Blues harmonica virtuoso Paul deLay, called by Howlinâ€™ Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin â€œthe greatest harp player in the world,â€ died suddenly in his home city, Portland, OR on March 7. deLay, who earned an international reputation not only as a harmonica master but also as a singer and bandleader, led his band at a benefit gig the weekend prior to his death, after which he complained of not feeling well. Monday he was diagnosed with acute terminal leukemia; he went into a coma Tuesday and expired on Wednesday.
Paul Joseph deLay was born in Portland, Oregon in 1952, into a musically inclined family. He became charmed by blues harp as a youngster after hearing Paul Butterfield, which led to his discovery of future influences George â€œHarmonicaâ€ Smith, Little Walter Jacobs, and Charlie Musselwhite. After leading the influential Portland funk band Brown Sugar in the early '70s, deLay formed a band under his own name. He honed his performance skills throughout the '70s, becoming a Portland institution and emerging as one of the true heavyweights from the region along with Robert Cray and Curtis Salgado. deLay possessed remarkable chromatic harp blowing skills and was a creative improviser ranging far beyond the usual blues harp terrain. He refined his lyric writing in the '80s, arriving at a unique style that avoided the clichÃ©s many a blues songwriter embraces. Moderate success and constant touring led to substance abuse, which resulted in a three-year prison stint. But even this setback was put to good use as he concentrated on songwriting while awaiting trial and then during his incarceration, producing some of his best work. He took shopworn blues themes and charged them with his hard-earned insight, making good times out of hard times whenever he could.
Upon his release, deLayâ€™s band was waiting for him, having gigged those few years as the â€œNo deLay Bandâ€ with local soul diva Linda Hornbuckle filling in. His career took off; his bands toured internationally, played major blues festivals, and were always a welcome and frequent act in their hometown of Portland. Evidence Records issued several excellent releases over the next decade; Heavy Rotation, Ocean of Tears, Take it from the Turnaround, and deLay Does Chicago display especially well DeLayâ€™s writing, singing and harp skills. deLay also appears on what turns out to be his final available recording thus far, Bott & Paid For, live with ex-Thunderbirds drummer Jimi Bott.
DeLayâ€™s lyric â€œI want you to remember me. As someone who loved you wellâ€¦ When Iâ€™m gone and just a memoryâ€ (â€œRemember Meâ€ from Heavy Rotation) is now especially poignant. . - Tali Madden
Mr. Madden escaped New York a few decades ago, and still misses his egg creams. Aside from a brief flirtation with the Desert Southwest, he's been damply ensconced for half his life in Portland, Oregon. The freelance writer has written extensively on blues and jazz for outlets including the late Blues Access magazine, contributed to the MusicHound Blues and Jazz album guides, and produced and programmed jazz broadcasts for public radio.