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

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, 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.

Updated 

April 26, 2021, 8:43 p.m. ET

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 Mr. Waters one night after a Waters show at the Apollo Theater in Harlem; three years later, when Mr. Waters returned for a gig in New York City and was short of a harmonica player, he invited Mr. Oscher to sit in. At the end of the show, Mr. Waters offered him a job.

For a time Mr. Oscher lived in the basement of Mr. Waters’s Chicago house, sharing the space with Otis Spann, the noted Chicago blues pianist and member of Mr. Waters’s band. Mr. Oscher later said that he had learned his blues timing from Mr. Spann.

He toured with the band throughout Europe and the United States, often clad like his bandmates in a red brocade Nehru jacket. (Mr. 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.”

Mr. 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, Mr. Oscher was playing at Frank’s 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. Mr. Oscher had no immediate survivors.

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