Wilmington Gets the Blues: Cape Fear Blues Festival welcomes blues harp player Lee Oskar

Jul 22 • ARTSY SMARTSY, FEATURE BOTTOM, MusicNo Comments on Wilmington Gets the Blues: Cape Fear Blues Festival welcomes blues harp player Lee Oskar

Musicianship, like most talents, is innate; it can’t be forced. Radio waves have become increasingly littered with mediocrity. The music industry has evolved into a machine that markets celebrities rather than showcasing artists who sing from the heart.

Lee Oskar

Lee Oskar plays alongside a host of Wilmington bluesmen and will offer a free workshop on his harmonicas. Photo coutesy Jerry and Lois Photography.

The Cape Fear Blues Society (CFBS), a nonprofit that’s been celebrating musicianship since 1987, will once again take the Port City back to a day and age when music pierced the soul and evoked true emotion. The annual Cape Fear Blues Festival kicks off Friday, July 25th.

“We live in a new age and music is changing radically,” CFBS festival director Lan Nichols describes. “Past, present or future, the blues remains relevant and vital, both here in our region and around the world. We’re speeding down a cultural dead end if we lose sight of that.”

This weekend will feature legendary harmonica bluesman Lee Oskar. He became a part of the festival after forming a friendship with local RootSoul Project vocalist and 2012 International Blues Challenge winner Randy McQuay. McQuay won a set of Oskar’s famed line of harmonicas as a grand prize from the Memphis-based blues competition. Oskar was delighted by the way McQuay took to the harmonicas and asked him to partake in a few teaching videos for his website, www.leeoskarquickquide.com. McQuay reached out as well about Oskar performing at the Cape Fear Blues Festival, and Oskar immediately was on board.

The prolific bluesman was born in Coppenhagen, Denmark in 1948. At 6 years old, he received a harmonica. “It sounded like a symphony,” Oskar details. “I closed my eyes; I could sit there for an hour just lost and playing the music. The only thing I couldn’t do was repeat it.”

Oskar was able to pick up the instrument with ease. He described how once he began playing, it was easy to pick up—even for the musically impaired. Though Oskar quickly fell in love with the instrument, it was a fateful experience at a summer camp when he was 7 years old that solidified his future in music. One of the camp workers began playing the piano in the cafeteria. The music had bluesy undertones and captivated Oskar; it was a sound he had never heard before. “I don’t know how to explain it, but it made me go crazy,” Oksar remembers.

By the time he was 17, he decided, like any youth with ambition and a dream, to go to America. New York was his first stop; however, the experience proved intimidating. 

“New York was very scary,” Oskar concedes. “Just from the fact everything was so big. Anything anyone says, you’re going take it to heart, and you don’t know what your rights are.”

During his time in New York, Oskar busked the streets. Eventually, he decided to move to the West Coast and hitched a ride, having talked some people into going to San Francisco. He was there for about a year before he moved to Los Angeles. There he met Eric Burden who was looking to form a new group after the demise of his project, The Animals. Consequently, Oskar became a part of the new band, War. The funk and blues outfit comprised Howard E. Scott, Thomas “Papa Dee” Allen, Charles Miller, B.B. Dickerson, Leroy “Lonnie” Jordan, and Harold Ray Brown, and released a slew of hits, including “Low Rider,” “Spill the Wine,” and “Why Can’t We Be Friends?”

Oskar and Miller forged an affinity and bonded like brothers. It was Miller who helped shape Oskar’s ability to let the music flow through him, or as he puts it: “The harmonica plays you, you don’t play the harmonica.” Miller, a seasoned musician, would come down to Oskar’s talent level and jam with him. The experience liberated Oskar. 

As well, group jam sessions took him to a higher level of artistry. Burden would get the group together and say, “We’re gonna be on a rocket ship. I’m gonna be the captain, and you’re gonna be the co-captain. I’m gonna tell a story, and you’re gonna start.”

War allowed their instruments to take over their experimental sound. This improvisation aided Oskar, especially since he often lied about reading music. Eventually, he broke through the gates in the music world. 

In the ‘70s, Oskar put out a few solo records. Over the course of his career, he jammed with the likes of Jim Morrison (The Doors) and Jimi Hendrix. Oskar actually played at Hendrix’s last show in 1970 at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London. “He was supposed to come back and play the next night,” Oskar laments.

Aside from a fruitful stage and recording career, Oskar released a line of harmonicas manufactured by Tombo, a company stationed in Japan. When he played with War, he used most of his money to buy more harmonicas. “It got to the point that for every 10 harmonicas I got, [only] one would be good,” he tells. “I was very frustrated.”

In 1983 he began designing his own harmonicas, as he realized he would have to write the harmonica to serve his own needs. Over the past several decades, he’s primarily promoted his brand directly to harp players. As of late, he’s begun marketing across multiple genres, including singer/songwriters.

Folks will get first-hand experience with his instrument through a workshop Oskar will present on Saturday, July 26th at 11 a.m. Held at the Community Arts Center (20 S. 2nd St.), it will give everyone an opportunity to purchase a harmonica engraved by Oskar. The event is free, though donations will be accepted at the door. 

Festival-goers also can hear Oskar play at the Art Factory (721 Surry St.) on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. He will be accompanied by McQuay, Brett Johnson, Brandon Snow, Jared Evans, and Rich Zimmerman. Tickets are $15 in advance and $20 at the door. 

The Blues Cruise, held on the Henrietta III, will set sail Friday night at 7:30 p.m. (board at 6:30 p.m., 101 S. Water Street #1). The evening includes dinner and music, with tickets coming in at $55 per person. Acts will include The Rickey Godfrey Band, McQuay and the RootSoul Project, and Harvey Dalton Arnold. Oskar will be aboard the ship as the guest of honor.

As well, there will be live blues music on Saturday night at The Rusty Nail (1310 S 5th St.), featuring  Snake Malone and The Black Cat Bone. Music will continue at The Rusty Nail at noon on Sunday with a free, all-day blues jam. 

Tickets can be purchased from the CFBS website. The site features a full list of events as well. “I guarantee whatever we do will come from the heart,” Oskar tells. 


Cape Fear Blues Festival

Friday, July 25th – Sunday, July 27th.
Various times, prices and venues.

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