[21 November 2005]
It’s not quite a case of “my, how he’s grown”, but somewhere or other I’ve a picture of a slim-looking white kid in the company of what was the rest of the Muddy Waters Blues Band. This was Paul Oscher. Another young white kid in the Muddy Waters band round the same time was Jerry Portnoy, who had to use another name because this was the time of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. Readers puzzled about this reference must be a great relief to Mr. Portnoy. They can ask an uncle about it. I hope he won’t tell them.
Some numbers of white kids took up playing blues and continued to play blues. When the Guardian reviewer of a recent Taj Mahal London gig remarked that the get-together of Cream not long ago reminded him how bombastic white-skinned would-be blues revivalists tended to be, 30 and more years ago, I said Amen to that. Overheated, hysterical, trying too hard, vocally so self-conscious it can be embarrassing. Some people were so thrilled to think they were singing blues they thought they were singing blues well.
The technical term is mouthing, rolling the singing around the teeth rather than delivering matter-of-factly and with bite. The singing voice gets thin, or hollow with attempts at overcompensation, like a boy trying to put on a man’s voice. The feeling is wrong, full of trying, where in England in the 1950s George Melly had earlier worked out a serviceable vocal technique with weight and projection which let him perform a Bessie Smith sort of repertoire and music perfectly efficiently. He had a jolly good time, and was bowled over when a Tennessean one day came up to him and said he was sure they were from the same part of the state. Melly had found a vocal technique rather than putting on an accent, and he’s from Liverpool.
Paul Oscher has certainly not tripped over the standard obstacle, and has built up fair instrumental abilities. He works these days on guitar as well as harmonica, and manages some nifty enough accompaniment on one track with two hands on the piano and at least one foot stomping. It seems Otis Spann tutored him a little, but there’s no hint of imitation.
There’s some Robert Johnson music in his “32-20”, but the guitar style combines something more modern with the Johnson swing, a little like Robert Lockwood though the resemblance is presumably in the fact that they can both do difficult things. There’s some orthodox chording on “Driftin’ Blues” though the able slide work is out of Muddy Waters and wholly idiomatic. It was an excellent idea to do “St. Louis Blues” as a solo with post-Muddy guitar, and nice harmonica like a rather rougher Little Walter.
The melodica on “Blues Before Sunrise” sounds sometimes like a super-harmonica and sometimes organ. Strong influence of Muddy Waters, more attempted emulation not imitation. David Maxwell sounds a bit more like Otis Spann, helping out here with Calvin Jones on electric bass and the celebrated Willie Smith drumming.
Beside the novelty value of “Deborah’s Baby” it’s interesting how that country song comes out more like an old-style songster performance, not so far from Mance Lipscomb in genre. The differences between bluesmen and post-hillbilly do seem to have developed after the blessed Mance, John Hurt, and other melodious ancients’ styles were set.
“Sugar Mama” is more Big Walter (Horton) than Little Walter in the harmonica part. It’s also Walter Horton Oscher brings to mind on Mercer Ellington’s “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be”, with more nice guitar. He really does things on rack harmonica, while both his hands are doing intelligent things on guitar. Horton used his hands and did big band impersonations, which were well within his scope. Little Walter possibly did things neither Horton nor Oscher could; Oscher doesn’t sound as if he decides to Big Walter some things and Little Walter others. He’s his own player.
With Maxwell, Jones, and Smith he sings a ballad playing guitar but not harmonica. The voice is strong. “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” demonstrates, he says, his notion that gospel and blues are the one music. It really demonstrates that he has heard Mississippi John Hurt, and this would be a pretty good songster performance if it wasn’t just a guitar solo with the foot-stomping Oscher does so well. A hymn to dance to.
Tampa Red once recorded a “Georgia on My Mind” which used a little of Hoagy Carmichael’s tune and words but was really a blues. Here the Carmichael number proper is delivered lovingly on harmonica and guitar, with solo work on each, and a passage of “Since I Lost My Baby” before a resumption and more soloing on the original. It’s very nice, which can be said about the whole set. There’s no pastiche, just evidence that Oscher has listened seriously to a lot of blues, and not just the musicians he recorded with.
He can relax, too. The whole set’s very nice, and not the sort of thing which has been called White Blues. The Label name is about right.