Sam Lay: Profile Of A Blues Drumming Legend

Sam Lay

The first thing you notice is the sound — raw and electric, sharp as a switchblade — rough and tumble music for a rough and tumble world. The feel is loose and swinging, like a rusty old fence gate that just got oiled. Guitar, piano, upright bass, and drums all bounce together bound by a sinuous cowbell-driven groove. The singer, an imposing hulk of a man named Chester Burnett, a.k.a. Howlin’ Wolf, moves up to the mike: “You went away baby, got back a little too late,” he scolds with a powerful voice that is equal parts gravel and gravy, sandpaper and honey. “I got a cool shakin’ baby, shakes like Jell-O on a plate.”

The song is just as urgent and hip today as it was when it first was committed to tape on Chicago’s South Side at Chess Studios more than 40 years ago. Chess Record’s de facto musical director, bass player Willie Dixon, wrote this particular song, “Shake For Me.” It is just one of many classic blues tunes cut at the Chess Studio by Wolf’s band. Years later, the title “Blues Legend” will preface the name of each one of the musicians present for the recording. Even though drummer Sam Lay pushes off the suggestion, a blues legend is exactly what he is.

“Chess was really a small place,” Lay says from his home in Chicago as he remembers the studio and label where he made his first professional recordings. “I had fun I guess because I was anxious to record with someone with a name, and I had listened to Wolf when I was young, so it was really something for me.”

Sam Lay has been around. He has recorded and performed with many of the true icons of the blues, such as Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, and Hound Dog Taylor. He pioneered what became known as the “Sam Lay Double Shuffle,” a beat familiar to anyone who has ever played drums in a blues band. He was an original member of The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, whose explosive take on urban blues paved the way for the blues-rock movement of the 1960s. He was also behind the kit in 1965 when Bob Dylan played his notorious “electric” set for the first time at the Newport Folk Festival and then later he provided the beat for Dylan’s landmark album Highway 61 Revisited.

Growing up in 1940s Birmingham, Alabama and coming from a solid religious upbringing, the blues was forbidden fruit to Lay. “I wasn’t supposed to listen to that stuff, that was devil’s music as far as my mom was concerned,” he laughs now. “I did it, but I wasn’t supposed to. I would catch it late at night on a shortwave station, WLAC out of Nashville. I would hear Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Lightning Hopkins.”

His late night listening sessions weren’t just confined to the blues. In fact, Lay says country music was and still is his first love. “Country and bluegrass music are my biggest influences but somehow I ended up in the blues.” There were many other musical forces at work that helped to shape Lay’s style. “When I was growing up,” he recalls, “I used to listen to the marching band pass my classroom in high school and I would tap my pencil and play along with them. I’d get so caught up in it I would get kicked out of class for causing a disturbance.”

Some of the non-secular radio shows provided inspiration as well. Lay remembers listening to a broadcast by a local sanctified church, which lit the rhythmic fires in him. “I would be listening to them on Sunday night and I would peck on the table like I would peck on the desk at school. I finally went to that church and I used to attend every Sunday and watch them play. They didn’t have a nice set of drums — they sometimes had a big old bass drum with a homemade pedal to it. Even the sticks was like they took the legs from a chair and shaved them down with a knife. The cymbals looked like hubcaps off an Eldorado. But, as they say now, they was getting down.”

Although he wouldn’t play the drums with a band until his late teens when he moved to Cleveland, Ohio, it was this rich stew of musical forms that imprinted itself on Sam Lay’s young mind and helped give rise to his unique drumming style. He can now look back and see the point from which his trademark double shuffle evolved.

“I give a lot of credit to that sanctified church, because I play a beat that I heard those folks play. You had the sisters in the church with the tambourines playing double [time], even when they are clapping their hands, they double the pats. If you listen to some of the songs I’m drumming on, ’I’ve Got My Mojo Workin’ is an example: I turn that double shuffle loose on that mojo and you can hear it. Other drummers say, ’How do you do that?’ And I say, ’Just do it, that’s all I can tell you.’”

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