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."
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.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.