornado U.P. Wilson. In addition he has performed with second generation bluesmen like Kim Wilson, Derek O’Brian, Tommy Shannon and many others. Past members of Paul Orta’s band have included Uncle John Turner, Keith Ferguson, and Jimmy Carl Black. Paul has fronted his band The Kingpins and various other groups around the world. He has played in the U.S.A., Europe, and Brazil. He has opened for B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Van Morrison, Junior Walker, James Cotton, to name a few.

Hohner Harmonicas endorsed him in 1990. He helped Kendrick Amplifiers design a amplifier called the “Texas Crude”. He also designed his own special “slide harp” which allows one to play various positions on one harmonica. He has also has been an active promoter of “Blues in the Schools”. 

Interview by Michael Limnios

Paul, when was your first desire to become involved in the blues, what does the BLUES mean to you?

When I was 7 years old I saw a movie with Louis Armstrong. So later when I was 9 years old I started playing trumpet in the school band, because I wanted play blues and jazz. The blues to me is something I listen when I want to feel good. Even if it is a slow sad blues song it still makes me feel good.

Who were your first idols, what have been some of your musical influences?

On harmonica was Sonny Terry who I saw him live every chance I had. Later on I discovered Little & Big Walter and the Sonny boys. The first blues record I heard was Lighting Hopkins with Billy Bizor on harmonica. He played a song called The Blackman Jumped The Devil. After that I was hooked on the blues.

Paul at the Blue Monday Jam in Osnabrück, 2004 Germany. Photo by Hans Abry

What do you learn about yourself from the blues, what does the blues means to you?

I've learned if you had studied the music and meet another musician that has studied. You can play Little Walter song together without any practice. This has helped me in my travels because there have been times when I used a band that I never had any practice with. The blues make me feel good and when I hear a nice beat I want to dance.

What characterize the philosophy of Paul Orta’s sound and progress?

You have to have your own style. The first time I met Sonny Terry I played my harp to him. He told “your sound is just like me, but you need to sound like yourself”. Ever since then I've tried to blend different styles together to make my own sound. I have had several harp players where then they told me after hearing my record on the radio they knew it was me.

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

It's a tie for best. Jimmy Rogers called me one day to play with his band which was really cool. I remember playing and the announcer saying on Guitar Jimmy Rogers, Piano Pinetop Perkins, Drums Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Bass Bob Stroger and me on Harmonica. I felt like I had died and went to heaven. The other moment was the first time I played in Europe. We were opening for Luther Allison in Holland. After our first song the crowd gave us a big cheer and it only got better. And to top it off I got paid really well compared to the money I made in the states. The worst moment was when I was in Germany on tour and I got an email that said that my father had died and it was too late to get to his funeral.

How would you describe your contact to people when you are on stage?

When I see people smiling at my shows it makes me want to smile back. In the states I usually judge the public if they are dancing and in Europe I judge by how many encores we get. But in Europe I'm seeing more dancers like in Switzerland and Ireland for example. I have also learned saying “thank you” in the language of the country I playing goes a long way. I played a festival in Russia, and when we finished the song the crowd clapped. But then I said “thank you” in Russian - which sounds like “Spaseeba” - the crowd gave me a standing ovation. So I've learned how to say thank you in about 11 languages.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is?

Because the Blues are the roots for the entire of American music. You can take a jazz player, a country player and rock player and put them together for a blues song and will work it. There is a brand new generation playing blues these days and not just in the States. I heard bands from Brazil, Germany etc... playing blues really very well.

Do you have any amusing tales to tell from the “Antone’s University of the Blues”?

I have a lot of them. One was we had every Wednesday night booked for about three months and we were setting our equipment up. Well I noticed two stage managers setting up an extra amp and I had a singer with me who got upset saying he did not want anyone sitting in. So I asked Clifford Antone who was going to sit in and he said “I have a special guest…Hubert Sumlin.” So I told to my singer that Hubert Sumlin, Howlin Wolf's guitar player join us. The singer said “Howlin who?”…immediately after I looked my guitar player and we both thought the same thing… The next day I called the singer up and we told him that going to let he go if don't know who is Howling Wolf. After that I never hired another singer and I just started doing all the vocals myself.

Paul Orta plays the Blues around the world. Paul and Tonky de la Peña in Spain

You have played with many bluesmen, which gigs have been the biggest experiences for you?

I would say that playing with Snooky Pryor. Every year on the birthday of Antone’s club he would come to Austin. He would always call me up on stage to play with him and he would also tell the crowd that he was going to let me front the band and to treat me right. I remember another time I was fronting the band and I had Hubert Sumlin, Eddie Taylor, and Luther Tucker on guitars plus Mel Brown on organ and Pinetop Perkins on piano. It was so much fun giving everyone their solos.

Would you mind telling me most vivid memory from your open act to B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Van Morrison?

With B.B. King after the show we asked him if the band could take a picture with him, he said “you got a camera and my drummer told yeah”. Then he said “what are you waiting for?” Later I told him thank you and he answered me “thank you”… after the photo I said thank you again and he said “no thank you” because if it was not for his fans like me he would nobody.” With John Lee Hooker we opened up for him in Kansas City and he had two young girls around his arms at backstage. I remember thinking to hope that I can do the same at his age. Stevie Ray Vaughn played after us at an outdoor festival and just when he got on stage you could hear thunder. So he started his set with The Sky Is Crying. And with Van Morrison the supporting act in Ireland plays after the headliner. Well I heard he got drunk and ended up cussing the crowd. The next day I was walking around the city everyone was coming up to tell me they loved us and a lot of them didn't have kind words for Van Morrison.

Which memory from U.P. Wilson and Lazy Lester, makes you smile?

I have several memories of U.P. Wilson because he did several tours with me. We were in Amsterdam walking around; he was complaining that his feet were tired. I took him thru the red light district and he just lit up. I told him let's go back to the hotel with the feet…and he said with a big smile “what feet?”  We were with Lazy Lester in Sao Paulo, Brazil for a festival and the night before the gig the promoters had a big barbecue for the musicians. Well after I and Lester finished eating I saw a guitar and joked with Lester that the promoters might make us play for our meals. He picked up the guitar and we started jamming. Finally after about 3 hours he wouldn't stop playing and one of the promoters said it was getting late. So I told the promoter to bring me two beers and I opened one in front of Lester and said “follow me”. So he followed me to the taxi playing the guitar.

Do you know why the sound of harmonica is connected to the blues & what are the secrets of blues harp?

When the first bluesman started playing the price of a harmonica was only about 25 cents and that was a cheap price compared to a guitar. One of the biggest secrets of the harp is that you can't see what the harp player doing …while on guitar or piano you can see the player’s fingers.

What are your main tools right now in harp case?

I have a couple of different sets. When I travel usually just carry a set of stock Marine Band Harmonicas with a couple of Hohner Crossover harps. Which are pretty close to custom harps? For the studio I use custom Marine Band harps by Mauro Pionzio, a builder from Torino, Italy. I don't travel to often anymore with my custom harps, because I had a set where stolen one time. Hohner has improved their stock harps a lot. So they do the job.

What do you think is the main characteristic of you personality that made you a bluesman?

I think maybe because I’m always been hungry to learn the music. I remember Clifford Antone that he used to said to all the great blues players that I studied my book and homework. Ted Harvey (Hound Dog Taylors drummer) told me one time “yeah you've studied your homework well.” Those words made me feel good to have someone of his caliber tell me that.

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the blues music?

I think Snooky Pryor has taught me the most secrets and some of them were just simple answers. When I first met him asked how he got so good on the harp and he asked me how old are I and answered 32. Then he asked me how long I have been playin harp. I told him 17 years. He then said “well I'm 68 and I've been playing for 54 years… anymore questions.” He also taught me things like to get a warble sound don't shake your head because you might shake something loose. He would come to Antone’s every year for the clubs birthday party and he would always call me over backstage to hang out. The first time I heard him live I had just arrived to the club and ordered a beer. He played a low note that I never have heard before so I just left my beer at the bar and listened to him play. Later I asked him what his secret to that one note was. He said back in his early days if a note on his harmonica went bad, he would just go to the next note that was working. He told me there were times he would had only a few reeds in his harmonica that worked so much that was that one note lower.

Do you remember anything funny or interesting from Uncle John Turner and Jimmy Carl Black?

I've got several Uncle John stories because he toured with me all over the U.S., Europe and Brazil. One funny story was when we were playing in Barcelona and he came back to the hotel about 8 in the morning with a funny look on his face. I asked him what had happened and he said he took a taxi from the club even though it was a five minute walk. He said he had passed out in the taxi, so the taxi driver drove around for about three hours. Lucky for him this was before the Euro and the fare came out to only about 40 euro. I also remember being at Antone’s and it was the anniversary of Woodstock. Clifford Antone told me to call Jimmy Carl Black on stage with us. So I let Uncle John front the band with Jimmy on drums.

Paul with Uncle John Turner and friends in studio, Texas. Photo by Eddie Stout

Make an account for the case of Texas blues. Which is the most interesting period in local blues scene and why?

Right now the current blue scene is still alive. I have a house in Port Arthur which is on the border of Louisiana. But I'm working more in Austin and Houston than this region. Because they have a lot more gigs to offer. The most interesting period was from 1985 to 1995 in Austin. Everynight you had a great choice of seeing Stevie Ray Vaughn, The Thunderbirds, Omar & The Howlers, Marcia Ball, The Cobras and a lot more groups. Me and a girlfriend of mine would go out for dancing and hit three to four clubs all night.

Are there any memories from the road with the Blues in Europe, you’d like to share with us?

I've got beaucoup memories of Europe. I've been lucky and have played in about 18 countries and a ton of cities in Europe. I really like how it is so diverse because one day you could be eating pasta in Italy then the next day Tapas in Spain. I really love Holland because I ride bicycle and it's so nice to ride in Holland because you have your own roads. I got to live in Paris and Bordeaux and when I was not working in Paris. I use to walk around the city for hours till I got tired then I would take the metro back to the penthouse I got to live in. I had a rich student who was doctor and he let me to have a room with view of Eiffel Tower. Bordeaux is nice city because is so warm. It was always nice to do a tour of a few countries then come back to the flat I lived in Bordeaux. I just got an offer for some festivals in Germany in July and they have great beers there. So I plan to play Germany and book France and Spain as well. I had to take some time off the road to help take care of my mother. ..but sadly she passed away over the year ago. So I plan to start touring the world again. Maybe I can play in Greece someday.

Paul Orta - Official website

                                                                                                      Photo by Nena Fagan


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