Paul Oscher: Cool Cat

Paul Oscher   Cool Cat (Blues Fidelity Recordings)

Paul Oscher’s “blues has the bite and gravity of the tradition he upholds.” (New York Times)

Paul Oscher is blues royalty. A member of Muddy Waters band, of whom Waters said “Paul Oscher plays the soul I feel,” Oscher is a real live link to the classic Chicago blues of the 50s and 60s. Now in his late 60s, he is still writing songs and performing, always steeped in the blues, always honest, always from the heart. “I always keep that lowdown and lonesome feelin’ I learned in Muddy Waters’ band,” says Oscher. “I like to keep it real and in the moment.”

And the blues, he says, “has made me young when I’m old.” Well, for sure, his blues lamp is still shining brightly, if Cool Cat is anything to go by. As well a deliciously gritty version of Muddy Waters’ Rollin’ and Tumblin’, we get eleven fine Paul Oscher originals. Like Rollin’ and Tumblin’ the songs all have a classic feel about them without ever feeling out-of-date. The record is nicely varied, and includes a cool instrumental jazz number, On the Edge, performed by Oscher on piano, and Ernie Durawa on drums, Tomas Ramirez on tenor sax and Chris Alcaraz on bass.

The same quartet play on the title track, another instrumental, whose story is explained by Oscher in a prologue – it’s about a homeless man and his cat Oscher had encountered when he was living at Muddy Waters’ house. There’s a second, longer version of the song also, this time performed by the band which plays on the rest of the album.

As well as playing piano, harmonica and guitar, Oscher handles the vocals on five of the songs. Lavelle White, a blues and soul legend, at the tender age of 89, gives Dirty Dealin’ Mama the right amount of sass, while Russell Lee’s vocals on Ain’t That a Man and the Hootchie Cootchie Man-esque Poor Man Blues manage to be gritty and full-bodied at the same time and always classily phrased. Ain’t That a Man is one of my favourites on an album packed with hugely enjoyable songs. It tells the story of James Cotton accompanied by the sparse, old-school guitar work of Oscher. I love the lines, “He was shot five times, But that didn’t hold him back, He kept on getting’ up, Now what kind of man is that!”

Lee also performs Mississippi Poem, whose dark history gave rise to the blues: “Land of the darkness…giving rise to the dusty moan of black folks…O those lonesome blues, those lonesome blues.” Oscher recalls riding in a Volkswagen van in 1968, traveling on a winding highway somewhere near Tupelo, Mississippi, with Otis Spann, S.P. Leary, Sammy Lawhorn and Bo the driver. Ahead was a station wagon in which was Luther “Georgia Boy Snake” Johnson, Little Sonny Wimberly and Muddy Waters. As they entered the town, a large railroad-sized billboard of a hooded KKK nightrider on a white stallion, reared up on its hind legs, greeted them. The caption below the sign said: “Beware, you are now entering Klan Country.”  “Everyone in the band saw the sign,” says Oscher. “No one spoke.”

The band which plays on most of the songs is top notch and consists of Johnny Ace and Sarah Brown on bass, Russell Lee on drums, Mike Schermer on guitar, Tone Robinson on tenor sax and Eric Burnhardt on baritone sax. The saxophones on the opening two songs, Money Making Women and Blues and Trouble are terrific and would be wonderful to hear live.

Oscher is a fine multi-instrumentalist, but his harmonica playing is exquisite. You’d swear that harp is talking in Work That Stuff, and it’s a pity we don’t hear more in the rest of the album.

This is an exceptional album of time-honoured, classic blues, from a man whose life in the blues oozes from every musical phrase. According to Oscher, “The real gift of talent is not the ability to be able to play, it is the gift of the love you have for the music.”

Apparently, he’s writing a book about his life, hopefully to be published before long. “When that book is finished, you’re gonna love it,” says Oscher. I bet we will.