In the summer of 1967, an eager 18-year-old harmonica player named Paul Oscher was invited to sit in with Muddy Waters and his band at a New York club. The legendary blues musician was so impressed with the young harp player wailing on the songs "Baby Please Don't Go" and "Blow Winds Blow," he hired Oscher on the spot. Thus the budding harmonica virtuoso joined the ranks of some of the greatest names in blues who had played with Waters including Little Walter, Otis Spann, James Cotton and Jimmy Rogers.
"He came to New York and I got a call to come on down," Oscher recalls the fortuitous meeting. "So I sat in and played two numbers and he said, 'Can you travel?' "
The first white musician to perform full time with the Muddy Waters Blues Band, Oscher toured the U.S. and abroad playing a range of venues from rough juke joints to the major concert stages of the world. During that time he backed up blues luminaries including John Lee Hooker, Earl Hooker, Son House, Fred McDowell, Lightning Hopkins, T-Bone Walker, Albert King, Magic Sam and Big Mama Thornton. And he recorded a number of historic albums with Muddy for the legendary Chess Records label.
Paul Oscher is a featured artist at MauiFEST Hawaii’ free sixth annual Hana Film Festival.
"It felt great," he sums up his five years with Waters. "I wish I had realized what I was doing, I would have had a camera and a tape recorder going all the time. There were performances that Muddy did that were unbelievable, the intensity he played with. Today there aren't many of those guys left. And the blues has changed into the rock stuff."
Oscher toured with Waters at a time when venturing into the Southern states as a mixed-race band was fraught with danger.
"There were a lot of hotels we didn't stay in," he recalls. "We would just play a gig and sleep in the van and go to the next gig. Some places Muddy knew people or we stayed in black hotels. During the '60s it wasn't great down South. They had changed some laws, but the place hadn't changed."
* Paul Oscher is a featured artist at MauiFEST Hawaii' free sixth annual Hana Film Festival, beginning at 4 p.m. Saturday at Hana Bay.
Other artists performing include multiple Hoku-winner Brother Noland and multiple Hoku-winning slack key guitarist Sonny Lim, plus emcee Uncle Boy Kanae.
Films include "Mai Tai," "Voyages," "The Turtle and the Shark," and "Halau Nalu."
Lawn chairs OK, but no coolers allowed.
Making his Maui debut at the Hana Film Festival on Saturday, Oscher describes himself as one of only a handful of musicians still playing what he calls deep blues.
"Deep blues to me is the kind of traditional blues from Mississippi to Chicago," he explains. "The blues I play is '50s Chicago style, and I call it deep blues. I was very influenced by Muddy Waters, Otis Spann and Little Walter, and they are some of the deepest cats I know. I played in Muddy's band, I lived in his house and shared a basement with (pianist) Otis Spann."
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Oscher started playing the blues at the age of 12 when his uncle gave him a harmonica. "I worked in a grocery store after school, and there was a black guy about 28-years-old who worked there with a processed hairdo," he says, launching into a colorful history.
"I was trying to practice the harmonica and he said, 'Hey kid, let me see that whistle you've got.' He called it a whistle, so I handed him the harp and he made like he couldn't play it at first, then he turned it around and blew me away, the tone. He sounded somewhere between Big Walter and Peg Leg Sam. Then he played percussive, rhythmic stuff, and he could tap dance with it. It turned out he worked medicine shows in Georgia. He showed me the rudiments.
"Then when I was about 15, I was walking by a black club and after three years of playing I thought I was pretty good. There was a guy standing in the doorway and his name was Smiling Pretty Eddie. He says, 'Kid, where you working?' I said, 'I'm not working,' so he said, 'Come in and play for the people.' He put me on the stage with the house band and I played a slow blues and the people went nuts to see a little white kid playing. Pretty Eddie says, 'How about it for the little blue-eyed soul brother,' and the crowd gave me a big round of applause. Then I walked off the bandstand towards the bathroom and there was a shake dancer, a stripper putting on pasties. I thought, damn it, this is for me.
"The club was so cool, there's Cadillacs parked outside and all the women looked like the Supremes and the guys looked like Ike Turner. That was my life. I got close to the leader of the band there, his name was Little Jimmy Mae, and he knew the guys in Muddy's band.
The aspiring young harpist first met Walters at a legendary concert at New York's famed Apollo Theater.
"It was a big show with Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker, Bobby Blue Bland, T-Bone Walker, Muddy Waters and Lightning Hopkins," he continues. "It was so exciting. Little Jimmy Mae took me backstage and that's when I met Muddy and we hung out, and when he came to New York I got a phone call."
So what was it about blues that hooked him?
"The lifestyle and the truthfulness of the music, something so real, and the way it told a story, and the guys that played it were giants - Howling Wolf, B.B. King, Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson - these guys were my heroes."
As a young man immersed in a flamboyant world, Oscher encountered many larger-than-life characters like harmonica virtuoso Little Walter Jacobs. "The first time I met Little Walter, Otis Spann introduced me," he reports. "He was sitting in a car on 43rd Street in Chicago in January. They were drinking and it was 9 degrees outside. They must have been in the car for a few hours. I used to do this card trick called the Three Card Monte. Spann says, 'This is brother Paul, our harp blower, don't play cards with that boy.'
"The next time I saw Walter, he was at Muddy's house. He says, 'Kid, let me see that trick.' I have two black cards and a red card, where's the red card? He says, 'I'll bet $20,' and it's a black card. I say give me my money. He says, 'Double or nothing.' I threw the cards again and where's the red card? He picks up all three cards and says, 'Right here in my hand ****. I win, we're even.' What could I say, he was a hero."
Over the years, Oscher has performed or recorded with a who's who in the blues world, including John Lee Hooker, Earl Hooker, Johnny Young, Jimmy Rogers, T-Bone Walker, Big Mama Thornton, Johnny Copeland, Louisiana Red, and longtime Howlin' Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin.
He's featured on harmonica, guitar and vocals on Sumlin's 2006 Grammy-nominated Muddy Waters' tribute album, "About Them Shoes," alongside Keith Richards, Eric Clapton and The Band's Levon Helm.
"We had two different sessions, one with Keith and one with Eric," he notes. "It was a strange concept, Hubert Sumlin playing Muddy Waters' songs, but it was nice working with those guys."
In 2004, he played on Mos Def's album "New Danger." Oscher met the hip-hop star through his Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright wife, Suzan-Lori Parks. "My wife wrote a play called 'Topdog Underdog,' and it was on Broadway and Mos Def was in the play," he explains. "When he got ready to do a record, he asked me to play on a song. We wrote a song together. Of all the recordings I've done, that's the one I made the most royalties on, and it only took a half hour to do. His record sold 400,000 copies right out of the box. He has a good appreciation for blues."
These days, Oscher often tours and records as a solo artist. His most recent CDs, "Alone with the Blues" and "Down in the Delta," (which won two 2006 Blues Music Awards - Acoustic Album of the Year and Acoustic Artist of the Year) have earned rave reviews.
"Paul Oscher can blow some serious harp," praised the Chicago Sun-Times. "And Oscher should win new respect for his talents as a vocalist, guitarist, pianist and melodica player with 'Down In The Delta,' "
"Paul Oscher's blues are deep as the Delta soil," noted the Boston Phoenix. "With just a guitar, a slide, a harmonica and his voice, Oscher rekindles the fire, soul and spirit of the music of the late, great Muddy Waters."
Performing as a one-man band has its advantages this veteran musician explains. "I've been playing solo since 2001. It works good. I get in no arguments with the band. I play harmonica, guitar and piano. My setup is like a band playing amplified, Chicago-style blues."
And how about percussion?
"My feet. I've got a mic on the stage floor for foot percussion. I like what I'm doing now. I can really play like I want to. I'm not limited if I want to change the meter, and I don't have to rehearse anybody."
Country singer Steve Zuwala will perform at in a 7:30 p.m. concert Friday at the Historic Iao Theater in Wailuku. The theme of the show is "It's about Time," named for his new single. The show also features guest appearances by Debra Lynn and Steve Burgess.
Zuwala is a 2007 and 2008 winner of Hawaii Music Awards for Single of the Year and Country Music.
Tickets are $15. Part of the proceeds benefit the Pende Foundation, helping Tibetan families.