Paul deLay: Groovin' In Limbo
by John Foyston

[cover story in Blues Access, Fall 1991]


Some rooms are tougher than others. Ask Paul deLay. In two decades of touring the Northwest's circuit of smoky roadhouse blues venues, he's played some pretty tough ones. For every dream gig such as Seattle's Bumbershoot, the San Francisco and Portland blues festivals, or opening for blues greats such as B.B. King and John Lee Hooker, there've been hundreds of others. The kind where the crowd appears not to care that they're hearing one of the world's great harmonica players, especially since he won't play "Stormy Monday."

The toughest room of all was likely a tavern in rural Washington state on the rainy January night in 1990 when deLay thought he was having a heart attack on stage.

It was the kind of no-nonsense place where the sign outside simply reads: Tavern. Inside, the big-screen television is tuned to monster-truck racing, and Michael Jackson uneasily cohabits the jukebox with George Jones.

The deLay band filled the triangular stage that Saturday night. Paul Jones played drums for nearly his last time with deLay, ending 10 years with the band. It resembled the end of a long, rocky marriage­p;which it may have been. deLay and Jones didn't talk much by then.

He doesn't remember talking to deLay at all during the weekend, and doesn't remember deLay faltering during the Saturday night set, but he recalls deLay sitting at the bar later, looking pale and ill. And he overheard deLay saying that he might miss his usual Sunday night jam session and get some rest instead. That deLay would pass up the $50 he could earn at the jam session surprised Jones. Something must have happened.

Something did.

deLay went out to the the van during a break. He probably had a taste of the pipe ­p; he'd been freebasing cocaine for a year or two before he got busted ­p; and now he was in trouble, and knew it.
He couldn't catch his breath. His left arm had gone numb. His hand tingled, he could hardly feel the harmonica he was holding. His heart stuttered in his rib cage like a blowout at 80 miles an hour. At about six feet tall and 300 pounds, deLay knew it could happen to him.

The eventuality didn't seem especially remote that night, but he kept playing through the fear and the pain. It made him mad and he sang all the harder. If he ignored the pain, it would eventually go away.

Guitarist Peter Dammann remembers that part. It might have been in the middle of a James Brown tune, "Signed, Sealed and Delivered:" "You couldn't really tell how sick deLay was. He sort of went into this crouch, like he was determined to blaze his way through it. He never did say anything to the rest of the band."

Maybe he had a heart attack that night, maybe not. He never did go to a doctor. Two days later on January 23, he was recuperating at home in his Portland apartment, and answered a knock at the door. That knock proved to be the FBI and deLay's own private shell burst in the war on drugs: five federal charges alleging that deLay and his wife, Peggy, possessed and distributed five kilos of cocaine.

"My head's hurtin' for certain / From bangin' it against the wall."
­p;"Merry Way" by Paul deLay

That night, deLay played an even tougher room: a tiny cell in the Multnomah County Detention Center in the middle of downtown Portland. As he was moved into the drunk tank next morning, a guard gleefully held up a copy of The Oregonian ­p; deLay had made the front page at last. Indeed, film clips of a handcuffed deLay being paraded up Southwest Broadway were a common sight for at least a week on local news channels.

It's a sad story ­p; the fall of Portland's premier blues musician. And it's not over yet, a year and a half after the bust. When deLay does go to trial, he faces 25-40 years in federal prison ­p; and tough new sentencing guidelines don't leave the judge much room to cut him any slack.

Despite that sentence hanging over his head ­p; or because of it ­p; deLay is living and creating with a vigor little short of astonishing, especially to all those who despaired of finding a way to motivate the man. For the first time in 20 years he's clean and sober. For the first time in 38 years, he looks ready to unlock the potential of his considerable gifts.

With the release in early December of a new album ­p; his sixth ­p; entitled The Other One, he's crossed the great divide in the music business. Where before he was a talented interpreter of other people's music, the 11 original songs on The Other One ­p; and the new material he continues to write ­p; signal his arrival as a mature artist. He's singing and playing better than he ever has, and fronting a band of uncommon sensitivity and power.

deLay's battles with alcohol, cocaine and inertia ­p; ultimately, with himself, are little different than the battles many of us face at one time or another. The difference, of course, is the glare of publicity.
Since deLay's battles are now an intensely public spectacle, fairness dictates that we look at the rest of the man's story. And if deLay is forging his travail into the beginnings of some sort of personal redemption, then his triumph is our own.


deLay is important for a couple of reasons. He is unparalleled as a player and a singer, and, as a professional musician who's never held another job, he's been a central figure in the Northwest blues scene since there's been a Northwest blues scene.

It's not like he hasn't had some competition. This is the same area, after all, that spawned Grammy award -winner Robert Cray ­p; who back in the late '70s used to open for deLay. Soul\blues screamer Curtis Salgado fronted Roomful of Blues for a year after leaving Cray's band. Now he heads his own blues-pop crossover outfit, the Stilettos, who have a new album due out late this year.

Come to that, a pretty good argument can be made that it was the Blues Brothers who first turned a lot of young ears toward the blues. Belushi and Ackroyd got the idea from Salgado in Eugene, Oregon, during the filming of Animal House.

A decade earlier, the blues just weren't cool. When deLay and guitarist Jim Mesi and then-drummer Lloyd Jones put Brown Sugar together, the rock 'n roll guys told them it wouldn't last six months. But Portland's blues scene has grown from zero to one of the most vibrant in the nation in the 20 years since.

Bands such as the Switchmasters, the Blubinos, Lloyd Jones' Struggle, Back Porch Blues and the Terraplanes regularly set the night afire. Whole squadrons of earnest young players make the Sunday night sojourn between Mesi's and deLay's jam sessions. The Cascade Blues Association boasts a membership in the hundreds, and the fourth annual Waterfront Blues festival just attracted about 60,000 people to four days of nothing but the blues.

Hubert Sumlin was one one of the headliners. As he walked offstage he had a few thoughts on the Portland scene: "I wonder if people know how good they've got it." he said. "I think this town could be the next home of the blues."

Paul deLay is squarely in the center of it all, singing and playing like nobody else.

Talk to anybody who's ever played with deLay, talk to any knowledgeable listener, and you'll likely find a deLay fan. Just ask Sumlin. In the late '70s he and deLay toured together with legendary Chicago pianist Sunnyland Slim. The young harp player made a big impression on the Wolf's former guitar player. As he said after a recent reunion with the deLay band : "He's the best in the world, man. I gotta say it. In my book, he's the best."

deLay brings a jazzy sensibility and a melodic fearlessness to an axe that can quickly become a cliche' in less talented hands.

His work on the diatonic harmonica is amazing enough, but musical barriers really begin to tumble when he picks up a Hohner chromatic harmonica. The chromatic is far more flexible than the smaller harmonica. It spans four octaves and has two sets of reeds. A button enables the player to jump up and down a half-step allowing a complete scale instead of just major and blues scales.
deLay calls it pulling the trigger and few are his equal. Most don't even attempt it, and the chromatic has never been a staple of the blues. deLay doesn't care. He makes it sound like everything from Charlie Parker's alto saxophone to an accordion in the hands of some gently soused ­p; but inspired ­p; Parisian boulevardier.

His singing transcends barriers for the same reason; he sounds neither white nor black ­p; his voice is completely free of affectation, managing to convey emotion with perfect economy and clarity. And if his phrasing recalls that of blues great B.B.King, the admiration is mutual, as a photo of Paul clasping hands with King proves. "I think the Paul deLay Band is great," King wrote across the bottom.

deLay's playing impelled Ray Varner to move from Chicago. Varner helped found the Washington Blues Association and runs one of Seattle's favorite blues spots, the Owl Cafe. He heard deLay in 1973, playing in Brown Sugar ­p; then one of Portland's most popular bands ­p; and decided that the Northwest blues scene rivalled that of legendary Chicago's.

He went on to produce deLay's first album and gained an appreciation for deLay's musicianship. deLay's not a schooled player, but he has what musicians call big ears ­p; the intuitive ability to hear and play the perfect line. And he won't quit until he gets what he wants, either. On one album track, deLay recorded 54 different harmonica solos before finally getting the sound he wanted.
No living blues player matches deLay's melodic complexity, Varner says. Both deLay and Dammann refer to that complexity as "being out over the skis." That's where deLay likes to stay, even if he risks leaving his audience behind.

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.


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 the stuff.

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 the canyon.

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.

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 region.

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 this summer.

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 his profit.

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.

"So I'm staying out of trouble, playin' it very cool,"
- "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 bluesman.

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."

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