For originality in contemporary blues with a capital "o," one need look no further than West Coast harmonica stylist, singer, and songwriter Paul deLay. DeLay is the freshest songwriting voice to come onto the West Coast blues scene since Robert Cray rose to prominence in the San Francisco Bay area in the 1980s. Not surprisingly, he backs up his original songs with some very stylized chromatic harmonica playing that incorporates a sense of swing and jazz, largely based on the Chicago blues harp masters.
DeLay was born January 31, 1952, in Portland, OR, but raised in the Ardenwald neighborhood of Milwaukee, in a musically inclined family. After hearing Paul Butterfield play "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl," he became hooked on blues harmonica by age eight. He took his inspiration from Big Walter "Shakey" Horton and Little Walter Jacobs, and later, George "Harmonica" Smith and Charlie Musselwhite. DeLay took lessons on piano and tried to teach himself guitar and drums, but he found his true calling when he picked up the harmonica. He began playing along with records at first, and later formed a jug band in the 1960s.
DeLay led a band called Brown Sugar, which played in Portland-area clubs for most of the 1970s, and then began leading a band under his own name in 1978. DeLay toured with Chicago piano player Sunnyland Slim and guitarist Hubert Sumlin for a few months that same year. When he got off the road, he concentrated his efforts on developing his own sound while leading his own band. He began writing his own songs in 1980, and by that point he was already a veteran of the bandstand. DeLay knew he didn't want to write standard blues songs, and to this day he avoids clichéd lyrical themes.
The Paul deLay Band recorded four independent albums on their own label by 1988: Teasin', American Voodoo, The Paul deLay Band, and Burnin'. The band toured constantly, and deLay's alcoholism turned into a major problem. When he finally quit drinking, he slowly began using cocaine instead, which he was busted for dealing. While spending three years in prison, deLay wrote a huge number of original songs and put his boozing and cocaine-snorting habits behind him for good. When he came out of prison in 1995, deLay made up for his lost time, and the results can be heard on several fine albums. Most notable are two recent albums for Evidence, Take It from the Turnaround (1996), an album that combines two independent releases he recorded locally in Portland for Criminal Records, and his more recent Ocean of Tears (1997). Both albums are fine examples of deLay's unique gift for telling a story and his natural sense of humor and wittiness, as well as great singing and harmonica playing. Both also showcase excellent backing bands. That's why deLay's reputation has spread out from his home base in Oregon to envelop the rest of the country, as well as parts of Canada and Europe.
In the late '80s and 1990s, the Paul deLay Band has performed at the San Francisco Blues Festival, the Pocono Blues Festival, the Long Beach Blues Festival, and the San Francisco Harmonica Festival, among many other large-scale gatherings. On March 7, 2007, deLay died from recently diagnosed leukemia, as well as kidney and liver failure. Three months later Last of the Best, a collection of live tracks, appeared from Criminal Records. ~ Richard Skelly