Paul Oscher, Blues Musician in Muddy Waters’s Band, Dies at 74

An uncle gave Paul a harmonica when he was 12, but he didn’t learn how to make the most of it until one day when he was delivering groceries after school. A customer who happened to be a blues musician overheard him trying to play “Red River Valley” and taught him the ropes.

Updated

April 27, 2021, 6:43 p.m. ET

By the age of 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 Mr. Waters one night after a Waters show at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Three years later, when Mr. Waters returned to perform in New York City and did not have a harmonica player, he invited Mr. Oscher to sit down. At the end of the show, Mr. Waters offered him a job.

For a while, Mr. Oscher lived in the basement of Mr. Waters ‘house in Chicago and shared the room with Otis Spann, the well-known Chicago blues pianist and member of Mr. Waters’ band. Mr. Oscher later said that he learned his blues timing from Mr. Spann.

He toured Europe and the United States with the band, often dressed like his bandmates in a red brocade Nehru jacket. (Mr. Waters wore a black suit.) When they reached the segregated south, he was usually not allowed to stay in the same hotel as his bandmates, and he remembered one day the group fell silent on the street when they saw a sign stopped by explaining, “You are entering Klan County.”

Mr. Oscher left the band in the early 1970s to pursue a solo career in New York City. Over the years he has performed with Eric Clapton, Levon Helm, T-Bone Walker, John Lee Hooker and many others.

In addition to the harmonica, he often played the piano and guitar at the same time – his harmonica in a neck stand, his guitar on his lap and one hand on the keyboard. He also played the accordion and vibraphone.

In the late 1990s, Mr. Oscher was playing in Frank’s Cocktail Lounge in Brooklyn when he met Suzan-Lori Parks, the playwright and writer, and she asked him to teach her to play the harmonica. They married in 2001 and separated amicably in 2008. They later divorced but remained friends. Mr. Oscher had no immediate survivors.

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