Stone Blues

After a lifetime backing musical legends, drummer Sam Lay has become one himself

Chicago has long been thought of as a segregated city, and that reputation carried over to its music. In the 1960s, blues were musically correct, spawning purist white bands like the Blues Project and John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. Later, a whole generation of British rock stars claimed to be influenced by the blues. Well into the 1980s, the Rolling Stones would drop by clubs like the Kingston Mines blues club and the Checkerboard Lounge to jam with Muddy Waters when they were in town. Young Chicagoans like Corky Siegel and Paul Butterfield who wanted to study from the masters had to travel to the south side to do it.

On the south side, "every joint you walked in had at least a little blues combo," Lay remembers. "On the north side, during that time, most of your clubs was white, and they didn't have blues. If you want to know what sparked the north side with the blues, I'll have to give credit for that to Butterfield."

The Butterfield Blues Band included Paul Butterfield on harp and Elvin Bishop and Mike Bloomfield on guitar, and their crossover success was great enough to get them invited to the prestigious Newport Folk Music festival in 1965. They were the first electric group to play there.

Musical folklorist Alan Lomax introduced the band with the backhanded remark, "Let's see what these white kids think they can do," prompting Butterfield's manager, Albert Grossman, to haul off and slug Lomax.

The band was enough of a success that it was asked to back up the solo folk performers at the festival, including Pete Seeger, Odetta, and others.

"I played with anyone they put out in front of me," Lay says. "I'd sit up there and drum with them."

But he had never heard of most of them, including a young folk singer named Bob Dylan. But Dylan was impressed and invited Lay to play on his next album, the seminal Highway 61 Revisited.

A year later, in 1966, Lay was nearly killed in an accident with a gun. He was playing with harmonica ace James Cotton when Cotton got a call from Muddy Waters about an enemy of Cotton's who had just been let out of stir. "The fellow that had shot Cotton years prior to that had got out and went to Muddy's house," Lay recalls. "Muddy was the one called down there and told Cotton this guy was out. I really worried about Cotton, and I always liked Cotton," he continues. "And this cat was supposed to come down and shoot everybody in the band."

So Lay got in his car and drove from the south side club to his west side home to get his own gun, a Colt .45 he'd bought the week before and hadn't yet figured out completely. When he got back to the club, he stuck the gun in his belt and went to sit by the front door to wait for the crazed gunman. But when Lay sat down, the gun went off and he shot himself in the groin. He was paralyzed at first, and it took months to recover. "I'm still recuperating," he says. The gunman never showed up -- not that night anyway.

"A couple years afterwards, we were playing in Old Town at a place called Mother Blues," Lay says. "We were on a break and a guy says, 'Cotton wants you in the washroom.' So I walked into the washroom [and Cotton] says, 'I'd like to introduce you to someone. This is George.' George is the guy who shot [Cotton]." Lay walked out thinking, "Here's a man that almost killed somebody and almost got another person killed. I'm not exactly interested in making friends with him."

Nowadays, a big part of the Chicago blues scene takes place on the still predominantly white north side in clubs that might as well be museums: elderly black men and women playing music for middle-aged and middle-class whites.

Corky Siegel draws an analogy to the recent film Buena Vista Social Club, in which Ry Cooder pays homage to ancient Cuban musicians. "Blues and its tradition is already more than music; it's history," Siegel says. "Analyzing the history of it, for the most part, white people don't play the blues."

For the most part, neither do young blacks, as if tired of their fathers' and grandfathers' lament -- singing the blues has taken on metaphoric weight, after all -- many embrace the more strident and aggressive messages found in rap and hip-hop.

But there's also a sensibility and musicality to the blues that may be generational, a note that just can't be reached by younger musicians -- black or white. "I don't want to go into saying the names -- some of them are worldwide -- but I won't get into that," Lay says. "They claim they're playing blues, but I think they come from a different blues school from where I came from."

Sam Lay is scheduled to perform on Friday, October 1, and Saturday, October 2, at the Rhythm Room. Showtime is 9 p.m.

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