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Paul Oscher, Austin blues musician who played in Muddy Waters' band, dies at 71

Paul Oscher, shown performing at C-Boy's Heart & Soul on South Congress Avenue in 2014, was still in his teens when he started playing harmonica with blues legend Muddy Waters.

Paul Oscher, who moved to Austin eight years ago after a career that included many years in blues legend Muddy Waters' band, died Sunday at age 71. He had been hospitalized with COVID-19 for several weeks, his former manager, Nancy Coplin, confirmed Monday.

Oscher moved to the South Austin community of Manchaca in 2013 and began performing there at the now-shuttered Railroad BBQ. Soon Coplin was managing him and he'd gained a weekly residency at C-Boy's Heart & Soul on South Congress Avenue that lasted for several years.

Born April 5, 1950, in the Brooklyn borough of New York, Oscher was still in his teens when he began playing harmonica with Waters in 1967. He performed with Waters at the short-lived but influential downtown Austin venue Vulcan Gas Company in the late 1960s.

Oscher lived in Waters' Chicago house for a stretch during his five-year tenure with the band, and he'd recently been involved with efforts to turn that home into the Muddy Waters MOJO Museum, Austin musician Shelley King said Monday.

In addition to appearing on three Waters albums for Chess Records, Oscher released a handful of his own records, most recently 2018's "Cool Cat" on the Blues Fidelity label. In addition to harmonica, he played guitar and piano.

Before his move to Austin, Oscher had been married for a decade to Suzan-Lori Parks, a playwright who won a Pulitzer Prize for her 2001 play "Topdog/Underdog." Parks is also a musician; Coplin recalled her opening a show for Oscher in New York a few years ago.

Oscher's move to Austin from Los Angeles in 2013 came from an unlikely connection. Austin pop-music phenom Max Frost had moved to the Los Angeles area at age 19 when he met Oscher, who was living in an adjacent space in a Venice, Calif., apartment complex. "We would jam sometimes in a garage by the beach," Frost recalled Monday.

Oscher had been talking about moving to Austin, and Frost mentioned that his mother was looking to rent out the other side of her duplex in Manchaca. Oscher became the tenant and lived there for the remainder of his life.

Frost says he kept in touch with Oscher over the years and recorded a conversation with him in 2019 that he's considered using for a podcast called "Off the Road" that he launched during the pandemic.

“He lived through a part of history that few people understand really happened the way it did,” Frost said. “It was a rough life, and for Paul to have been that young and to have suddenly slipped into that world and survived it is pretty remarkable. He was a really great player, and Muddy obviously really respected him. It was a huge chapter of his life.”

Steve Wertheimer, who owns C-Boy’s as well as the Continental Club, where Oscher also occasionally played, says he went to one of Oscher’s sets at Railroad BBQ after hearing about the shows from bassist Sarah Brown and other Austin musicians.

“I was totally blown away by what he was doing,” Wertheimer said. “We had an opportunity to move that thing in town, where a lot more people could get to see Paul.”

Wertheimer recalled Oscher’s frequent stories about his days in Waters’ band being part of the draw at his Thursday happy hour shows.

“A lot of musicians were coming to see him because of his blues knowledge and prowess, which really validated what Paul was doing,” Wertheimer said. “It was as real as anything I had seen in a long time here in Austin. That’s kind of why I built that club, was for guys like Paul.”

One day, Oscher showed up at the club with a gift: an old photo of him playing harmonica onstage with Waters. Austin blues guitarist Sue Foley posted that photo to her Instagram page Monday.

“It still hangs back there behind the bar at C-Boy’s,” Wertheimer said. “It’ll never come down.”

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