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Paul Oscher was 20 when he started playing harmonica for Muddy Waters. It was 1967, and he was a rare sight for the times: a white man playing in a Black blues band of such prominence. He more than held his end up for Waters, the legendary star. Oscher later recalled his old boss saying, I dont care what color he is as long as he plays the soul I feel.
Rick Estrin, a harmonica player from San Francisco, in a phone interview, recalled seeing Oscher play behind Waters in Chicago, baby faced but sounding like hed been born decades earlier.
He had an emotional intensity to his playing that he could turn up and down like a preacher, Estrin said. An internal rhythmic groove, relaxed and seductive. The blues were like a religion to him.
Oscher died on April 18 at a hospital in Austin, Texas. He was 74. The cause was complications of COVID-19, Nancy Coplin, his former manager, said.
Oscher had been living in Austin since 2013, playing locally and on tour. His most recent album, Cool Cat, was released in 2018.
You know, the one thing about playing the blues is the older you get, the more respect you get, Oscher told filmmaker Jordan Haro, who made a short film about him in 2017. Its not like a rock star whos seen and then hes gone. I just play low-down blues, and I play it the same way I played it 50 years ago.
Paul Allan Oscher was born on Feb. 26, 1947, in Brooklyn, New York, and grew up in the East Flatbush section. His father, Nathan Abraham Oscher, owned a factory that made false teeth; his mother, Mildred Marie (Hansen) Oscher, was a homemaker who later worked in local and state politics.
An uncle gave Paul a harmonica when he was 12, but he didnt learn how to make the most of it until one day, in his after-school job delivering groceries, a customer who just happened to be a blues musician overheard him trying to play Red River Valley and proceeded to teach him the ropes.
By 15 he was playing in Black clubs in Brooklyn and had become part of a network of musicians in that scene. He was 17 when he was introduced to Waters one night after a Waters show at the Apollo; three years later, when Waters returned for a gig in New York City and was short of a harmonica player, he invited Oscher to sit in. At the end of the show, Waters offered him a job.
For a time Oscher lived in the basement of Waters Chicago house, sharing the space with Otis Spann, the noted Chicago blues pianist and member of Waters band. Oscher later said that he had learned his blues timing from Spann.
He toured with the band throughout Europe and the United States, often clad like his bandmates in a red brocade Nehru jacket. (Waters wore a black suit.) When they hit the segregated South, he was typically not allowed to stay in the same hotel as his bandmates, and he remembered how the group fell silent one day on the road as they passed a sign declaring, You Are Entering Klan County.
Oscher left the band in the early 1970s to pursue a solo career back home in New York City. Over the years he performed with Eric Clapton, Levon Helm, T-Bone Walker, John Lee Hooker and many others.
In addition to the harmonica, he played the piano and the guitar, often all at the same time his harmonica in a neck rack, his guitar on his lap and one hand on the keyboard. He also played the accordion and the vibraphone.
In the late 1990s, Oscher was playing at Franks Cocktail Lounge in Brooklyn when he met Suzan-Lori Parks, the playwright and author, and she asked him to teach her to play harmonica. They married in 2001 and parted amicably in 2008, later divorcing but remaining friends. Oscher had no immediate survivors.
Paul was a righteous guy, a real sweetheart and a real blues man, Parks said in an interview. That meant there were a lot of blues. Hed learned how to be an adult by hanging out with blues cats. The older Black men in Muddys band helped him become whole.
When she was working on her Pulitzer Prize -winning play "Topdog/Underdog," a darkly comic fable of sibling rivalry and Black manhood that uses three-card monte as a narrative spine, Oscher taught her the mechanics of the card game. He just happened to be a whiz at that street hustlers old standard.
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