Clash Road Trip: Sam Lay Interview

Chess Records' drummer

In search of the roots of rock and roll, Clash embarked on a pilgrimage across America and discovered the musical foundations the country was built on.

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Read an interview with Sam Lay, Chess Records’ drummer in residence, carried out in Chicago during Clash’s Road Trip of 2010 at the house of Corky Siegel.

Sam: My name is Sam Lay, and my home town is Birmingham, Alabama. I was born on March 20th 1935, to whom it may concern.

We’re here today to talk to you about your rich and varied musical career. Can you tell us how it began?

Sam: Oh wow, let me think just a second. I’ve always liked music, but I didn’t know the difference between the word ‘blues’… I had never heard of it, from a young kid on – I heard something with a beat and I liked it. The main thing I used to get slapped down about listening to was John Lee Hooker – that I remember very well!

What was it you liked about John Lee Hooker?

Sam: A song called ‘Boogie Chillun’. I just liked the beat of it. I also liked marching bands, you know, the school bands. They would practice during the day around and around the building, and I’m sitting there in class [hits knees], looking out the window and keeping beat with the band that’s marching by. So I’ve always had a love for music.

Do you remember your first set of drums?

Sam: Yeah, that was the set I got repossessed! (Laughs) I was buying a set of drums before I left home from a music store in Birmingham called E. E. Forbes and Son, that was a music store. I recall taking the drums, loading them up on a wagon, pulling the wagon, and I would pull them to somebody’s house where I knew that there was somebody in that house played drums. I would take it to the house and let them set ’em up and watch them play. They were my drums, but I would always pull them around on a little wagon. And I was married too. I took better care of my drums than I did my first wife – because I didn’t pull her around anywhere! (Laughs) I recall that very well.

Were you playing with anyone at the time?

Sam: No. I couldn’t even play myself. I had played hooky from school and went to places… There’s a place called The Froggit. You know what vaudeville is? I would slip in there on Tuesdays, it was like fifty-five cents, and I would see bands like Piano Red’s – I saw him in person playing hooky from school and going to that Froggit theatre downtown. Pigmeat Markham, Amos Milburn, Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers – I saw all the stars and it only cost me fifty-five cents.

How did your professional career begin?

Sam: Oh well, back in Cleveland, Ohio, we had a fella that went under the name of Moondog, and I started playing with him. It was a jazz outfit. It was drums, one guitar and a piano – that was the whole band. Big money: six bucks a night! It was big to me – nobody would give me a dime for just padding along like that. The fella, Johnny Jones, asked me to come by at night when I get off from work – they’d still have about thirty minutes before they closed up in there – and watch him. So, by rights, I say he really got me started into it. But the way I got his job is he killed himself. They asked me would I play with them. “I can’t play no drums!” “All you gotta do is keep time.” I was looking at my watch – I didn’t even know what that meant! “Just keep the beat, just play along with us”. That was over and over until finally I got with that band, which was called The Moondog Combo.

How long did that last?

Sam: Maybe a year, until I heard this band in another part of town with a harmonica and stuff, and that called me. That’s where I ended up. I named the group The Thunderbirds – I had the original group of Thunderbirds. Two years later they come out with a wine, Thunderbird Wine. But I’m the original Thunderbird man if you want to say that.

Was it a communal and friendly scene of musicians at that time, or were they all fighting for their own fame and success?

Sam: Well, all the musicians at the time that I knew, there were other bands fighting for those little five- and six-dollar jobs. They would go in and show them up. You think you can do better, but the bands always try to keep the other bands from replacing them. That one job was important. If another musician saw you talking to the owner of that club during the week or the daytime or something, you made enemies, because they’d think you was talking to him trying to get in their place. And they were right! (Laughs)

Talking about your drummer, you sound like you didn’t know what you were doing…

Sam: I still don’t!

But you must have had the confidence and skill to retain those jobs and also get new ones?

Sam: Everybody would be like, ‘Hey, we got ol’ Sam Lay’. Well, at the time everybody was calling me Samuel – that is my name, but I don’t like it; I got a reason for that! I can’t remember a band yet that I ever went up and played one song with that didn’t have me. Every band I ever sat in with had me. I’d be getting six dollars and somebody would offer me seven dollars. [Lifts up arm to signal taking off]. Next band would offer me eight dollars. I kept moving.

Is there anybody that sticks out from that time as one of your favourites to play with?

Sam: Yeah. [Points to Corky Siegel]. Corky Siegel.

What was it about Corky’s playing that you liked?

Corky: You’re on the spot now, Sam!

Sam: You know, you would actually have to play with him to understand more than what I could tell you. I don’t know, I’m stuck; I like it!

You played with Bob Dylan at the 1965 Newport Festival…

Sam: I recorded with him too.

Of course. But that was a very controversial performance. Were you aware of that at the time?

Sam: No. I didn’t care who I was asked to play with. I played with Pete Seeger, Odetta, Son House…I can’t remember all the musicians I played with. Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Lee [Hooker], Willie Dixon; I’ve actually been a part of all their bands. I recorded with Muddy Waters, I was with Howlin’ Wolf seven years.

Corky: Little Walter?

Sam: I came to Chicago with Little Walter.

Tim: Sammy, tell that story about when you were playing with Bob Dylan and the fight that broke out with Albert Grossman when they tried to cut the power [at Newport]…

Sam: Oh, boys will be boys, and men will be boys too sometimes! (Laughs) I don’t even remember how that started. There was a fella named Alan Lomax. It was something he said about the electric blues that started that. I didn’t know one of those people from the other, it’s just that everywhere I’ve ever been, if I saw trouble brewing up – I don’t know how I’ve got a whole head left – I’ve always tried to be the peacemaker. I’d get between them. Like, I used to try to separate Howlin’ Wolf and Albert King to stop them from fighting. I’m standing between them, and I don’t know who could pull the hardest, but they had me going like this!

I’ve always been the peacemaker, until I get fired up myself, and then nobody can make peace with me. But I survived it. But that Alan Lomax and Al Grossman situation started because Alan Lomax made some kind of remark about [Paul] Butterfield’s band, something to that effect. He said something stupid about a white blues band – it was a combination of quite a few little smart remarks and things. I kept them from dukin’ it out. They shoved me around a little bit, but I got in between them. I wasn’t as big as I am now.

And of course you’re recognised for recording with Dylan.

Sam: I still didn’t know – if you want to use the word ‘important’ – if he was at the time; I didn’t know that. I’d barely heard of his name even after playing with him at Newport! ‘They want you to play with Bob Dylan.’ ‘Who?’ There’s a record that he had that I really liked – I’ve got that record and I love it; it’s called ‘Like A Rolling Stone’. ‘You know the guy you say you liked his record?’ I didn’t know who that person was, and it turned out to be him.

The Sixties was turning point for the blues as it crossed over into the mainstream and became hugely popular. Did you career change at all during this time?

Sam: No. I think what you’re asking me is did I notice a change? All the clubs around Chicago, when I came here, in the black areas had somebody on the harmonica and guitar. I could name a million of ’em. But when the rock ‘n’ roll came in and started hitting hard, I think it started pushing us back. Which I love, all the 1950’s rock ‘n’ roll stuff, I love it. What really mostly pushed us out of business was that rap. I don’t know a thing about that. The only thing I know how to do is turn the radio off when it comes on.

How do you think Chicago has changed in recent times? What has the music scene become here?

Sam: Ever since I’ve been here music-wise it’s been good, but things admittedly is starting to slack off a lot for Delta and traditional blues. When you’re talking about people like B.B. King and all, that’s different. You see, BB is not playing traditional blues. If he is, he’s not playing them the traditional way. And he’s the best at what he’s doing, there’s no doubt about it. I would go so far as to say progressive or modern. He’s got a modern blues style; he don’t go back to the cotton fields and the railroad tracks like I do myself. And there’s a lot of people – I don’t wanna call nobody’s name – but I know one person who’s got a big name who’s turned completely in the opposite direction.

Tim: You mean Buddy Guy?

Sam: You said that! (Laughs) I think the less I say I about anybody else I’m better off. You can’t say I said it when I didn’t.

Are you still playing now?

Sam: Yeah.

Have you got any plans for anything else?

Sam: Yeah, keep on playing! As much and as long as I can. On the road anywhere. The only thing is, I don’t want to go back to Europe. You know why? I’m not in love with flying that much. It’s got nothing to do with the country or the people. I fly, but I ain’t in love with it at all.

Did you like playing in Europe before?

Sam: Hey man, they roll out the red carpet over there for blues artists. They gave me a surprise birthday party in France. It’s wonderful when you’re there, but getting there is where my problem comes! Man, you look at my top shirt pocket and you’d think I got Buddy Rich in my pocket, it be beating just like him!

France has a great history of welcoming jazz and blues artists – they’re more respectful than the artists’ own country.

Sam: Well, that’s all I can say about that. I still say the trouble is between here and there, and how I get there! I don’t like that. I do not care about flying. I would rather drive for a week than to fly for an hour and a half.

Corky: If Sam wasn’t here I would tell you what is unique about him. So let’s just pretend he’s not here. I’ve talked to other harmonica players about this, and other people who have played with Sam. It’s the way he’s playing the drums. I’ve really worked on trying to define it verbally, you know? The harmonica players and other musicians just say, ‘Wow, when you play with Sam something happens – you start playing like you’ve never played before’. It does something to your playing. Which I experienced in 1969, the first time I ever played with Sam. He was part of my band – we hired him, and – wow! I always love his playing.

When I heard him with [Paul] Butterfield – without Mike Bloomfield, when it was just Elvin Bishop, Paul Butterfield, Sam Lay and Jerome [Arnold] – there will never be another band like that. That was an amazing powerhouse of a group – a dynamic powerhouse – and that was Sam. It really was. Everyone else had to play their part, keep things simple, and just play things as they are, and it was like unbelievable. But that’s all a ‘feel’ thing, that’s how it felt, but I think I could fairly accurately tell you some things that he’s actually doing differently than other musicians.

Now, one thing that’s classic in the blues – actually, it’s classic in every kind of music there is, I don’t care if it’s classical music or reggae or rap or whatever – the rhythm is constantly changing with at least one percent of the groups that are out there. The older they are the more that happens. Because it’s an expression. Here’s the rhythm, and when you vary the rhythm based on what’s happening time and place in the feel, you’re expressing yourself through that rhythm – just like you do through all the other elements in music: dynamics, tonal quality, different approaches to pitch… Musicians don’t need to play in tune – they’re approaching the tune from under, from over…

The thing where you get this expression from is when they’re varying all these aspects of music constantly. So that’s an aspect to music, when you hear some people and you go, ‘Boy, there’s something really primitive, natural, expressive about this’ and you really don’t know what it is. That’s technically what is happening. So Sam will do that, of course. I think he listens to the vocal or the soloist, and sort of goes with where they’re going. The music just comes to life – it feels like it’s alive. And then we have this thing in music called the groove.

Well, if Sam had studied exactly what’s going on, he would be able to say, ‘The groove is great, but why would any musician want to limit themselves and put themselves in a box by thinking about the groove?’ Because music is more than a groove – the groove is only a part of it. So Sam’s playing goes beyond the groove – he will let the groove go in order to express something musically that’s exciting and uplifting. His patterns, he can move from one place on the drums to the other, and it just keeps it interesting; it’s like he’s singing the drums. Plus there’s all these dynamics going on. You don’t hear: [sings basic blues beat] doom-doom doom-BA, doom-doom doom-BA. You hear: [adds dynamics] doom-doom doom-drrrr, doom-doom doom-cchh, doom-doom doom-BA… It’s alive, it’s moving, it’s constant, and it’s the most exciting musical experience you can ever hear, and Sam takes it to places that other drummers just haven’t done.

It’s incredible, because the tempo is changing based on the feel that really wants to be expressed at that time. It feels so good, it’s unbelievable. With other people, the tempo is an expression of them dragging, or an expression of them speeding up, but with Sam it’s an expression of him being so into the music, so tuned into it, and so free, that he may speed up for a little bit -because it’s an emotional expression, not because he’s speeding up. You know that, and you hear it, and when you’re playing along with him it just carries you. It’s like someone’s holding a big hand and you’re standing there and everything just works. So that was my little speech about Sam.

I think he’s blushing!

Corky: Wanna hear about Bob Dylan? You sure? So, Bob Dylan is a major fan of Sam’s. What I understand is from Barry Goldberg, who’s in the Chicago Blues Reunion and is a friend of Bob Dylan’s, when he’s with Bob Dylan, people are sitting around him and Bob is totally bored. Completely. That’s his constant state. Until someone mentions the words ‘Sam Lay’, and Bob jumps up! That’s how Barry described it. So, Bob Dylan was playing a few years ago at the United Center, which is a big arena in Chicago, and he invites Sam.

A friend of mine takes Sam and they go together. Sam is in the audience and Bob Dylan says, ‘By the way, in the audience is the greatest blues drummer that ever lived, Sam Lay’. Sam stands up and takes a bow. Bob says, ‘At intermission, please come backstage.’ So Sam goes backstage, and then intermission is over and Sam comes out. This whole bunch of people gather round Sam and they say, ‘Sam! Sam! What’s it like to hang with a superstar?’ And Sam said, ‘Well, I guess Bob was tickled!’ (Laughs) Isn’t that beautiful? That is Sam right there.

Sam: My style is my style, but some of the ideas I have when I’m playing came from a church back home, the sanctified church. I used to sit and watch them people. Man, they had a set of drums looked like one of them big Salvation Army bass drums. And the sticks – I ain’t never seen sticks like that since I left that church. They had carved the legs of a chair down, and they had a cymbal that looked like a hubcap from a Model T Ford. But man, they had fire coming out of their cymbals. And the beat of it I felt, the same thing goes with the marching bands – I combine all that stuff in my mine, if you notice that’s the way I play. I lived about half a block from the railroad down there, the old train – chakachaka, chakachaka – listen to my drumming and compare it with that train!

Corky: Do you know the drummer Steve Smith? He played with Journey. He’s considered a really technical, knowledgeable guy. He was in Chicago rehearsing with some Indian musicians and things like that, and he called me. I didn’t know him, but he called me because he knew I worked with Sam Lay. He said, ‘Is there any way I can meet Sam Lay?’ I ended up taking him to Sam’s house and he video-taped him. He said, ‘Us schooled musicians need to learn what Sam is doing and how he is doing it’ – he called him “a natural musician”.

Sam, what would you tell other drummers to do?

Sam: If they say ‘How am I doing’, I say, ‘Oh man, you sound great’. And I know a lot of times I’ll be lying, but I tell ’em they sound great. Nobody never taught me not one lick. They told me to just keep the time, and me being dumb, I’d pull my sleeve back and look at my watch.

Corky: But you know he never listened to them. Because he doesn’t keep the time – he plays music. And there’s stuff going on. Normally you would think it’s too busy, because one style of drumming is just to keep it simple…

Sam: I try to follow… If you’ve got a ten-piece band, I try to drum something that each one of those musician would fit some of what they’re doing. And if you notice, I finally found out what’s happening – what is that big record, a 33 and 1/3? It’s got the rings on them, right? Look at my cymbals. They got rings, and each one of them has got a different tone. Any instrument you got on that stage, I can find a sound for it on that cymbal.

Corky: But he’s tuned into that. And he does it naturally. It’s just this amazing thing that just says music, feel and expression.

Sam: The so-called triple shuffle or double shuffle they keep talking about, it’s amazing to me why other people won’t do it, or why they can’t…

Corky: It amazes me too.

Sam: …Because there are certain songs that fits it perfect, man. What I’m doing is, with my left hand, I’m hitting three licks into one.

Corky: The country players come a little closer than the blues players.

Sam: Yeah, Johnny Cash’s drummer for example.

Corky: Like on ‘Mojo’. When he’s playing ‘Mojo’ on Muddy’s record [‘Got My Mojo Working’ on Muddy Waters’ ‘Fathers And Sons’], you listen to the drums and there’s stuff happening…

Sam: I have actually tried to show some drummers that beat stood up over them. Then I get confused – I don’t even know what I told them!

Corky: Because it has more to do than just the notes. You got the eighth notes and the triplets, the sixteenths, the thirty-seconds, the sixty-fourths… You could break it down all the way to hundred-and-twenty-eighth notes, and still there’s space to do other stuff that’s infinite.

It’s getting away from the rigidity of music. I think it was Philip Glass to whom some European composer said, ‘How can you possibly compose with all this history behind you?’ And Glass said, ‘I don’t know how you can compose with all that history behind you’. You conform into a box, which everyone has done before, or you feel it and do it naturally.

Corky: Charlie Musselwhite said, when they asked him how he could not be true to the blues – because he was playing with a Cuban band – and why he wasn’t sticking with tradition, and he said, ‘What do you mean? The tradition is change. If the tradition weren’t change, we’d all still be beating on logs.’

Tim: One thing I want to talk about is hanging out with all these people, and knowing them – I saw Corky when I was just a youngster in high school for the first time with Sam – the reason why we’re doing this documentary called White, Black And Blues is partly because what Sam told me years ago, that basically they were the first integrated blues band ever. To touch upon it, this gentleman here is largely responsible for meshing white and black blues musicians, which didn’t ever happen prior to the early Sixties. And if you look at Dylan, there’s an integrated band there going into folk rock.

Corky: And you know what’s amazing? While they were doing that, I was doing it – without knowing it. When we did [local Chicago blues club] Pepper’s, all of a sudden the drummers and bass players were Howlin’ Wolf’s or Muddy Waters’. Whoever wasn’t playing on that night would actually come and play with Siegel/Schwall. When we first went on the road, I remember going to New York, that’s who we took with us. We didn’t even think that anything else was going on.

Tim: We interviewed Jack White for our documentary about eight weeks ago, and Jack’s from Detroit. He says, ‘I just don’t know why the electric blues didn’t get to Detroit’. So when I was with Marshall Chess like six weeks ago, I said Jack is very appreciative of Chicago blues, but he can’t understand why the migration from the south went to the midwest but stopped at Chicago, and Marshall goes, ‘It’s simple: that’s where the train stopped’. Steve Miller, in our documentary, says, ‘It was this intersection between white and black that could not have happened at any other place geographically. It was just the perfect storm.’

Sam: You know what they mean by ‘Chicago Blues’? Well, it sounds different, but Chicago Blues is amplified. You didn’t have no amplifiers on them railroad tracks and in them cotton fields – you never seen an amp hooked up right there in the middle of a patch of cotton!

Tim: Then what possessed Muddy to plug in? Because Muddy came from the South.

Sam: I don’t know. I couldn’t tell you.

Corky: I remember hearing something about that. I think it was first harmonica, because it wasn’t loud enough or something. They had to balance things out. Make more money, because you could play to more people.

Sam: I got a bad habit when something like this turns up – I’m actually lost for words. If I’m travelling in the car I’ll talk you to death, but get me here and I’m like, ‘humma humma humma’. (Laughs)

Are there any drummers that you hold up in esteem and admire?

Sam: I’ll tell you one drummer I really admire a heck of a lot, and that’s the drummer with Barry Goldberg now, Gary Mallaber. I like what he’s doing there.

Corky: He doesn’t play at all like Sam – he’s a rock drummer.

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