Paul Size fuels solo debut with unearthed blues and old friends

Paul Size performs with The Red Devils at the Borderline in London in 2017. Photo © Tina Hanagan

If you are getting ready to pick the songs to record for your first solo album, where do you start?

If you’re Paul Size, you go to YouTube.

“I went on YouTube and punched in ‘rare blues,’ you know, ’cause I didn’t want to do all the songs that everybody’s done,” Size told No Fightin’ during an April 3 phone interview. “Like the T-Bird’s first record, nobody had heard of those songs, but they were covers. So I kinda tried to do that. … Just kind of get some obscure songs that no one’s ever heard that I dug and that’s kind of, that was the start, you know?”

So thank the Algo-rhythm Gods of the Internet for their contribution to Size’s new album, “Can’t Lose Playing The Blues,” and its stellar lineup of songs by B.B. King, Earl Hooker, Elmore James, Hound Dog Taylor, Frankie Lee Sims and more.

Known for his fiery Chicago blues playing with The Red Devils, “Can’t Lose” presents a different Size. He doesn’t sing, plays a lot of rhythm guitar and works sympathetically with the other musicians for a true band sound. That’s not the usual “solo” album recipe, but that probably makes it the most “Paul Size” record it can be.

“I wanted to make it a good listening record too, not just a big guitar hero record,” he said. “And Jeff really wanted to show off my rhythm playing. He goes, ‘you’re a great rhythm player. Let’s show that off.’ … So I went with the flow.”

Jeff is Jeffrey Berg, vocalist, bassist, producer and prodder on “Can’t Lose.” Berg is the man who pushed the usually reticent Size into making an album with his own name on the front.

“I’ve always been very, uh, lethargic and a procrastinator when it comes to anything like promoting myself because I’ve always loved just getting the phone call,” Size said, “the harp player or singer calls me up and says, ‘Hey, I got some gigs.’

“Or like the L.A. Devils, you know, ‘Hey, there’s an audition for this band. You want to come out and try it?’ So I’ve always been kind of that guy and I got used to it and it’s always worked out, obviously, pretty well for me. … I’ve never been one to, you know, move myself forward. I have always needed somebody to kind of kick me in the ass and Jeff kind of did that. He just kept bugging me about it. And I was like, ‘all right.’”

The core band is Size, Berg and drummer Tim Brown, the group’s “secret weapon.” The three had been playing together for some time before Berg lit the fuse for a Paul Size blues album, which was released on CD and streaming from BandCamp on March 5.

What they’ve crafted is that “good listening” record Size was aiming for, a kind of throwback party record that rolls and flows from one song to another for the better part of an hour, no maintenance required.

“I started listening to it more and more, especially as the release date came, I started and I was like … you can hang from song to song until the end,” Size said. “And it’s got this … yeah. Put it on and relax. And it’s got that listening thing going on, which is great. I mean, that makes a great record.”

In Size’s search for new old blues that fit the bill, he pulled out some classics that have maybe slipped off the radar a bit, like Walter Horton’s “Easy.”

“I had always loved ‘Easy’ and I’m like, look, this is my record, and I have a say, I want to do that song ‘cause I have never really heard it copied on any other records that I know of. And I was like, I want to do that,” Size said, his relaxed drawl picking up speed.

“And that’s another thing I wanted to do, some kind of harp songs where the guitar players, you know, never got to solo on. You don’t hear solos on like, you know, ‘Easy’ … I never heard a solo on that. So it was fun to kind of do that, you know, and explore all that.”

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“Easy” is one of several songs that sees the trio buoyed by long-time Texas blues player Brian “Hash Brown” Calway on harp (Calway also plays some guitar and contributes vocals to the album as well; boogie woogie specialist Jeremy Berlin also appears on the record on piano).

Size’s relationship with Hash goes back decades.

“I lived with him when I was 16. He took me under his wing and I know him. I mean, we’re like best friends, you know. He’s like, uh, almost a, basically like a big brother to me,” Size said. “So it was perfectly comfortable and yeah, there was no pulling his leg or anything. He was more than willing.”

The guitarist also knew that Hash would take no shit, going back to Size’s days as a “kid” coming up in Texas.

“I remember one time we went down to Dallas and I had come up with my first lick that I created, that was cool, you know, and this rhythm thing kind of went with it. And I was so excited and it was me, him (Hash Brown), Johnny Moeller. And I was like, ‘Check this out!’ And I was so proud of it!

“And Hash Brown’s like, ‘All right. All right. Yeah. You came up with something cool. It’s about fuckin’ time,’” Size recalled, slipping into a grizzled old man imitation. “He’s just like the granddad, you know, ‘All right. All right. You figured something out, it’s about goddamn time.’ He’s fun like that, you know?”

That Texas thang is front and center on a cut by cult hero Frankie Lee Sims. Often cited by Jimmie Vaughan and Billy Gibbons as an influence, Sims is rarely covered and, when he is, you’re most likely to hear 1953’s “Lucy Mae Blues.”

Size and company dig a little deeper in the crate for Sims’ “Walkin’ With Frankie.”

“No one’s ever done that. I want to do that,” Size says of “Walkin’.” “And, yeah, we jumped right on it. And Jeff added all the backup vocals and made it more of almost like a gospel-type thing. And it turned out great. Turned out really well.”

“Can’t Lose Playing The Blues” has the unusual timing of having been recorded and released during a global pandemic and a significant shift in the recording industry. With live gigs on pause and physical media going extinct, Size’s goals for the record are realistic.

“I’m hoping it’ll keep doing what it’s doing. We’re making, you know, I’m making some good money off BandCamp. ‘Cause that’s the only place it’s on. You can’t get it on iTunes or any of that. And we decided to stay away from all that because they take so much of the CD. … God, I mean, I guess my dream would be if some big guy would pick it up, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.

“But as far as what it’s doing is pretty, pretty cool, you know, and it’s kinda started off Jeff’s record company, Feffrey Records and, uh, it’s, it’s, I think it’s doing exactly way more than I ever thought.”

PART 2 COMING SOON: Paul Size talks about The Red Devils reunion tour in 2017, memories from the King King 30 years later, and the Devils’ future.

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