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VALLEY WEEKEND | MUSIC | ROCKTALK

Hope a Lifesaver as Blues Artist Weathered a Sea of Trouble

In the nearly two years since his release from prison, Paul de Lay's career has progressed quickly. He says jail time served a purpose.

November 07, 1996|JAMES E. FOWLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When professional musicians are starting out, hope becomes a large part of everyday life--hope that they are good enough, hope that they can get a gig, hope that they can pay the rent. Still, some thrive despite the uncertainty of the lifestyle.

A few years ago, bluesman Paul de Lay, who is performing at B. B. King's on Friday night, found himself in what many people would describe as a hopeless situation. Besides having a drug abuse problem, the Portland, Ore., singer and harmonica player was arrested on charges of dealing cocaine and faced time in a federal penitentiary. Still, De Lay was able to draw from his personal reservoir of hope.

"A lot of musicians get strung out and get thrown in there, but I used the time constructively," De Lay says. "It allowed me to give my music my complete concentration for a time."

The court, in fact, gave De Lay 41 months to concentrate.

"It wasn't that much time--the first half was harder than the second half," De Lay says. "But I had a lot of support from people on the outside."

He used the time to get clean and organized a jailhouse band. He wrote dozens of songs, many of which are on his new CD, "Ocean of Tears," released last month by Philadelphia-based Evidence Music.

"[The prison] had a music room. There were a lot of people who came and went; some could play and some couldn't," he says. "I had something I could do--I just needed a room to be by myself."

His debt to society paid, De Lay is both surprised and delighted by the progress of his career since his release in January 1995.

"It's exciting," De Lay says. His new label has also re-released two albums he made between his arrest and his incarceration, while his legal appeal was pending. That has come out as a double CD set under a new name, "Take It From the Turnaround."

"The label has a lot of hustle," he says. "They're putting together tours and I'm getting airplay."

So De Lay has an interesting story, but what does his music sound like?

"It's basically classic 12-bar blues in a lot of cases, but we put a lot of twists on it," he says. "We like things that are arranged and dynamic."

De Lay and his band played for years throughout the Pacific Northwest, opening for B.B. King many times. King remains a big influence on his music.

"[Instead of the guitar], we have my harp upfront," De Lay says. "And we like to make the horn lines slightly unpredictable."

He says he also takes pride in his lyrics and tries to avoid the usual complaint-style cliches.

"I work pretty hard to get the real emotion out," he says. "With a standard 12-bar structure, when the first line repeats, it sort of telegraphs the punch, otherwise."

And reflecting his current situation in life, which includes a new marriage, De Lay's lyrics are life-affirming and positive.

"The way my life is going, things are positive for me now. It would be less honest for me to pretend I'm miserable, 'cause I ain't."

* Paul de Lay plays the blues Friday night at B.B. King's, Universal CityWalk. $12 cover. Call (818) 622-5464.

*

Last Song: Blues singer-harmonica player William Clarke died Sunday morning in Fresno after undergoing emergency surgery for a bleeding ulcer. The 45-year-old Clarke became ill before a scheduled gig Saturday night.

Torrance resident Clarke performed frequently in the Valley. In fact, he was slated to perform at the Classroom on Saturday and at Smokin' Johnnie's Nov. 15.

After suffering a heart attack in March, Clarke lost more than 60 pounds, made some lifestyle changes and was out gigging again less than four months later. He had just completed a 32-day nationwide tour.

"He was always cool; he was always a pleasure to work with," said his agent, Geoffrey Blumenauer of Granada Hills.

Blues performer Tim Casey, who is also the booker at the Classroom in Northridge, called Clarke a major talent and a good friend.

"The blues has lost a really cool guy there," Casey said.

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