Sam Lay Tribute

Sam Lay Tribute

Well, Georgia Sam, he had a bloody nose ...
He asked poor Howard, “Where can I go?”
Howard said, “There’s only one place I know”
Sam said, “Tell me quick, man, I got to run”
Oh, Howard just pointed with his gun
And said, “That way, down Highway 61”
— Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited

I came home tonight, and immediately put on the 1969 Chess Records album, Fathers and Sons, the legendary collaboration between Chicago Blues royalty and the young up and comers.  The lineup includes Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, Michael Bloomfield, Paul Butterfield, Donald "Duck" Dun, and the incomparable Sam Lay on drums.  

I spent two hours earlier in the evening at the Chicago Cultural Center enjoying Sam Lay stories, listening to Chicago blues harpist Corky Siegel and Lay perform two numbers together, and watching director John Anderson's terrific new documentary Sam Lay in Bluesland.  Lay was still angry about the Fathers and Sons recording because he was the drummer for the entire outing until Muddy Waters brought Buddy Miles out for an encore performance of Got My Mojo Working (the linked to version was recorded at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1960).  When the album jacket was designed and printed, Miles received a photo credit while Lay got bupkis. 

Those are the component parts of the evening, but so much more was going on.  Specifically, I had the pleasure of watching Corky Siegel honor his mentor.  It was obvious that the two have a very, very close relationship.  Holly Siegel, Corky's wife, joked that the relationship is that of a father and a son, but that it isn't always clear who is the father and who is the son.  

It was a wonderful opportunity to witness the love and affection between these two men.  Mentor relationships are critical in life, and anyone who has had a mentor knows that and counts their blessings.  It doesn't matter whether the mentor is someone who gave you a summer construction job, took you aside in your first professional position, or taught you how to play the blues.  It's the same bond.  Corky Siegel was repaying a debt that no one ever expected or intended for him to repay.

When Siegel spoke about Lay's technique and influence, he wasn't going through the motions.  He meant every word that he spoke, and as eloquent as Siegel was, you could hear that he was reaching for something that can't be put into words, just as he might reach for that unattainable note in a blues harp solo.  That's what keeps musicians coming back.

Lay has played with virtually everyone imaginable.  For my money, his brief live and recorded stint with Bob Dylan would be enough.  The whistle that can be heard on the song Highway 61 is the one that Lay kept on his keychain.  Dylan asked what it was, and the next thing Lay knew, Dylan was playing it.  

But even a Dylanologist readily recognizes that Highway 61 Revisited and Dylan's 1965 coming out at the Newport Folk Festival represent only a small fraction of Lay's contribution to music.  He spent 31 years supplementing his income as a security guard, but he also toured and recorded with Chicago blues harp phenom Little Walter, and then worked with the ever demanding and king of cussers Howlin' Wolf.  Along the way, he also performed and recorded with Muddy Waters, Lighting Hopkins, Willie Dixon, James Cotton, Magic Sam, Jimmy Rodgers, Otis Spann, and Roosevelt "Honeydripper" Sykes, among many others.

Sometime in 1963, Lay, together with bass player Jerome Arnold, left Howlin' Wolf's band to join forces with Paul Butterfield and Elvin Bishop, taking a year-long residence at Big John's. the first of the Chicago north side blues bar.  Eventually, Michael Bloomfield and Mark  Naftalin joined up.  

As fate would have it, Lay and Siegel's paths crossed again, with Lay appearing on two Siegel-Schwall albums.  They have collaborated on other other projects, including Siegel's Chamber Blues project.  I suspect their families have shared many meals together.

Tonight Lay appeared with a signature cape, highly polished shoes, red pants, colorful cane, and a yellow shirt.  None of that was surprising.  Lay was always known for his dress, taking a cue from Liberace and Porter Wagner, as well as Nashville Nudie suits.  He was adorned in jewelry, and his hair is was nicely cut.  He has been patronizing the same south side barber for either 31 or 38 years.

Following the two numbers and a brief introduction by director Anderson, the lights dimmed, and Sam Lay in Bluesland began to roll.  I have never seen better archival footage in a documentary.  The color restoration must have been very time consuming.  Interestingly, some of the footage was filmed by Lay using a Brownie movie camera that had a butterfly crank to wind the film.  There was no audio, but there is candid footage of Jimmy Reed and other blues musicians, fans, and performance spaces (mostly bars).

The narrative is a straightforward chronicle of Lay's life, with interviews and recent performances intermixed.  With one notable exception, the selected talking heads are not surprising if you at all familiar with the story.  Included are Corky Siegel, Elvin Bishop, Charles Musselwhite, Jim Schwall, Nick Gravenites, Lay's wife, Liz, and their kids.  The notable exception is Iggy Pop, who claims that he listened to the second side of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band's first album only after listening to the first side for six months.  The archival photographs of Iggy depict a seemingly innocent adolescent teen sitting behind a drum kit.  He was so taken with Lay that he traveled to Chicago, went to Lay's house, where Liz greeted him and then fed him chicken.  Liz said only the white boys came around looking for Sam, and that there were a lot of them. According to Iggy, the Rolling Stones' Get Off My Cloud just didn't seemed significant once he heard Lay and the Chicago Blues.

Lay, both in the film and in the Q&A that followed it, had many wonderful stories to tell.  He apparently didn't get along with Little Walter, but refuses to this day to discuss the specifics.  Lay also seems to have had an infatuation with guns.  He does regret pulling a gun on Howlin' Wolf, if I heard him correctly.  He also regrets disappointing his mother.  She wanted him to pursue his education, but he was more interested in "stupid" stuff, like getting phone numbers for girls and driving cars fast.  Those cars lead to a minor scuffle with law, resulting in Lay appearing before a judge who told him to take the next train out of town.  Lay told the judge he would do him one better by taking the train before the next one.

Against that backstory, he proudly concluded the Q & A by stating that he never indulged in tobacco or alcohol.  He quipped that he had enough problems without mixing it up with those vices. 

As Peter Falk's Columbo would say, "And one more thing:"  Siegel told a funny story about Bob Dylan inviting Lay to a concert at the United Center a few years back.  Dylan brought Lay out on stage, proclaiming that Lay was the king of blues drummers.  Later, backstage, someone asked Lay how it felt to be in the presence of a superstar, to which Lay responded, "I don't know, you'll have to ask Bob."

For me, and I suspect it is true of the 50 or so other people in attendance, the evening was a heart warming experience.  I know Sam Lay was touched by the entire experience.  As the film concluded with a relatively recent performance of I've Got My Mojo Working, Lay seemed to be misty-eyed.  A true lump-in-the-throat experience.  

Corky Siegel Blows Animated Blues Harp During an Evening Tribute to His Mentor, Sam Lay

Sam Lay: A Man With Much to Reflect On 

Corky and Sam Perform Together

Director John Anderson During the Q&A Session

Marcella Detroit AKA Marcy Levy (co-author of Lay Down Sally) Listening to Sam

Lay, Anderson, Siegel, Detroit/Levy During Q & A

Corky Siegel During the Q & A: Discussing Sam Lay's Unique Patterns

Making a Point During the Q & A

Sam Laying Leading a Band at the Chicago Blues Festival Several Years Back

Blues on State Street

Blues on State Street

Precursor to the Bluesfest

Precursor to the Bluesfest