Francis Clay is one of a handful of drummers who helped to create and define blues drumming. Many rhythm section players get very little recognition for their contributions to the blues and other forms of American music. In the evolution of blues drumming, Francis’ contributions come after Fred Below. Francis Clay deserves, and has worked hard for, recognition of his contributions to not only the blues, but also jazz and rock.
In 1957, he joined Muddy Waters’ band. During his initial stint with Muddy (1957- 61), he created a more modern and swinging approach to blues drumming. It was Francis Clay’s drumming on “Got My Mojo Workin'” that helped make it a hit in I960. His approach to blues drumming can best be described as funky, driving but loose, and at all times swinging. When he plays, Francis is an absolute joy to behold. There’s always a warm smile on his face, his body movements are fluid, and the rhythms he plays are totally unique.
Francis Clay has been playing drums for over 50 years, and like the song goes, “You Can’t Judge a Book By It’s Cover. ” While he has recorded over 50 albums and 300 singles, these records are all in the blues vein. However, Francis is more than a blues drummer. Before joining Muddy’s band, he was a modern jazz player who played with, among others, Jay McShann, Charlie Parker, Gene Ammons, Clifford Brown, Benny Golson, Jack McDuff, and Charlie Shavers.
Francis Clay is a warm, talkative, easygoing, likeable individual who sees beauty in life. At 63, he still has a child-like optimism and love for his instrument that is unshakeable. He was a joy and an inspira tion to interview. In the evolution of blues drumming, Francis is a giant and his influence is impossible to measure.
CB: Will you describe your family background?
FC: I was born into a family of musicians. We all played instruments—seven of us children and my mother and father. We played a little bit of everything. We were also involved in what was then called ragtime.
CB: Did you and your family listen to the blues at all?
FC: We weren’t allowed to listen to the blues! Blues music was considered downtrodden. You had to be the lowest ebb to even listen to it, and playing the blues was unheard of. At the time, it wasn’t for decent people.
CB: At what age did you begin to play the drums?
FC: I had an uncle who was a drummer. When I was five, I kept saying to my parents that I wanted to play the drums. “No way,” they kept saying. My parents did not think it was a good instrument. They hated my uncle as a person. He was a real cocky type of drummer, and so my parents didn’t want me playing drums. I guess they were afraid that I would become like him. When I was 10 years old, I got a couple of books, a practice pad, and a pair of sticks. Since they still refused to buy me drums, I went to work out in the garage and in the basement where no one could hear me. When I was 14, I joined the orchestra at school. Then my parents realized that I was going to play the drums, so they got me some drums and started to help me. They found a good teacher for me, Argo Walker. Argo played in a lot of big bands. I was amazed to run into him in Chicago in 1946 where he was playing with Elmore James. Argo was strictly a jazz man. I don’t know how he got with Elmore James.
CB: Aside from Argo Walker, who else have you studied with?
FC: I studied with Roy Knapp. Louis Bellson and I studied with Roy Knapp at the same time. See, Bellson’s from Moline, Illinois, which is the town next to Rock Island. I used to go into his father’s music store a lot, but we didn’t really meet until we were both in high school. That’s because we both used to go out with bands in the summer, come back home in the fall, go to school, and play local gigs.
CB: You’re a left-handed player. What sort of problems did you have being a “lefty”?
FC: I’ve got a mental block. I haven’t been able to halfway read while I’m playing. It screwed up my head. Music’s not written for left-handed drummers.
CB: Did teachers try to make you play right-handed?
FC: Oh yeah, they tried it. I was playing right-handed at first, but actually I discovered for myself that I was originally lefthanded. I did it when I was studying off and on, but it was still confusing as the devil. But I was determined that I was going to make it work. People would say, “That jive drummer can’t play this.” That’s what I heard. I said to myself, “I’m going to learn how to master playing lefthanded, before it screws up my head.”
CB: What advice do you have for lefthanded drummers?
FC: Well, you can’t fool the muscles. Nor can you fool your brain and your emotions. It’s too much a part of you. You have to flow with whatever’s in you.
CB: Which drummers have had the greatest influence on you?
FC: The first drummer that drove me crazy and really woke me up to the drums was the late Chick Webb.
CB: What was it about his playing that really knocked you out?
FC: It was mainly the cues he used for the band and the figures he played in unison with the band. I guess that’s what influenced me to become a more melodic drummer. On his recordings he is just playing straight, but on stage he used to shine.
CB: What other drummers influenced you?
FC: Well, there have been a number of them. However, “Specs” Powell and George Wettling were great drummers. “Specs” was what you’d call the perfect drummer. George was also, but “Specs” had more of a hip type of thing than George Wettling.
CB: Wasn’t “Specs” Powell a straight ahead bebop player who came out of the swing school?
FC: Right, he had versatility in his style. Almost anyone that’s really playing came out of the swing era. Within that style of playing, you had so many people doing their own thing.
During the late ’30s and ’40s, every city had its “strip.” You could walk or drive down the “strip” and you could distinguish each band as you passed by. You could also tell who the soloists were without seeing them, because they had their own unique styles. If you copied someone, you would be laughed off the stage, and no one would hire you.
CB: It seems like the ’30s produced some great drummers.
FC: Back in those days, there were only a handful of kids playing drums—Sonny Greer, Jo Jones, Cozy Cole and James Crawford. They all coached me along the way. They’d say, “Look, can you do this? Do it this way.” They would take some time with me.
CB: Which musicians, other than drummers, influenced you?
FC: Bird was my greatest influence by a long shot. Later on in life, there were people like Benny Golson and Charlie Shavers who influenced me a great deal. Charlie’s a sweet little cat. He played so much more than Louis Armstrong.
CB: In an earlier conversation, you mentioned that you worked with Charlie Paker. When did you play with him?
FC: That was in the old Jay McShann band, which was my first big band, in 1939 or 1940.
CB: How old were you when you played with Jay McShann?
FC: I was 16 when the Jay McShann band came through town. Gus Johnson had been in an accident, so they asked me to work in his place. Later I played with the circus and local carnivals. The circus was pretty groovy. I also worked on an old river boat, the S.S. Idlewilde, going up and down the rivers.
CB: What other musicians did you work with?
FC: I worked with Jimmy Bell, a piano player. He had a good band. I also played with Boyd Atkins at the Faust Club in Peoria. We did a lot of stage shows.
Right before going with Muddy Waters, I worked with Gene Ammons and later King Kolax, a trumpet player. He always had one of the best bands around Chicago. When Benny Golson and Clifford Brown teamed up, they used to come and sit in with the band I was playing with. I had some sessions with them you wouldn’t be lieve. The three of us would look into each other’s eyes and cook.
CB: Before joining Muddy Waters, did you play with other blues musicians?
FC: Before playing with Muddy, I had never played down home blues in my life. I mean, I did for a little while, but it was a different thing. I had played with George Smith, a harmonica player, but he played more of a swing type of blues. He also did some jazz things. We played a different type of shuffle than the type I played in Muddy’s band.
CB: First, how did you become involved with Muddy Waters, and second, did you have any musical difficulties in making the transition from playing jazz to blues?
FC: In 1957, things were slow around Chicago and I was packed up and ready to go back to New York. A friend of mine said that Muddy needed a drummer at Gleason’s House of the Blues in Cleveland. I said, “I’ll take it. I’m going that way any way, and then I’ll go on home from there.” So the band picked me up and we opened at Gleason’s. We had no rehearsals. They led off with their theme song, and it seemed like they went that way and I went this way. It took us about two days to start feeling each other out. Muddy showed me that all you have to do is make that funky slap. I think he started out playing the drums. He taught me all I know about the blues, because I didn’t have the faintest idea what they were doing. So about the third night we started cookin’ together. I started listening closely to what they were doing and following them. After we finished the two weeks, we had the place in an uproar.
CB: Did it really take you two weeks to adjust?
FC: No, no, it only took two or three nights for us to really get together. Muddy said, “I don’t know what you’re playing, but it feels and sounds good. I want you to stay with me until I can get a blues drummer.” The band started cookin’ and I ended up staying with him for about four years at that time.
CB: That would be from 1957 to 1961.
FC: Yeah, later I went back with him steady from 1965 to 1967. Years ago, we were the only blues band out on the road. We were the first, while the rest of them were sittin’ on their hands playing those little store-front clubs in Chicago. We were out there on the road touring all through the Midwest, the East and through the South, twice a year—at planting time and harvest time because those were the only times that anyone had any money.
We used to have some of the most intense arguments. We didn’t agree on anything. Either I’d quit or Muddy would fire me, but he always wanted me to come back. And he’d say, “I’m going to get you back in the band if it kills me.” Then he’d say, “Are you ready to come back now?”
CB: Aside from Muddy Waters, what other blues artists have you worked with?
FC: I worked with Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, but I turned down jobs with Little Richard and Albert King. When a bandleader doesn’t treat musicians with the respect and love that they should have, I don’t care to be a part of that band.
CB: Over the years, who has been your favorite musician to work with?
FC: Charlie Shavers because we didn’t have to talk. He knew what I was gonna do and I knew what he was gonna do. You can feel it when it’s right. It’s magic and it only happens with certain players. You don’t have to do all this rehearsing over and over again. You just have to have the right musicians. Forget your friends when it comes to music. Just get the right kind of musicians who think and feel as you do.
CB: Then it just sort of melds together.
FC: Right. There’s no explanation. That’s explanation enough!
CB: What was your most memorable musical experience?
FC: It was my first concert at Carnegie Hall with Muddy in 1958. The reason I consider it my most memorable experience goes beyond just the prestige of playing Carnegie Hall. All the arguments that occurred within the band ceased right there because of the astonishing acoustics. You couldn’t hear yourself or the other members of the aggregation. You could only rely on what you knew.
CB: And instinct.
FC: Yeah, and counting your butt off. The band watched me count and the arguing stopped. All the arguments they were giving me were to save their own face, and I understood that from then on. That’s when I stopped arguing with them. I awakened to my own feelings.
There was something else about Carnegie Hall. Muddy had never heard of Carnegie Hall. He said, “There’s this big ol’ hall in New York.” I mean, where would a blues man from Mississippi have heard of Carnegie Hall? He said he couldn’t remember the name of it, so I named some different places. And he said, “No, it’s not any of those places.” So finally I asked, “It wouldn’t be Carnegie Hall, would it?” and he said, “Yeah, yeah, that’s it.” I said, “Oh my God.” But he responded, “I don’t think I’m gonna take it because there’s not much money in it.” So I had to lay out the importance of the gig and what it would do for his career.
Just before Muddy was invited to Carnegie Hall, things started getting big. European magazines, like Jazz Hot in Paris and Blues Unlimited in London, were taking notice of Muddy and the band. But we didn’t realize it because Muddy couldn’t even meet these writers when they came over to the States. We gained the attention when we played at a club called Smitty’s Corner on 35th and Indiana in Chicago. Before we played there, it had been a jazz club. I had played there a couple of times before, and the place was about to fold. So, the management thought they’d try the blues because there were a lot of black people in the south side of Chicago. Anyway, we had that joint packed, every night, six nights a week. We had them lined up two blocks down Indiana Avenue and two blocks on 35th Street waiting to come in. And that’s how we got all the attention.
CB: Tell me about the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival.
FC: A couple of years after Carnegie Hall, we were invited to do the Newport Jazz Festival in 1960. Muddy didn’t want to take that gig either. He had never heard of the Newport Jazz Festival. So, again, I had to go through the whole routine. The album we recorded there was what caused the blues to explode all over the world. That’s what made us the forerunners of everyone else.
CB: Although Muddy had recorded “Got My Mojo Workin'” several years before, it didn’t become a hit until you recorded it with Muddy at Newport.
FC: Muddy told me that it was S.P. Leary, and not Elgin Evans, who made that first recording. All he did was a “hands off” rhythm all the way through the tune. But, the earlier version wasn’t a big seller.
CB: Why do you think the version of “Mojo” you played on became a hit?
FC: Well, I did a lot of work with the band before we even got to Newport. Since I saw the potential in that number, I told Muddy this could be a heck of a production num ber. He said, “Go on and play your thing.” I had to sneak in things that the band members didn’t recognize. They didn’t even know that I was putting them in there until they got the feeling of it, and then they were comfortable with it. I kept telling those cats, “Look, play it this way. Give it a different twist. It will sound more professional. It’ll make us tighter.” Finally, they decided that it was cookin’.
CB: You used the term “hands off” rhythm. Would you explain what that term means?
FC: I play the “hands off” rhythm with some of the notes open and some of them closed, by muffling the snare drum head with my hands. I hit the stick with two beats closed and just two beats on the head—open. I play the notes when I’m pressing down.
CB: It sounds very similar to one of the old rhumba rhythms in which the left stick is resting horizontally down on the snare drum with the butt end of the stick overhanging the rim, and the right stick is playing muffled rim shots.
FC: Right, right, it’s similar to the old Latin rhythms.
CB: What advice do you have for a drummer in a blues band?
FC: Lay the structure down, and if it’s in taste, play the fill-ins. Sometimes it’s best to leave it open. Also it’s important to cue others in and out of the chords with taste so that they’ll know where they’re at. And always know where the first beat of every measure is. That’s the most important point of all. You don’t always have to play it, but know where it’s at. You shouldn’t get lost for more than one measure.
Learn all you can about music, particularly the blues, and go with your feelings. I learned the most about playing the blues while touring through the South and those old road houses. The drummers were just sitting there drunk, half asleep, and slapping that funky beat. They had that foot going. That’s all they were playing, and that’s the basis of the blues. Make your blues drumming funky and at the same time alive. Not all blues are “down.” There are happy blues. You can take a happy blues, build it to a perpetual thing, drive it to a frenzy, and then you can drive it right through the wall. You don’t start off driving. You start out swinging because if you start out at the top, where is there left to go?
CB: Fred Below has been described as the father of Chicago blues drumming. Would you describe his contribution to the blues?
FC: He made a large contribution to the blues. Like myself, he too was playing modern jazz before going with Little Walter. Below layed down a whole new concept of drumming the blues that no one else had played before. I personally felt that he had too strong a touch of the military in his playing. That’s because he played in a military band in the armed forces.
CB: How do you define your contribution to blues drumming?
FC: I changed it around and made it more of a swinging type of thing. I thought that the blues should have more of a jazz feeling to it. So I created a more modern style without the military effect. At the time, I was just trying to make it work. I didn’t know we were giving birth to a whole dynasty. Muddy and I used to crack up when we’d talk about that. We didn’t know all this was going to happen. We were just trying to work it out and trying to keep going. Mainly I was trying to make the blues sound more professional than the informal styles of music, such as country & western and bluegrass.
CB: How important is the influence of jazz and blues drumming on rock drumming?
FC: Well, most rock is an extension of the blues, and along with jazz, it is the basis of rock drumming. I find that most blues or rock drummers who can really play come from the school of jazz.
CB: After playing for over 50 years, you’ve seen an amazing amount of change in music and drumming. Do you have any thoughts on the state of drumming?
FC: In an article I wrote once, I advised drummers to learn the ropes and get all the experience they can. Forget about the money and being a star—that’s for the birds. It has nothing to do with one’s art. After you have learned everything you can, and have mastered your instrument and yourself, then, and only then, are you allowed to break the rules in order to create. In other words, stop trying to play like someone else. I used to copy other drummers when I started out. That’s what made me know I could do other things. Then I knew I could just be myself, be original, and create a style of my own. I did it in modern jazz and later in the blues. Just be yourself and stop copying records. Learn the song or melody, the chords if possible, and then start to think about how you would do it.
CB: Sometimes, when you come up with an original musical or drumming approach, the audience or musicians might not understand it right away.
FC: That’s the story of my life! But it don’t bother me as long as I know it adds up. You see, I never accepted anyone’s opinion of my playing over my own.
CB: It’s a funny thing, but you’ve probably influenced a lot of drummers and they’re probably not even aware of your influence.
FC: People have been stealing my material and ideas for years. I’ll give you a hint about one of my ideas. I used to do a lot of solo work when I was working the Kitty Kat Club in Chicago in ’52. The bandstand was a little stand behind the bar. Anyway, a lot of times when I soloed and opened it up with single-stroke rolls, I would drive the people crazy. So instead of that, I started doing press rolls and I whispered them. That’s when a lot of drummers started copying it.
CB: You have a youthful outlook on life. Would you say that drumming is your fountain of youth?
FC: Partially. You see, if there’s something you really want to do and you love your art, don’t mess up your personal life, or your body, or get a big head. When I was quite young, I saw excellent musicians die from drugs and get all fouled up because of booze. I swore then that it would not happen to me. Whatever I play, it’s going to be me, and not the drugs or whiskey talking.
Music is a gift. God gave me life, these hands, and this mind. The only way I can repay Him is with what I give back to Him. I do that by practicing good morals and principles. I love the beauty in life and don’t need all this negativity. I don’t know why some people who are in the arts stay depressed and lonesome. I’ve never been lonesome a day in my life! I’ve always got so much to look forward to. I can’t get enough done. It’s been that way my whole life. There’s so much beauty in the world. I see all the ugliness, but I’m not going to get down there with it. Some people call me a legend, and that still embarrasses the hell out of me. I can’t handle that one. It makes me feel like I’m dead. There are a whole lot of things I’d still like to create. I still feel like I’m a young man. I don’t feel old and that’s in spite of my six great grandchildren.
CB: Any last thoughts on the art of drumming?
FC: Yes. Live it, eat it, and breathe it. Never forget that you’re a drummer. You’ve got to protect your mind, your hands and your body. If drumming is your life, you have to live it all the way. I don’t mean that you have to be arrogant. We’ve got enough fools in the world. Perform your music with love because what you play comes out you.
Drumming has given me a sense of pride, because I’ve always been my own person and I never wanted to be like any one else. I admire a lot of people, but I never wanted to be them. I just wanted to be myself. I want to feel what I feel and not what someone else feels. I take great pride in that. Drummers should just be themselves, get across their feelings, and try to make people visualize what they’re playing within a given style, mood or song. You can paint a picture with the drums. You can tell a story and if you play the drums right, you get your message across.