Legendary drummer Sam Lay dead at 86

Inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as part of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, he also played with blues legends Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf as well as with Bob Dylan.

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Sam Lay.

Sam Lay.

Paul Natkin / Alligator Records

Drummer Sam Lay, who played with blues legends Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and backed Bob Dylan when he went electric at the Newport Folk Festival, died Saturday at 86.

The genre-bridging Grammy nominee was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2015 as part of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and played on dozens of tracks for Chess Records.

”I always say this to explain Sam’s playing: Sam didn’t just play the drums, he sang the drums,” said Corky Siegel, the Chicago pianist and harmonica-playing leader of Corky Siegel’s Chamber Blues. “He just followed the music and just made it explode into ecstasy.”

Drummer Sam Lay

Drummer Sam Lay

Alligator Records

The death of Mr. Lay — who was living in Chicago near Roosevelt Road and Laramie Avenue — was confirmed by Siegel and Alligator Records. He had experienced heart problems and was taken to a nursing home, Siegel said. He died shortly after arriving.

“He could be light and delicate or he could have more power than a locomotive, and he did it without playing loudly,” said Grammy-nominated filmmaker John Anderson, director of the 2016 documentary “Sam Lay in Bluesland.”

One of the last living links to many blues greats, he delighted audiences with his flamboyant dress and buoyant personality. Often, he’d be decked out in matching suits, shoes, hats, capes and canes.

Rocker Iggy Pop said in the Anderson documentary: “Sam Lay was my original ‘I wanna be him.’ ”

Alligator Records said: “Lay has always been renowned for his trademark, hard-to-copy ‘double-shuffle’ — based on the double-time hand-clapping from his childhood church. In addition to his work with Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, Lay was an original member of the hugely influential, racially integrated Paul Butterfield Blues Band, among the first groups to bring hard Chicago blues to the burgeoning rock and roll audience.”

“The reason the Butterfield Blues Band was as good as they were was all the players, but he was definitely behind it,” said Starr Sutherland, producer of “Sam Lay in Bluesland.”

Anderson quoted blues harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite as saying Mr. Lay “painted the rhythm, he didn’t whack it out.”

Countless other drummers admired him, Siegel said, including session drummer Jim Keltner, who played with members of the Beatles. Siegel said Keltner once said: “‘I don’t want to just sound like Sam, I want to be Sam.’”

And Steve Smith of Journey asked Siegel for an introduction to Mr. Lay to learn “what Sam is doing, how he is doing it and why he is doing it.”

After arriving in Chicago, Mr. Lay, a native of Birmingham, Alabama, accompanied harmonica player Little Walter.

He drummed for Howlin’ Wolf on many songs, including “Killing Floor,” “The Red Rooster” and “300 Pounds of Joy.” And he played on “Fathers & Sons” — “Waters’ best-selling album on Chess,” Alligator Records said.

Mr. Lay also performed on records by James Cotton, Bo Diddley, John Lee Hooker, Earl Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Magic Sam.

“He was the last first-person contact between those [legendary blues] players and he remembers it like yesterday,” Anderson said. “He’d talk about [Howlin’] Wolf and his giant hands and how he was intimidated by him” at first.

“He was a walking and talking piece of music-making history,” Squitieri said.

Mr. Lay accompanied Dylan on the LP “Highway 61 Revisited.”

He once recalled how Dylan plugged into an electric guitar in Newport in 1965, an act said to have caused riotous scorn from folkies.

“We left Chicago on the New York Central,” Mr. Lay said in a 2004 interview in the Sun-Times. “We got off in Hartford, Connecticut. We rented a station wagon. I had to do all the driving because I was the oldest. I really didn’t know who Dylan was, but we heard ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ wherever we went. It is still the greatest song I have ever heard.”

Mr. Lay enjoyed an easy relationship with Dylan. “I joked a lot with Dylan. I made fun of his hair. I told him it reminded me of the Muddy Waters song ‘I Found a Bird Nest on the Ground,’ ” he said.

After Mr. Lay received honors for his music in 2002, Alligator Records said Dylan sent him a telegram reading: “It’s so well-deserved. Walter, Wolf and Muddy, they must have known it, too — that you’re second to none — your flawless musicianship and unsurpassed timing, a maestro with the sticks and brushes.”

Mr. Lay’s home movies of music greats are another priceless contribution to blues history, Anderson said. He used to take his 8mm movie camera on the road, shooting color film.

“That was a goldmine for my films and it’s a goldmine for blues researchers forever,” said Anderson.

Mr. Lay’s brother, James Lay, was a government witness in a case that helped galvanize the civil rights movement. Though he was too ill to testify, the postal worker’s grand jury testimony was read at the 2001 trial of former Ku Klux Klansman Thomas E. Blanton Jr. for the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham that killed four Black girls and injured many others.

James Lay told the grand jury Blanton strongly resembled a man he saw loitering at the 16th Street Baptist Church before the bombing, apparently casing the location.

“That church was only two blocks from our house,” Sam Lay said.

Mr. Lay also appeared in a documentary series produced by Martin Scorsese, “The History of the Blues,” which aired on PBS in 2003. And he is an inductee in the Blues Hall Of Fame and the Jazz Hall Of Fame.

Though in failing health, he played in 2018 at the Chicago Blues Festival, said Siegel’s wife, Holly, a manager for Corky Siegel’s Chamber Blues.

“He just had this spirit that kept him going,” Sutherland said.

Mr. Lay is survived by his daughter, Debbie, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. His wife Liz and sons Bobby and Michael died before him. Funeral arrangements were pending, according to Alligator Records.

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