Sam Lay

Born: March 20, 1935 in Birmingham, Alabama

In the 1940s and ’50s, Chicago became home to many bluesmen who emigrated up from the Mississippi Delta region. Their acoustic approach to the blues was primitive, driving, and hypnotic. Once in Chicago, however, the country feel of the Delta collided with drums and electric guitars, spawning a new form of blues that would become a cornerstone of rock’n’roll.

Sam Lay was one of the key drummers who helped define the Chicago blues sound. Raised in Birmingham, Alabama, his early influences ran the gamut from R&B and “Sanctified” gospel music to country and jazz. By way of Cleveland, he arrived in Chicago in 1959 and soon fell into his first major gig, backing the legendary harmonica player Little Walter.

By the early 1960s, Lay was recording and performing with a host of prominent blues names on the Chicago scene, including Willie Dixon, Hound Dog Taylor, John Lee Hooker, James Cotton, Junior Wells, Bo Diddley, Magic Sam, and Jimmy Rogers. He did a seven-year stint in Howlin’ Wolf’s band, and worked extensively with Muddy Waters, playing on the classic 1969 album Fathers and Sons. In all, Lay’s drumming can be heard on over forty recordings from Chicago’s legendary Chess Records label.

In the mid-1960s, Sam Lay’s influence began to extend beyond the realm of the Windy City when he joined the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, one of the first racially integrated blues bands. Lay also recorded on Dylan’s groundbreaking Highway 61 Revisited album, and was behind Dylan when he brought a full rock band to the 1965 Newport Folk Festival (a highly controversial move at the time). Through his work with these acts, Lay was instrumental in helping to introduce Chicago-style blues to a new generation of young white audiences.

Today, Sam Lay is a grand gentleman of the blues, running his own bands in which he sings and often plays guitar as well. He’s been inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in Memphis, and (like several of the interviewees in this book) has gained entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a sideman. As a member of the Chess Records All-Stars, he continues to tour major blues festivals around the U.S. and Europe.

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