Sam Lay, drummer who backed blues greats and Bob Dylan, dies at 86

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Sam Lay, a powerful and virtuoso drummer who played and recorded with Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, was a founding member of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and backed Bob Dylan when he went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. 29 in a nursing facility in Chicago. He was 86 years old.

His daughter, Debbie Lay, confirmed the death but said she did not know the cause.

Mr. Lay’s exuberant and idiosyncratic drumming was known for its double-mixed groove, which he adapted from the rhythms of the handclaps and tambourine beats he heard in the Pentecostal church he attended when he was growing up in Birmingham, Ala.

“The only way I can describe it is you have three different drummers playing the same beat, but they’re not hitting it at the same time,” Mr. Lay said in “Sam Lay in the Bluesland” a 2015 documentary directed by John Anderson that takes its name from a Mr. Lay album released in 1968.

The harmonica player Corky Siegela longtime collaborator, said the double-read groove was part of Mr. Lay’s larger ability to do more than just keep the beat.

“He just robbed you,” Mr. Siegel said in a phone interview. “He wasn’t held back by the concept of groove and time.” He added: “People think he played hard. No, he played delicate, but he used the full dynamic range, and when you do that, and you get to a crescendo, it’s powerful, like a locomotive coming towards you. But with Sam, it was like five locomotives.

After arriving in Chicago in the early 1960s, Mr. Lay played in bands led by harmonica player and singer Little Walter and the singer howling wolf, with whom he recorded pieces that have become blues standards like “Slaughtering area,” “The Red Rooster” and “I’m not superstitious”.

Once, after being fined by Howlin’ Wolf for wearing pants without a black stripe, Mr. Lay argued that no one could see his pants behind his battery. When their argument persisted, Mr Lay pulled out a Smith & Wesson pistol and pointed it at Howlin’ Wolf’s face.

Mr. Lay left Howlin’ Wolf to join the Paul Butterfield Blues Band in 1963, lured by the prospect of earning $20 per gig, nearly three times what he was earning. Led by Mr. Butterfield on harmonica and vocals, the group – which also included guitarists elven bishop and Mike Bloomfield, the bass-player Jerome Arnold and the keyboard player Marc Naftalin – was racially integrated, a rarity at the time, and bought the blues to white audiences during an intense period of the civil rights movement.

The band played at the Newport Folk Festival on July 25, 1965. Hours after their set, Mr. Lay, Mr. Arnold and Mr. Bloomfield were part of Mr. Dylan’s backup band when he stunned the audience by performing a electric set, which started with an invigorating version of his song “Maggie’s Farm.”

Shortly after, Mr. Dylan asked Mr. Lay to back him on the title track of his album. “Highway 61 Revisited.” In addition to playing drums, Mr. Lay played a toy whistle in the song’s memorable opener. (Organist Al Kooper said he was the one who brought the whistle to the studio).

“I blew it and it sounded like a siren,” Mr. Lay told the Chicago Sun-Times in 2004. “Bob said, ‘Do it again. So I did it again. »

Later in 1965, the band’s debut album Butterfield, simply called “The Paul Butterfield Blues Band”, was released. One track, “I Got My Mojo Working”, featured Mr. Lay on lead vocals.

Illness caused Mr. Lay to leave the group at the end of 1965.

Samuel Julian Lay was born on March 20, 1935 in Birmingham. His father, Foster, a Pullman train porter who played banjo in a country band, died when Sam was 17 months old. His mother, Elsie (Favors) Lay, cleaned Pullman cars.

Growing up, he listened to country music; As a teenager, he took drum lessons from WC Handy Jr., the composer’s son. He dropped out of high school (which ended his dream of trying to outrun Olympic champion Jesse Owens) and in 1954 moved to Cleveland, where he worked in a steel mill and began to find his calling. musical.

He once stopped at a wine bar after hearing the sound of a harmonica being played by Little Walter, who asked him to sit down when he learned he played drums. In the late 1950s, Mr. Lay joined the Thunderbirds, a blues and R&B group.

When Little Walter was shot, Mr. Lay helped treat him. Once in Chicago, he joined Little Walter’s group. But he didn’t stay long; he was soon hired by Howlin’ Wolf.

Mr. Lay was an elegant dresser who wore elaborate capes and hats and carried a cane. He did his hair a moment after Little Richard’s. And he brought his eight millimeter self-winding camera to clubs in the 1960s. There was no sound, but he captured footage of Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Albert King, Buddy Guy and others on stage.

“As soon as Howlin’ Wolf knew a camera was watching him, you’d think he was somehow possessed,” Mr Lay said in Mr Anderson’s documentary.

The footage he shot was used in Mr. Anderson’s film and Martin Scorsese’s 2003 public television series, “The Blues.”

In 1966, after beginning to play with harmonica player and singer James Cotton, Mr. Lay learned from Muddy Waters that an enemy of Mr. Cotton, who had shot him years earlier, had just been released from prison and he continued. Mr. Lay rushed home, got his Colt .45, drove to the club and prepared to defend Mr. Cotton.

But while Mr. Lay waited for the shooter (who never came), his gun exploded, he told Phoenix New Times in 1999. He shot himself in the groin.

“I’m still recovering,” he said in the interview.

In 1969, Mr. Lay was part of the all-star group, which also included Muddy Waters and Paul Butterfield, who recorded the album “Fathers and Sons”. It reached number 70 on the Billboard chart.

Over the next 50 years he played with Mr. Siegel’s ensembles, the Siegel-Schwall Band, Chamber Blues and Chicago Blues Reunion, and led his own blues band.

But the Blues haven’t paid all of Mr. Lay’s bills. For many years he worked in the moonlight as a security guard.

Mr. Lay was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2015as part of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and in the Blues Hall of Fame three years later.

Besides his daughter, he is survived by four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. His wife, Elizabeth (Buirts) Lay, died in 2017. His son Bobby died in 2019 and his son Michael died last month.

Mr. Lay was not lacking in self-confidence.

“I don’t know anyone in the world who can follow a band as well as I can, especially if it’s blues and that old-school rock ‘n’ roll,” he said in the documentary. by Mr. Anderson.

“The secret,” he added, “is to pay attention to what everyone is playing and to keep your eyes open and your mind open.”

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