It was a long time coming, but legendary Chicago blues drummer Sam Lay is finally getting his due—big-time.
Among the last of the founding fathers of Chicago blues, Lay, who turned 80 on Mar. 20, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland Saturday night as a founding member of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. A member of Chicago’s historic Siegel-Schwall Band since 1987, Lay will be feted by Siegel and his Chamber Blues blues-classical fusion ensemble next week with two events, both billed as Celebration of Blues Legend Sam Lay, April 30 at City Winery Chicago and May 2 at Acorn Theater in Three Oaks, Mich.
The evening will also celebrate the 30th anniversary of Chamber Blues, and the 45th of Chicago’s blues label Alligator Records, for which both Siegel-Schwall and Chamber Blues have recorded.
Lay has performed with Chamber Blues in the past, notes Siegel, but he’s added two new pieces to the repertoire for Lay’s upcoming appearances.
“He’ll be bringing traditional Chicago blues to the realm of classical music,” explains Siegel. “I’ve arranged ‘Worried Life Blues’ and Fats Domino’s ‘Sick and Tired’ for him. [Blues-rock pianist and Junior Wells sideman] Johnny Iguana came over to play some traditional blues and [Chicago blues piano great] Otis Spann, licks and I based my arrangements on his playing.”
Lay might play drums on the Muddy Waters classic “Got My Mojo Working,” says Siegel, but he’ll mostly sing.
“We’re promoting him as ‘guest vocalist,’” he says. “He’ll also do ‘Fannie May’ and ‘Long Distance Call.’ Some of the arrangements are straight-ahead, but there are some pretty far out juxtapositions of blues and classical music.”
Celebration of Blues Legend Sam Lay will also commemorate the new documentary Sam Lay in Bluesland directed by John Anderson, who also directed the Born in Chicago documentary featuring Siegel and other Chicago blues players who learned their craft at the feet of genre pioneers like Waters, Spann and Lay. Siegel and Lay perform in the film along with Siegel-Schwall and the Sam Lay Blues Band; it also includes never-before-seen footage from Lay’s personal 1960s blues archive, as well as appearances by the likes of James Cotton, Iggy Pop, Elvin Bishop, Charlie Musselwhite, Nick Gravenites, Barry Goldberg and Jim Keltner.
One of the most important drummers in blues history, Lay recorded scores of seminal Chess Records label recordings of Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter and Muddy Waters. He was the drummer when Bob Dylan famously brought his electric-rock to the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, and played that year on Dylan’s pivotal Highway 61 Revisited album.
Before fellow luminaries including Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Jerry Lee Lewis and Joan Jett, Lay played and sang “Got My Mojo Working” at the RockHall induction and “completely showed why he should be inducted,” says Siegel, “not based on his fame or records sold, or Dylan and the fact that he had so much to do with bringing blues to rock, but having to do with how great he is as a unique personality and player.”
Siegel, who’s known Lay since 1965, concludes: “Sam doesn’t play the drums but sings the drums—that’s the simplest way to say it. He’s respected and honored by all the drummers who know him—who all need to know what he does and how and why he does it.”
[The Examiner has written liner notes on numerous Corky Siegel-related CDs.]
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