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'Sugar' sweetened blues

Portland's Criminal Records returns to musical life with a big bag of deLay history
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Criminal Records produced 18 albums in its previous life, mostly in the 1980s.

It all started when Paul Jones was off serving the country in the U.S. Air Force, a Vietnam-era draftee. It was the late 1960s.

As the story goes, one day when members of his former band Moxie gathered to jam, a fresh-faced teenager from Milwaukie High School strolled into the room, and picked up the harmonicas of Lloyd Jones, Paul's brother and the group's replacement drummer, and started blowing. At the end of practice, the harmonicas went out the door with the kid, who went on to practice them every day, barely stopping to eat and drink.

The blowing didn't stop until Paul deLay had become one of the world's preeminent harmonica players, before succumbing to leukemia in 2007 at age 55.

Today, his former bandmates and colleagues are setting out to bring deLay's legacy back to life. Paul Jones, former bassist Don Campbell and producer Ray Varner, have given rebirth to the Criminal Records Northwest label that produced 18 records in the 1980s, many of them from the late, great Paul deLay Band.

While it's unfair to say the blues in Portland began with deLay, the music hit its stride when deLay joined the newly formed band Brown Sugar with bassist Al Kuzens, guitarist Jim Mesi and drummer Lloyd Jones. The band performed up and down the West Coast in the 1970s.

Criminal Records Northwest, run by Paul Jones through most of the 1980s, plans to go back in time with its initial project, which debuted with the release and publicity of Bob Leitch's film, 'Portland Mojo: How Stumptown Got the Blues,' at the recent Waterfront Blues Festival.

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Tribune Photos: Christopher Onstott • Criminal Records Northwest organizers Ray Varner (below, left), Don Campbell (center) and Paul Jones (right) have re-started the music label, focusing on the late Paul deLay's first musical venture.

A CD of early Brown Sugar songs - live and recorded - will be made, as well as a DVD of band performances and television appearances and a book. Along with the Brown Sugar stuff, Criminal Records Northwest plans to re-issue several of its records.

Along with producing five Paul deLay Band albums, Paul Jones also guided the band on a European tour and through 50 shows opening for B.B. King. Criminal Records also put out D.K. Stewart's first album, 'Sun Valley Sessions,' and Paul Jones, after living in Hawaii for three years, re-incarnated the label and put out records for J.C. Rico and Steve Bradley. Jones also produced 'All My Friends Can Sing,' a collaborative album with the Northwest's topnotch blues musicians.

Varner got the thing going, wanting to re-start the label and make available a somewhat lost part of Portland's music scene.

'I'm a retired teacher, and it's something I've wanted to do, and I have two friends who are highly qualified,' says Varner, 65, and a player in the Eugene-Portland-Seattle blues scene of yesteryear. 'I called them up and said, 'Hey, records were cheap to make back then, let's try it again!' '

The label intends to pursue new recordings, including a gospel CD, Varner says.

'At some point, yeah, we'd love to do some local projects (with bands),' says Campbell, 56, a freelance writer who still plays bass with much aplomb, most recently with Ron Rogers and the Wailing Wind. 'But we have enough on our plate with the historical stuff.'

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COURTESY OF CRIMINAL RECORDS NORTHWEST • A significant act in Portland blues history, Brown Sugar of the early 1970s featured (left to right) guitar player/singer Lloyd Jones, sax player Danny Fincher, guitarist Jim Mesi, bassist Al Kuzens, drummer Bob Lyon and harmonica player Paul deLay.

'They were damn good'

Paul Jones, 64, who still drums in his off time from working for a crane company, says the public has always been fascinated with deLay, even through the larger-than-life musician's trials and tribulations with drug trafficking. DeLay served 41 months in federal prison in the early 1990s. What better way to re-introduce deLay than to go back to his musical birth, Jones says.

The band's lone record, the four-song 'Brown Sugar's Greatest Hits,' was an oxymoron, considering it was its only official recording.

'It was a phenomenal band. I still listen to that stuff,' Campbell says, of Brown Sugar, which later added a drummer when Lloyd Jones took up guitar, and a sax player.

'They turned into a six-piece band in the 1970s, and they were this big, fat full band with a lot of power,' Paul Jones adds. 'They came out and hit you in the face.'

'They were like any number of white postwar Chicago/West Coast blues bands,' Varner adds, 'except they were damn good.'

Brown Sugar played its last gig on New Year's Eve, ringing into the bicentennial year of 1976. From there, it became the Paul deLay Band, the staple of Criminal Records with five albums produced.

DeLay's talent showed itself early.

'I can tell you, when I first saw him in 1973, I was on the floor,' Varner says. 'He was unbelievably well-developed that early in his career.

'Later in his career he'd do things called overblows, which are very, very difficult - changing the key by not bending the shape of the mouth. You're blowing so hard you have to change the key. I swear to God, you didn't want to get in front of him, because reeds would start flying.'

'He was a master of the chromatic harmonica, which very few people can master,' Campbell adds. 'He listened to all the blues harmonica greats. … I don't think Paul understood his talent, and I don't know how he came by it, except that he was studious. He was well-schooled, but always trying to push the envelope.'

Adds Varner: '(Curtis) Salgado shares this trait: He also had a wonderful memory for other people's chops. Maybe it was why he was able to avoid being so derivative. They hear (music) and avoid the clichés.'

Early Portland blues

Campbell, Jones and Varner remember deLay as being a bit high-maintenance.

Says Campbell: 'We recorded a tune called 'Would You Baby,' and he played straight position harmonica. He did 54 takes of a 12-bar solo before he was satisfied. He was really a pain in the ass,' a comment that draws laughter among deLay's friends.

'It was tough to get him in the studio, because he was so self-conscious,' Campbell adds. 'He was an enormous personality, but he had a shy, self-conscious side. Once on stage, right at the downbeat, he was on the rest of the night.'

DeLay battled alcohol and drug addiction.

'But, no matter what was on the dark side of deLay's street, I never saw him screw up a gig,' Paul Jones says. 'He showed up at every gig ready to go. He never showed up drunk or embarrassed us or we had to cancel a gig. Everything he did off stage was another story; on stage, his name was on it. That meant a lot to him.'

The guys behind Criminal Records (criminalrecordsnw.com) are enthused about their project, and plan to meet with Lloyd Jones, Mesi and Kuzens about it.

Paul Jones says they don't expect to get rich, and Varner says they won't be buying any islands in the Caribbean, but it'll be nice to re-introduce early Portland blues to the public.

'I do believe there's a market for it,' Varner says.