Paul Oliver was a remarkable man and a prolific author, whose name is spoken in awe by people who regard him as a fountain of wisdom on his chosen subject. However, they may not know of his alternative career in quite a different sphere. The author of seminal musical writings like ‘Blues Fell This Morning’ and ‘Savannah Syncopators’ is also a renowned world expert on popular architecture, so his areas of expertise rarely intersect.
During WWII, Paul was a teenager at a ‘Harvest Camp’, where young people could help to gather in the crops to support the War effort. Many Americans were stationed in rural Suffolk, and one evening Paul and his friends snuck into a pub where they heard someone playing boogie-woogie piano. Blues and Gospel music inspired Paul’s early writing for Jazz Journal and, while he was a student in London, he wrote to Decca Records complaining about their album covers. He wound up being commissioned to design and illustrate record sleeves for releases like ‘Backwoods Blues’ and the ‘National Skiffle Contest’ album. Paul was already working on ‘Blues Fell This Morning’ in 1959 when a publisher commissioning a series asked him to write a biography of Bessie Smith. That went quite well, and the same firm published ‘Blues Fell….’ the following year.
‘Conversations With the Blues’, a series of interviews with originators of the Blues who were given a chance to re-establish their careers by the 60s Blues Revival, ‘Screening The Blues’, ‘The Story of the Blues’ and ‘Savannah Syncopators’, where Paul looks at African retentions in the Blues, all became essential reading for scholars of the genre. That early work on album covers continued with Paul providing the sleeve notes for over 60 albums. Further titles like ‘Songsters and Saints’ and ‘Blues Off the Record’ added to Paul’s canon, as did editing seven more Blues books.
Paul passed away August 2017 aged 90 at his home in Oxfordshire, UK.
Amassing over 3000 albums, Paul has bequeathed his archive of writings and recordings jointly to the European Blues Association and the University of Gloucester, where he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate. ‘Dr. Blues’ sounds just right!