Paul Oscher
Paul Oscher to perform at Next Stage Arts in Putney on Friday, June 20. (Paul Oscher)

PUTNEY -- Legendary blues musician Paul Oscher remembers when he was 12 years old and his uncle gave him his first instrument, a Marine Band harmonica.

"At that time, I was working at a grocery store delivering groceries," he said. "I was practicing harmonica, something like ‘Red River Valley' or ‘She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain.' A black guy came out of the store and said, ‘Let me see that whistle."

When the man, a co-worker, took the harmonica, a sound came out that took Oscher by surprise. He had never heard those big sounds coming out of that instrument. The man started playing a shuffle and was tap dancing while playing. He played the instrument backwards then started playing it with his nose.

"I was just blown away," Oscher said.

Since then Oscher has learned a few things. The co-worker turned him onto the blues and Oscher proceeded to buy every record he could find and learn songs. He eventually met Muddy Waters and performed with his band from 1967 to 1971.

On June 20 at 7:30 p.m., Oscher will perform a solo set at Next Stage located at 15 Kimball Hill in Putney. Tickets are $20 for general admission in the advance or $22 at the door. Tickets are available on nextstagearts.org or at Offerings in Putney or Turn It Up in Brattleboro.

This will mark the first concert of the "Shades of Blue" concert series, specializing in American roots/blues music. Rory Block will perform at Next Stage on Sept. 13 and Guy Davis will perform there on Nov. 1.

For the gig, Oscher will play harmonica, guitar, piano and bass harp -- sometimes all at the same time. He will also tell stories from his experiences on the road and his life. He has performed solo since 2000.

"I'm a band," said Oscher. "I love telling stories and I love what I'm doing now."

As Muddy Waters' harmonica player, Oscher was the first white musician in the world to become a full-time member of a black blues band, a press release stated. He has performed with and recorded with musicians such as John Lee Hooker, T-Bone Walker, Big Mama Thornton, Otis Spann, Buddy Guy, Big Joe Turner, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Jimmy Rogers, Keb Mo, Mos Def, Levon Helm and more.

His album "Down in the Delta" won two W.C. Handy Blues Music Awards while his album "Alone with the Blues" was nominated for four W.C. Handy awards.

Oscher grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., where his job at the grocery store was located.

After two years of playing harmonica, he went to a club and met a man named "Smile Pretty" Eddie, who introduced him to a crowd gathered there. Oscher played a couple of songs and was invited to return for more gigs. Everyone there, Oscher said, looked like Ike Turner with processed hairdos and the women looked like the Supremes.

"There were Cadillacs outside the joint. They gave me this big Elvis Presley microphone. It was the first time I played harmonica amplified," he said. "I loved everything about it."

Oscher became closer to the band leader at the club and in 1966, began to play more shows. He played at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, where he met Jimmy Reed, T-Bone Walker and Muddy Waters, who heard him playing on the back staircase at the venue and invited him to a hotel on 125th Street.

"We drank a little wine and shot dice," Oscher recalled. "Muddy came into town a year later. I got a call from his guitar player... I played two numbers. He asked if I could travel. I said, ‘Hell yeah.' I met him at the hotel the next day."

Oscher entered a green Volkswagen bus at the hotel. Within minutes, he was holding a pistol and a bottle of gin. And it was only 8 a.m. At that point, he knew he was in.

Every show with Waters was great, Oscher said. They played around the world together. One night in Buffalo, N.Y., where he jumped off the stage, popped into his memory.

"It was 15 feet high. I didn't realize it," he said. "I got my mojo working."

Although Oscher cannot remember playing a specific venue in Vermont, he recalls playing in the state as well as recording somewhere in Brattleboro. The last time he was in New England, however, he had to cancel gigs in Boston, Maine and Rhode Island. He was hospitalized for food poisoning in Northampton, Mass.

Programming committee member Lou Erlanger encouraged the committee to book Oscher at the Next Stage.

"I've known him a long time and I think highly of him," said Erlanger. "After he played with Muddy Waters, he played a lot around New York City with his own group and had these jam sessions. He had this whole group of followers. Anyone who was really interested in the blues, he was the guy to see. "

The committee will likely attempt to host more series in the future as resources grow, Erlanger said.

Chris Mays can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 273, or cmays@reformer.com. Follow Chris on Twitter @CMaysReformer.