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Sam Lay is a traveling blues museum. He helped blues go electric in the late 1950s and early 1960s, playing drums for Little Walter, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, James Cotton, Lightnin' Hopkins and Hound Dog Taylor -- the creators of what's now called Chicago blues. "I've been out there so long, I've worked with almost everybody you can name," he says. "In the Delta blues field, anyway."
In the mid-1960s, as a member of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, he helped the music travel cross-town from the predominantly black clubs of Chicago's south side into the white clubs of the north side. Along the way, he accidentally sped up the transition of folk music into folk rock when he, along with other members of the Butterfield Blues Band, backed Bob Dylan at the momentous Newport Folk Festival in 1965. When Dylan strode onstage with an electric guitar and belted out the first discordant notes of "Maggie's Farm," he signaled the death of the hootenanny and the birth of a new era in rock 'n' roll. As a shocked crowd booed its displeasure, Sam Lay just played louder and faster.
Lay's been playing on and off with various incarnations of the blues-tinged, Chicago landmark Siegel Schwall Band for more than 30 years, and plays as a guest with Corky Siegel's quirky Chamber Blues Ensemble. He fronts his own combo -- the Sam Lay Blues Band -- which has released a trio of albums this decade and is readying a fourth ("I don't even know the name of it, yet.")
He's got a velvet baritone, and he could patent his unique drum beat. "He is responsible for helping to start the whole thing we call the Chicago blues because of his drumming style," says Corky Siegel, who did his own harmonica internship in smoky south side Chicago clubs under the guidance of Muddy Waters, James Cotton and other blues titans.
"He calls this thing the double shuffle, which is an amazing thing," Siegel continues. "But just the way he approaches the drums and plays them, other blues drummers will tell you he's the best alive. He plays with a great deal of sensitivity. He uses a dynamic range, allows the music to flow through him without getting in the way. He doesn't limit himself to a rigid tempo or rhythmic pattern. He flows with the phrasing, and the music just comes out totally. . . ." Siegel grasps for words. "It would look totally wrong if it was [written down] on paper."
Lay hasn't limited his experience in the blues just to his art. He's worked day jobs most of his life, in steel mills and as a police security guard at motorcycle rallies and other "Two-guns Pete" gigs that would frighten lesser men. He says he wishes he were still young enough to work a second job. Despite the commercial inroads the music has made, being a blues legend doesn't pay the bills.
The only thing that looms larger than Lay's skill as a musician is his reputation as a legendary character and raconteur. He once pulled a gun on Howlin' Wolf in an argument over which pants to wear onstage with his tuxedo. He accidentally shot himself in a club while defending James Cotton. Still, Siegel describes him as a "sweet guy," and claims he's so funny that he can make a nine-hour road trip slide by in a hurry, telling jokes that he can barely bring to their punch lines because he's usually got everyone convulsed in laughter long before he gets there.
Even at the age of 64, he lives to play music and wishes he had a booking agent who could get him more gigs. Lay brings that enthusiasm to Phoenix on October 1 and 2 at the Rhythm Room.
"I'm anxious to get out there," he says. "I can hardly wait."
Born in Alabama in 1935, Lay taught himself to play drums when he was 14. As a young man, he moved to Cleveland to take a job in a steel mill, but still played with blues combos on the side. He came to Chicago in 1959, following a woman he loved and later married, and within a year, he was sitting at a drum kit behind blues harpist Little Walter. A year later, he was playing with Howlin' Wolf; he stayed there five years and played on many of the Wolf's seminal recordings.
Phoenix blues impresario Bob Corritore credits Lay with giving Howlin' Wolf's band a more modern sound. Lay brought his "double shuffle" drumming style to the Delta bluesman's band, a style which Corritore describes as "not quite a 2/4, and not quite a boogaloo, and not quite a cha-cha, but a little of all of that."
"The only way I can describe it is: You've got three different drummers playing the same beat, but they're not hitting it at the same time," Lay says. The genesis of the style came from Lay's memory of sanctified church meetings he'd attended as a youth in Alabama. "When they really get into it, everybody is clapping their hands -- but not exactly together," he says. "My beat sounds like a lot of people hitting seconds and thirds apart, and it's all going together."