"I think the impact of the blues in the ‘60s was tremendous. Because it not only was a different kind of music, but it was a new culture. Totally."
Paul Oscher: Original Blues - Cool Cat
Paul Oscher is a blues legend. A blues singer and multi-instrumentalist (harmonica, guitar and piano), who while still in his teens, became the first Caucasian member of the great Muddy Waters Blues Band (1967-1971). Paul lived in Muddy’s house on Chicago’s South Side and shared the basement with blues piano player Otis Spann. Paul played the Chitlin’ Circuit and recorded with Muddy for the legendary Chess Records Company. He traveled the world with Muddy. Besides Muddy, he has performed and/or recorded with T-Bone Walker, Otis Spann, John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy, Johnny Young, Johnny CopeIand, Big Joe Turner, Louisiana Red, Big Mama Thornton, Victoria Spivey and many others. As Muddy Waters harp player, Paul Oscher inspired a whole generation of blues players including Rick Estrin, Jerry Portnoy, Paul Delay, and William Clark. Paul is the real deal, he learned his blues from the masters. He plays only the real, unadulterated, down-in-the–alley, gutbucket blues. He is not a retro player. He just plays the blues the way he learned them… lowdown and lonesome and has been doing so for the last fifty years. Paul Oscher, Chicago Blues Festival, 2015 / Photo by James Fraher
Former Muddy Waters Band member Paul Oscher, creates an album titled “Cool Cat” (2018) with 12 originals and 1 cover. Songs range from Low-down Blues to Jazz and R&B. "Cool Cat" is pure Paul Oscher, a recording of deep blues feeling and great stories that paint vivid pictures in your mind, as some of the world’s best blues instrumentalists engage in a musical conversation with Paul’s voice and guitar. He can wring pure blues from a guitar, harmonica, or piano, as well as from his own voice. Aficionados know—and have honored Paul with two BMA awards and nine nominations. Cool Cat, at once sophisticated and deeply honest, is another chapter in the living legacy that is Paul Oscher. The playing on Cool Cat is direct and forceful.
Special Thanks: Frank Roszak and Paul Oscher
What do you miss the most nowadays from the blues and the feeling of the past?
Paul: The audience. Especially in black clubs. When I was in Muddy’s band, when we played in a black nightclub, Muddy would sing songs, people would yell out from the audience: “I hear you man, tell it like it is, tell the truth.” You know what I mean? It’s communication, almost like a preacher in a church. He is singing about suffering, about problems, the same problems that people in the audience have. Muddy was singing about some guy and a woman that was doing him wrong and a guy at the back shouts out: “Man that sounds like my woman” You understand what I’m saying? That is the most important thing in the blues. The blues is telling a story. (singing) “Have you ever been mistreated?” In the song he is taking about how this woman put him out. (singing) “And you know just what I’m talking about” That’s also the double thing too, you know what I mean? It’s also talking about how the white people mistreated the black people. So, they’re hearing in the song something like that and they say I hear you man, tell the truth, tell it like it is. That’s what’s missing today. The audience!
When I was a teenager going into black clubs, all the people were maybe around 28, 30 years old, 40 years old and up. Today many are dead or too old to go out to the clubs. The audience today doesn’t seem to listen to the story they are more in the music, so they are missing a lot.
What were the reasons that made the late ‘60s, your generation, start all this blues roots research and experiments?
Paul: I can’t speak for my generation, because I started playing the blues when I was 12 and I started playing in black clubs when I was 15 and I don’t think anybody else was doing that. I did it cause I loved the music, the music was exciting I was just speaking to Curtis Salgado he is a singer from the West Coast in Portland. Cause we were all at this show for James Cotton, it was a benefit for Cotton to raise money for a documentary about him, this happened just last weekend. Curtis Salgado said when he saw the Paul Butterfield cover of that album, when he saw the way the band looked in front that hoodoo store Sam Lay had these gold boots on, real tough, he said “Aw these people are so cool” compare to ordinary people, you know? And he wanted to be like that and many other musicians did as well. So, I think Paul had a big influence. When I first saw Cotton and Otis Spann, I heard Otis Spann and I thought “God he must be the greatest piano player in the world” Just cause he could play so many notes in and out of the music, it was just incredible. You know I lived in a basement with Otis Spann. When I first saw him on it blew my mind. And Cotton was so strong in leading the band you know? I actually thought Cotton was Muddy! You know he had his musicians do a few numbers before Muddy comes up and Cotton was so powerful while he was doing it. But then when Muddy came up, you had no doubt who he was. Muddy stood straight, his posture was very good. He was regal. He was like a king.
"Well, because the music itself, it’s compelling music. It’s very strong the structure is very strong, it moves people and it they have a bad situation where they broke up with a girl, something like that,or they see that girl walking with somebody else and then they hear the song and it means a whole lot to them. Blues is just a beautiful music, it’s great, as long as the rock players don’t mess it up. (laughing) They ruin the music." (Photo: Paul Oscher publicity shot for Hohner, end of 1971)
So many experiences in your life, so many experiences in music. What have you learned about yourself from your experiences?
Paul: I make a lot of mistakes! (laughing) That’s what I learned about myself I did the same mistakes over and over in my life. Just because I love the music and I didn’t give it up. You give up a lot of things when you want to play good music. You give up the security of a steady job and things like that. I learned what it’s like to write a song when a woman breaks your heart. That I learned. I learned how to write a song when I’m broke. I had one girl her name was Maxine and she left me and I wrote twenty songs. Twenty! The first song that I wrote, was not for Maxine it was for a girl named Debra. We both went to a tattoo parlor, we both put tattoos on us and it said “Slim and Deborah forever” (cause in that time I was the Brooklyn Slim) and she had a little flower under her tat. I should have known something was wrong with that relationship. The only place I could contact her at was at dry cleaners.. She blew my mind. And the thing about the relationship it lasted 3 months. I found out ater we broke she was a topless and bottomless dancer...
Michael: That’s the blues….
Paul: Yes sir, that’s the blues. I wrote this song (starts singing) “All night I tossed and I turned I was in my bedroom all alone…” The song that affected me too in that particular break up was the Robert Johnson song “I carried her to the station with her suitcase in my hand” (song: Love in Vain) When you have the blues and you’re in love, the blues songs mean a whole lot to you, the words. It’s the same thing you’re going through, that’s what the blues is about.
Paul really, what captures you emotionally from the harmonica?
Paul: Ah, I didn’t choose it, it chose me! I couldn’t help myself. When I was 12 years old my uncle gave me a harmonica. And I was practicing; I had a job delivering groceries on a bicycle with a basket that welded to the bike. And I was standing outside this grocery store and playing from the book that came with a harmonica. And the guy that worked there he was a black guy, dark skin, a processed hairdo, gold tooth. And he said “Hey kid, let me see that whistle you got” So he took the harmonica and at first, he made it seem that he couldn’t play. And then he hit a note. (imitates a somewhat complex note) And the tone was so big, the sound was such a compelling and beautiful sound and had so much emotion in it you know what I mean? I had never heard anything like that before in my life. It was like someone singing. “Oh my God what’s this?” The sound was so big and loud. The blues is not a million notes. It’s what you do with one note. It has to have a compelling sound that’s the first thing. The second thing, it has to have a good story. Something that you can relate to. With a lot of blues today there is no story, just a million notes. You’re playing all over the place, so what?. and you have to leave space. That’s my opinion on that. So, I think the blues picked me, I didn’t pick it. So, he started playing (starts singing again) and he started tap dancing at the same time. And he took the harp and he turns it around in circles and he’s still playing it like Sonny Boy and I just fell in love with it. He actually worked in medicine shows shows down south, you know what are those? He was from Georgia.
I would like to ask you what is happiness for you?
Paul: Well I just got divorced 6 years ago. That didn’t make things very happy. (laughing) I would just like to be healthy and making enough money to support myself.
"I’d love to be able to go backwards, at clubs where Little Walter is playing, in the fifties it would be nice, or in the forties in the delta with Son House and Charlie Patton, that would be very nice to see that.. I have many great stories, Cotton told me a story. When I came into Muddy’s band I took the harp chair that Cotton held that spot for many years, so when Cotton comes to the gig I know he’s going to cut my head." (Photo: Muddy Waters Blues Band, Cook County jail, 1971)
And what are your hopes and what are your fears about the future of the blues?
Paul: I don’t have any fears about it you know why? Because there are two black guys playing the blues Jontavious Willis aka Quon Willis and Marquis Knox and these guys are playing the real deal just the way it’s supposed to be. And it’s not gonna die. And as long as you get young people playing the blues it’s not gonna die. What happened in the blues was in the ‘80s. The rock musicians decided they could play the blues. So, they went into the clubs where they had the jams, traditional blues and they came in there and they invited their fans who like the rock blues. I remember a club in New York The owner said he would never hire Pinetops, or Jimmy Rogers anymore because they don’t fit his audience in his club. they don’t have the right vibe and this was a so called blues club. it just changed. But I’ve been playing the same old blues since I started, the same way.
What was the best advice anyone has ever given you?
Paul: Don’t try to outplay your peers, only try to outplay yourself. Don’t try to outplay the next guy, he can play and he’s gonna play as best he can, just try to do better every time YOU play. And that’s the best advice I could give any young musician. And Muddy Waters also gave me a definitely good one. “If you got something good, Keep it in your pocket” (laughing). Today though with videos and stuff its hard to keep it in your pocket. When I first learned how to play the blues I had to listen to records with a penny on the needle to slow it down. I had to go into clubs and watch the musicians really close to learn what they were doing and then I’d ask them when they’d come down “How’d you do that man?” “Aw man, I don’t know I just play how I feel” they wouldn’t give up their licks But today, there’s the video and they got slow down programs and they can see and hear what you doing .
I know you have met many great musicians and personalities. Big Joe Turner, Louisiana Red, Big Mama Thornton, Muddy of course, Otis Spann, really which meetings have been the most important experience for you?
Paul: Little Walter. Meeting Little Walter. This is what happened. I was a kid in Muddy’s band and I was walking down 43rd street in Chicago with Luther Georgia Boy Snake Johnson Gtr in Muddy’s band, I had been in Muddy’s band maybe two weeks and I was living in Muddy’s basement, living in his house. We passed this car, Otis Spann in the car, Johnny Young and Little Walter, they were all drinking.. Spann sees me so he says to Little Walter “Hey Walter, that’s brother Paul, that’s Muddy’s new harp blower. So Walter looks at me like who cares? And then Spann says “But don’t play no cards with that boy he’s bad with that 3 card monte.” that’s a game they play on the street they have two black cards and a red card and then move them around, you know the game? Its like the shell game. They must do it in Greece, Mexico, France, they do it all over the world. So anyway, I used to do that when I was a kid on the streets, for money. So, two weeks later I’m coming up from the basement into the living room and Little Walter is sitting there watching TV. And he says to me “Hey kid, let me see that trick you got”. So, I always carried the cards with me, so I take them out and I shake them up and I say okay man where is the red card? And he points to the card and I say “How much you gonna put on that?” He says “I’m gonna put Jackson on that motherfucker” Jackson is a twenty-dollar bill, he is the president on that bill. So, I turn it over and it’s a black card. So, he loses and I say “Give me my money” So he says “Double or nothing” I say okay, I shake ‘em up again. I say where is the red card, pick a card, and he picks up all three of the cards with one hand and he says “Right here in my hand motherfucker I win, you lose, we’re even.” Ha! That was Little Walter. But every one of those musicians, meeting with them was a pleasure and great inspiration. When I played with Muddy a lot of the greats were still alive. BB King of all the musicians was the most friendly. He was something. I met Junior Wells he never let me buy a drink in Theresa’s he always gave one to me.
Paul: T-Bone Walker yes. Him and Spann were big friends. Spann called him Bones. He was a really nice man T-Bone, we used to play shows with him, with Magic Sam and T-Bone one show was at Winterland in San Francisco that was the last week of Magic Sam’s life, But yeah T-Bone was a great man. I have a drummer in New York that was T-Bone’s drummer. Let me tell you this story about T-Bone Walker. The first time I saw him was at the Apollo theater he was wearing a white suit and had an eighteen-piece band behind him and he was on a big show and Muddy Waters was on the show and so was Jimmy Reed and Bobby “Blue “Bland and Lightnin’ Hopkins. And T-Bone stole the show. (starts singing Stormy Monday) And he holds up the guitar with one hand and plays a lick and the whole theater stood up.
Paul, you talk about these old cool cats like your albums. Is it easier to write and play the blues as you get older?
Paul: Well of course, you experience more things, but cool cat I wrote in ’73. And the inspiration on that song, there was a wino a guy who drinks too much wine. In the summertime once a week he’d come by Muddy’s house and he had this cat tied to his waist with a rope. A real cat. And the cat had red baby sunglasses and a sock on the cat’s head. And I ask the man what’s the name of your cat man? And he goes “Cool Cat” with a rough voice. And he played an instrument called a recorder, that the children play in school, they’re made out of plastic or out of wood, it’s a long instrument with holes in it, it’s like a flute sort of. So, he played out this melody and as soon as he started doing that all the kids in the neighborhood would line up behind him and start dancing. And it was a beautiful a beautiful sight, they would just dance and turn around and clap their hands and follow him down from end of the street which wasn’t too far. I wish I had a video of that thing. The kids had names like Fluffy, one kid was named Potato Head, cause he had a long head. It was just so beautiful, the melody stuck with me and I took that melody and made it into something that would be something like a Ramsey Louis hit, that kind of style. So, I called it “summer jam”, but I never did anything with it. I think I did a demo recording but I never put it in a record. So finally, I said to myself, Gee, the cat name was Cool Cat, so let’s call it cool cat and I put it out. And I put it three times on the album, I did a jazz version and other two versions and the reason was it was too long and I said no one is going to listen to that in the middle of the record. So, I said let’s put it in jazz and as a prologue. There was a version of the last song with the prologue, divided less than five minutes portions, so part one, part two and a prologue. I did it in Kid Anderson’s studio in san Jose California, and over here in Austin. It’s very important how the prologue precedes the song cause it doesn’t make sense without it. Then there’s another song the “Ain’t that a man” a tribute to James Cotton, that is preceded by a poem called Mississippi, Cotton was born in Mississippi. I should have made them both together, but that’s the way I did it. But they need to played together too, cause Mississippi is the land of darkness, the Devil lurks, it’s about the badness in Mississippi where Cotton grew up.
Because I know you have played many times in Europe do you find any difference between Europeans and Americans?
Paul: Well it used to be A lot of Europeans appreciate the blues much more than Americans. Now it’s hard to tell them apart because there’s not much work in Europe and not much work here. So, I don’t know how much people appreciate the blues in Europe.
"I don’t have any fears about it you know why? Because there are two black guys playing the blues Jontavious Willis aka Quon Willis and Marquis Knox and these guys are playing the real deal just the way it’s supposed to be. And it’s not gonna die. And as long as you get young people playing the blues it’s not gonna die." (Photo by David Claybourn / Paul Oscher's "Cool Cat" cover, 2018)
My next question is about the impact of the blues, what is the impact of the blues on the sociocultural implications and how the blues change the mind of the people?
Paul: I think the impact of the blues in the ‘60s was tremendous. Because it not only was a different kind of music, but it was a new culture. Totally. The Black culture that produced the blues was way different than the middle-class white culture. Where many at the kids came from to play the blues they were looking for excitement, they were under the impression that black people lived this wild, crazy life and it was all fun and everything was great. They didn’t really know what was happening, they didn’t understand the misery that black people were going through. But it was a reason to get away from the Frank Sinatra and the other kind of music that was popular at that time. And it was a reason to change their lifestyle, free sex, free love. It wasn’t exactly black music that did that but it certainly kindled the change, like Janis Joplin do you know that she was copying Tina Turner? She became a hero to white kids were trying to live hippy-style. Then Jimmy Hendrix came along and he learned some stuff from Buddy Guy, but a lot of people didn’t know that. The English bands gave credit to black musicians like Muddy Waters. Today there aren’t any heroes left, that’s the problem. In the seventies okay the Rolling Stones, they were were nice enough to bring Muddy Waters on tour with them. They took name from a Muddy Waters SongThere’s nobody now that’s young that’s going to bring someone like me on their tour but that woud be nice.
Let’s take a trip with a time machine. Where would you want to go with a time machine?
Paul: I’d love to be able to go backwards, at clubs where Little Walter is playing, in the fifties it would be nice, or in the forties in the delta with Son House and Charlie Patton, that would be very nice to see that.. I have many great stories, Cotton told me a story. When I came into Muddy’s band I took the harp chair that Cotton held that spot for many years, so when Cotton comes to the gig I know he’s going to cut my head. He’s gonna wipe me out he’s so dam good. So I said to him “Man every time you used to come into a club, you kicked my ass” He says “Man, same shit happened to me with Little Walter and Junior Wells” So he told me a story, he told two stories and I’m writing a book, so I’ll tell you one thats in my book. This one I told to the James Cotton documentary I’ll give it to you too. Muddy was playing a club in Chicago on 47 street the 708 club. And Cotton saw Little Walter open the door and peeped in the club and then left. So, the band was wearing all green suits that was the uniform. So, an hour later Little Walter comes back with a green suit on. Jimmy Rogers tells Cotton to take his harps and sit down. Then Muddy introduces Little Walter, this was like 1954, so Walter was redhot and he was a star. So Muddy sand this number “I don’t know Why” and Walter played the chromatic, he is playing while he is lying down on the floor. Then six girls started dancing around him while he was still playing and then three on each side decided to lift him up and walked him around the club. (laughing) Still Playing Can you imagine that? Like a Pharoah Things like that would have been nice to be able to see. But I got to see things that nobody else did, cause I played with Muddy and many black folks. I remember one-time Muddy was singing” I just want to make love to you” and I was playing the harmonica solo on my knees and a girl shouts out from the audience “Don’t stop now baby, my drawers are wet”.
"I have a thing that Otis Spann gave me when I joined the band, I have it tattooed on my arm it’s like a necklace and he said “wear this to keep the wolves off your back. I don’t wear the necklace anymore but I have a tattoo of it on my right arm. I am superstitious. When I lived in Muddy’s house, I always felt that he had something going on. You know, some kind of Mojo, he had the power. I never heard him practice." (Photo by Brian Braff / Paul Oscher's Bet On The Blues)
Michael: So many highlights and best moments in your life and in your career.
Paul: I can’t say that I had a bad life. You know this song “going down slow “I have had my fun, if I don’t get well no more.” Certainly, I’ve had an interesting life.
So, what has been your worst time in your career?
Paul: I can’t say really the worst time, it’s when there’s not much work. The worst times in my life are when women broke my heart.
You talk about the old days. What happens nowadays? Why do you think that the Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following?
Paul: Well, because the music itself, it’s compelling music. It’s very strong the structure is very strong, it moves people and it they have a bad situation where they broke up with a girl, something like that,or they see that girl walking with somebody else and then they hear the song and it means a whole lot to them. Blues is just a beautiful music, it’s great, as long as the rock players don’t mess it up. (laughing) They ruin the music.
You talk about the women and you have met Big Mama, Victoria Spivey, Koko Taylor, what was the status of women in the blues?
Paul: In the ‘30s it was mostly only women singing the blues, making records, like Ma Rainey Bessie Smith. The people that made records in the blues were women. Then came along other musicians; country musicians, black musicians. But Victoria Spivey she lived 6 blocks away from me in Brooklyn and I used to see her all the time. And she used to tell me she played in Chicago for all the gangsters, she knew Al Capone and everything. And Koko Taylor was a singer in Chicago.. But I got Lavelle White on my record she’s 89 years old. I wrote this song for a woman “Dirty Dealing Mama” and I had this woman try to sing it and she couldn’t, she kept forgetting the words. So I recorded the song, saying “She’s a dirty dealing mama” not “I’m a dirty dealing mama” and Big Bill Morganfield recorded it and Rick Estrin but then I finally got Lavelle to do it and it was great seeing her do it, cause she did it right. She had the right attitude. It’s about a jealous man that asks a woman “Where you been woman, where you’ve been?” And she says “You want to know where I’ve been? This is where I’ve been” and she makes up all these things just to make him mad.
You’re born in New York. You’ve lived in Chicago, in the West Coast and now in Texas. Do you find any difference between that local blues scenes?
Paul: I don’t think New York has much blues scene anymore. Chicago is the town of blues, but its not like it used to be. Texas has a great music scene, the reason why I think is because of the economy. Because musicians make very little money in Texas so they have to play almost every genre, country music, blues, jazz they can play everything great. There is a real source of musicians to harvest from. If I need a bass player maybe there’s 20 players to pick from and they can all play very good. If I need a sax player, I know six. You don’t have this kind of grouping of musicians in one place like you do in Austin and being so good in what they do. When I started playing in Austin, I went to a Barbecue Joint with James Cotton and his wife and we had dinner and I asked the woman in charge “Do you have any music in here?” And she said “Well yeah what do you play?” And I said I play the blues so she says “Well come on down!” The next day I go there and they put me in front of the TV. There’s about four people in the restaurant, they turn the TV off. I’m playing and they like the music but there’s only four people there. So, next day I see an ad for a stage and this stage is like a hundred dollars so I say this is great, we take a pickup truck and I went down there to the stage, cut it in half. It was about six inches high the way it was, so I cut in half, we put it in the pickup truck then we put the stage in the club. So, I had now a stage a foot high, we put the parts on top of each other I set it up in the corner and I put a sign outside that said “Live blues every Tuesday” and I didn’t even put my name. So, I played there and James Cotton would come by and sit in and there wasn’t even an admission, cause the food was good. so word got out and all of the sudden all of the great blues musicians in Austin came there. It was a place to go to and it was crowded almost every time I played. But sadly it had to end, a guy offered to buy the land that this barbeque place was on, so the guy that leased the barbeque place for 31 years, he had to leave. And then a club owner in Austin had heard about it and he wanted me to do a show, cause I used to tell stories from my past about Muddy Waters and people liked that, so he wanted me to do the same in his club, but his was a noisy nightclub and I said “Well, man I can’t do that it doesn’t work, you know I need a band, so give me the money to get a band.” So, I had a six-piece band. I had musicians and the musicians that I picked were the musicians that came to see me play at the barbeque they’re great musicians who came. The bass player got me the drummer and then the drummer got me a guitar player, you know and I didn’t have to do anything, all I did was play the same stuff I played in my solo show and the band fit in just like a glove. You know, they knew what to do.
Michael: You know, Miss Lavelle White is my close friend.
Paul: Is she really? She has a lot of close friends you better watch it.
Michael: I love Miss Lavelle.
Paul: She’s great, when I asked her to sing Dirty Dealing Mama, she goes: “No, I’m not a dirty dealing mama.” So, I go to see her play and she passes around tip cup she says “The kitty is being passed around and the pussy needs to be fed” (laughing)
What is your favorite mojo?
Paul: I have a thing that Otis Spann gave me when I joined the band, I have it tattooed on my arm it’s like a necklace and he said “wear this to keep the wolves off your back. I don’t wear the necklace anymore but I have a tattoo of it on my right arm. I am superstitious. When I lived in Muddy’s house, I always felt that he had something going on. You know, some kind of Mojo, he had the power. I never heard him practice.
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