Paul deLay, a top Northwest blues performer nominated three times for a prestigious W. C. Handy award, died Wednesday. He was 55. The Portland singer was...

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Paul deLay, a top Northwest blues performer nominated three times for a prestigious W.C. Handy award, died Wednesday.

He was 55.

The Portland singer was hospitalized Monday with what he thought was a bronchial infection. Doctors discovered he had leukemia which, along with kidney and liver failure, were the causes of death.

An imposing but genial man, Mr. deLay had a history of chronic health problems associated with his weight.

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Once described by The Washington Post as “one of the finest songwriters around,” Mr. deLay was a distinctive vocalist and played harmonica in a personal, jazz-influenced style.

“He was known all over the world as an icon for harp,” said Marlee Walker, editor of the Northwest magazine Blues to Do.

Mr. deLay’s longtime guitarist, Peter Dammann, said: “I don’t know anybody that’s played that instrument who has gotten as deep an emotional connection as he did. He seemed to pull notes out of such a deep place in himself.”

Mr. deLay played both the traditional diatonic blues harmonica and the chromatic instrument associated with jazz.

Raised in Milwaukie, Ore., outside Portland, by bohemian parents who had an eclectic record collection, Mr. deLay heard classical, folk and jazz from a young age.

Jazz lyricism leaked into Mr. deLay’s melodic harmonica style and he was resistant to being typecast as a blues revivalist.

After leading the legendary ’70s Northwest blues band Brown Sugar, he started the Paul deLay Band in 1978 and also toured with Chicago pianist Sunnyland Slim and guitarist Hubert Sumlin. By 1988, he had recorded several albums on his own label including: “Teasin’,” “American Voodoo” ” and “Burnin’.”

Just as his career was taking off, Mr. deLay and his wife, Peggy, were arrested for dealing cocaine. He served most of a 41-month sentence in the early ’90s in the federal minimum-security prison in Sheridan, Ore., where he wrote more than 40 songs.

After prison, a national label, Evidence, issued his “Take It From the Turnaround” and “Ocean of Tears.” Since then, he has been a regular on the international festival circuit (Monterey, Ann Arbor, Europe). He appeared in Seattle in December at the Highway 99 Blues club.

“We were down in Mexico a week ago, then in Klamath Falls on Saturday,” Dammann said. “He seemed fine, a little hoarse from the bronchial thing. But he was in good form, good spirits. He went out swinging.”

Mr. deLay often used self-deprecating humor in his lyrics. Two of his originals were “Could We Just Shoot Your Husband?” (unreleased) and the classic, “Fourteen dollars in the Bank.” “Chalk and Roll” evoked the feeling of a pool hall to a tee.

Besides the blues, Mr. deLay’s other passion was baseball.

“When we would be on the road and you’d give him a choice to listening to some blues he loved and a ballgame,” recalled Dave Kahl, Mr. deLay’s bass player, “he would say he could always revisit the blues, but he couldn’t revisit the game.”

Mr. deLay is survived by his wife, Megan, of Portland; his sister Laura, also of Portland; his sister Donna deLay, of Battle Ground, Clark County; his daughter, Rainy, 23, and one grandson, both of Portland.