PAUL OLIVER

Paul OliverPaul 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.

Paul Hereford Oliver was born in Nottingham, England in 1927. He trained as an Art Historian, and when he graduated from the University of London in 1955, he began teaching. He lectured at the National Gallery, Dartington College, the Architectural Association, and many other prestigious institutions, and took up a Professorship at Oxford Brookes University. Since the 60s, Paul has travelled all over the world investigating Vernacular Architecture, or ‘how people build their own homes’. He published many books on the subject, including ‘Dunroamin’, ‘Dwellings’, ‘Built to Meet Need’ and the mighty ‘Atlas of World Vernacular Architecture’. His collections of writings, images and artifacts are gathered in a special Library at Oxford Brookes, and he was awarded an MBE in 2003 for his architectural work. That adds up to a fine career in itself, but it is only half the story.

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!

2 Comments

  1. Whistlin' Alex Moore on November 7, 2014 at 11:41 am

    […] was in full swing the next time Alex came to public attention in 1960, when British musicologist Paul Oliver found Alex sitting in a bar about 100 yards from the house he was born in. Paul and Chris […]