Chicago Blues Drummers

The scene is the 1985 Chicago Blues Festival. Grant Park is brimming with people, many of whom are jockeying for seats and blanket space as close to the band shell as possible. Opening night of the city’s annual free festival, which celebrates its incredibly rich blues heritage, will draw upwards of 100,000 people. The next two nights will attract crowds nearly as large. It is indeed a grand affair—one, you think, that should be celebrating its twentieth anniversary rather than its second.

The lineup for the three days and nights of music is quite impressive: Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, Koko Taylor, Johnnie Taylor, Lowell Fulsom, John Hammond, Jr., Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Etta James, Big Joe Turner, Sunnyland Slim, Pee Wee Crayton, Lonnie Brooks, Sippie Wallace, Clifton Chenier, and many more. The music begins each day at noon with performances on a small stage adjacent to the band shell. Here, the lesser-known artists play until late afternoon. Then in the evening, the featured artists grace the band shell stage and play well into the night.

I went to Chicago—and the festival in particular—in search of blues drummers. It was a good time to be in town, friends told me, because it’s often difficult to track down blues musicians at any other time. They always seem to be on the road doing the chitlin lounge circuit in the South, or else they are holed up in some recording studio you never heard of before. So come to the blues fest, my friends advised.

It was a good time to be in Chicago. Blues musicians were everywhere. I met a number of blues drummers, but I wasn’t after any old blues drummer. I wanted to speak to those who would paint a clearer picture of what blues drumming is really all about, of where it’s been, and of where it’s going. I was surprised to find out that many of the drummers playing the festival were young—too young to shed the kind of light on blues drumming I was after.

I also wanted a cross section of drummers—ones with different styles, different stories, different approaches, and different attitudes toward the blues. I knew I wanted to speak with Odie Payne, Jr., because Payne is considered one of the deans of Chicago blues drumming, having been born and raised in the city, and still residing and playing there. Fred Below was another drummer that I wanted to interview. Like Payne, Below goes back a long way. He, too, played with many of the city’s great blues artists and still resides in town.

I got to speak with Payne because he played the second night of the festival, and I managed to persuade him that other drummers would be very interested in what he had to say. I never spoke to Below, though. He had been sick and never made it to the festival. Friends of his thought it best I speak to him the next time I came to Chicago in search of blues drummers.

But I did speak with Morris Jennings, a well-known session player who is as adept at playing funk as he is at playing the blues; Casey Jones, whose recent work with Johnny Winter represents some of the best contemporary blues drumming you’re apt to hear anywhere; and Jimmy Tillman, the drummer for Willie Dixon, and a walking encyclopedia of the blues—especially Chicago blues. I think that what each of these four drummers has to say about the blues, and blues drumming in particular, is an important first step in comprehending not only the history and function of the drummer in such a simple yet wonderfully expressive idiom, but also the underlying substances and nuances of this most American of music forms.

Odie Payne, Jr.

Odie Payne Jr

Payne, Jr., speaks with a slow, tired drawl. He has a bad back, and when it acts up, the words come even more slowly. I spoke with Payne the morning after his appearance on the Chicago Blues Festival stage, where he backed up Pee Wee Crayton, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, Lowell Fulsom, and Margie Evans, among others.

It would have been a pretty taxing gig for most drummers in the best of health. But for Odie Payne, Jr., despite his aches, it was a joy. At age 60, he rarely turns down a date. “My back don’t hurt when I’m playing; it’s afterwards that it gets to me,” he says, laughing a bit. “I’ve known a lot of these cats for a long time. I’ve admired them, too, but never had a chance to play with them for one reason or another. I wasn’t going to blow this chance, no sir.” So today, Payne is walking and talking easily, and saving his strength lest the back start bothering him to the point where he would have to miss a rehearsal later on in the day. It’s easy to get the impression that not being able to play would hurt more than the worst spasms in his back.

RS: Your career as a Chicago blues drummer stretches back to the late That’s a long time, no matter what kind of music you play, or where you play it.

OP: Yeah, that’s right. I think I played my first nightclub date in 1949. That was with Tampa Red.

RS: Let’s go back to when you first began playing drums.

OP: That was in Dusable High School. It was a great school for drummers to go to. Actually, it was a great school for all musicians, no matter what instruments they played. We had a heck of a fine teacher, Captain Walter Dyett. He was a very persuasive teacher, and he certainly didn’t take any lip—not from anybody, no sir. He was very respected. When he walked on the stage in the assembly hall, everything quieted down real quick like. He could really hurt you. He could make you cry with that look of his. But he was a good one. Everybody respected him. He got results.

RS: Was it then that you knew you wanted to be a professional drummer?

OP: Actually it was before then. Earlier on, I learned the principles of drumming by playing with my fingers on the desks at school. You know, a hollow desk has a nice ring to it when you hit it with your fingers. So whenever the teacher would leave the classroom, I’d start banging on the desk with my fingers, and soon the whole class would be jumping. Every now and then, the teacher would catch me in the act. She’d come back to the class, see what was going on, and say, “Odie Payne, Jr., out!” When I finally graduated, she wrote in my yearbook, “I hope someday you become a drummer.” And I did.

RS: How did you fall in with Tampa Red?

OP: There was a record shop right by the Metropolitan Theater at the time. It was the number-one shop on the south side of Chicago. Every day they’d have speakers outside the door blaring music out for all to hear. I’d be coming home from school, and they’d be playing music. I’ll never for- get this one tune, “Let Me Play With Your Poodle.” I would listen to the lyrics to that song and just crack up. I never realized that one day I would work with the man who sang it, Tampa Red. That was my first introduction to Tampa Red, and it was a memorable one.

RS: You began your career in a most exciting period. The post-World War II era brought many black musicians from the South to cities such as Chicago. From what I understand, there was music everywhere.

OP: Oh yeah. Blues musicians were coming up and bringing their musical roots with them. They could catch a train in the South and take it straight up into the heart of Chicago. The town was full of young musicians, all looking for work and places to stay.

RS: What kind of a kit were you playing back then?

OP: Well, I never went for names. My kit was a mixture of Slingerland, Ludwig—whatever I could get. I look at the hardware on drums nowadays; the pieces are so huge and heavy. I can understand why, though. Young drummers today use big sticks and then turn them over like baseball bats. You might as well give them all hammers.

RS: You did a lot of recording for Chess Records. How did that come about?

OP: Willie Dixon was the first one to call me in for a date with Leonard Chess. Chess Records was to the blues what Sun Records was to rock ‘n’ roll. Back then, Mr. Chess would request that you hit your drums awfully hard. He’d yell, “Hit it! Hit it! Turn the stick around and hit it!” Well, this seemed a little silly to me. But I did it, and I guess it sounded alright on record. I always considered myself a listener. I wanted to hear what the other players in the band were doing, and that would always reflect my drum style for whatever song we were playing. But with Chess, I always had to play so hard that I thought I would knock the walls of the studio down.

RS: How would you describe your blues drumming style?

OP: It is a relatively simple style. I mean, that’s what playing the blues is all about as far as a drummer goes. But if you’re a blues drummer, you’ve got to be able to tell a story with your sticks. The blues is simple, yes, but complete. It’s also a quiet style of drumming, despite what went on in the Chess studio, and I’ll tell you why. In the blues, the words are important. People want to hear what the singer has to say. If you play loud and drown out the singer, you’re defeating the purpose. You’ve got to be in control: You may want to play loud and heavy because the blues is an emotional music, but you’ve got to keep in control and in touch with the singer. Now when the horn or guitar takes over, you can give it a shove if you want to. But you can’t do it for a piano. Do you see what I mean?

RS: Have you ever played electronic drums?

OP: No, I can’t say that I have. But I don’t think anything can beat a real drum sound now, do you? It’s the same with the piano. You can have an electric piano, but nothing beats a real piano sound—an acoustic sound. I think it’s hard to swing those electronic fellas. I don’t hear any feeling coming out of them. Is a drum machine good for the blues? Well, how can it be? I already told you that the blues is an emotional music. A machine doesn’t have any feeling. You can’t shade or change accents with a human touch on a machine. Pull the plug and the sideman stops.

RS: What were your experiences with Muddy Waters?

OP: When I met Muddy and played with Muddy, it was a weird thing. A lot of people based their style around what they heard coming from Muddy. I played with him, but I never was close with him. There was a certain amount of rejection or something between the two of us. I don’t know what it was, actually.

RS: I believe you also played for Chuck Berry.

OP: I did. That’s right. But I know more about you than I do about Chuck Berry. We were in the Chess studio one time, and in he walked with a girl on each arm. I was setting up my drums. He walked over and didn’t even say hello. He never said anything to anybody. He did his own thing. We never talked.

RS: Of all the people you played with, I guess you stayed the longest with Elmore James. Would that be correct?

OP: Yeah, I think so. I was with James for a few years. My, those days playing “Dust My Broom,” his strongest tune, were good days. Now, that man had a story to tell. Some people liked him and some people didn’t. That’s why the blues ain’t for everyone. If you haven’t experienced it, you don’t know it. You can’t know it. The blues tells the story of hardship, loss, and misunderstanding. I can show drummers the licks, but I can’t show them the feeling. You’ve got to find your own place and your own feeling within the blues.

RS: I understand you were quite strict when it came to drugs and alcohol. They were all around you a lot, but you never indulged. Is that true?

OP: I had one bottle of beer in my life. A fifth of whiskey in my house might last five years. Drugs? Forget about drugs. When people wanted me to drink, I’d say, “Make it an orange juice.” Sometimes they’d look at me funny or even take offense, you know. They thought I wasn’t being sociable. But stimulants never interested me. I don’t need anything to make me play the drums. Whatever I need, I’ve got already inside me. But the drugs and the booze were there all the time. Many a blues musician was destroyed by them. I could name a whole bunch, but I won’t. That wouldn’t do anybody any good.

RS: What has been your basic drum setup?

OP: My basic setup is one ride cymbal, a sock cymbal, one tom-tom on the bass drum, one side drum, a bass drum, and a snare—basic, real basic. I love my cowbell, though. I’m lost without my cowbell. But that’s all I need. That’s all anyone needs who’s playing the blues. The rest of the equipment is for effects. You already have the basics. Some drummers feel that the more drums you have, the better you are going to sound. That might be for rock ‘n’ roll. I don’t know. But it seems to me that you have two hands and two feet, and you have a job to do. If you keep it simple, it means that you have a better chance of doing what you have to do and doing it well. That’s always been my philosophy, and I think it’s a good one.

RS: Aside from providing you with a pretty fair living, a lot of memorable moments, and the satisfaction of playing drums day in and day out, has being a blues drummer meant anything else to you?

OP: Yes. Blues, like I said, is an emotional music. That means it attracts people, because people are made up of emotions. People from all over the place have emotions. It doesn’t matter where they come from. So because of the blues, I got to see much of the world. I played all over Europe, in Japan, down South, out West, and up North. It’s a funny thing though. All my traveling and playing over the years never got me to New York City. I don’t know if it would matter or not at my age, but I would like to play there someday.

Casey Jones

Casey JonesCasey Jones came up to Chicago in 1956 with Little Richard on his mind. Little Richard was what it was all about. But Jones soon settled into the blues, Chicago style, and as he recalls, “I didn’t care what kind of blues it was. I just wanted to count it off.”

Today, Jones is one of the busiest blues drummers in Chicago. The two albums he did with Johnny Winter—Guitar Slinger and Serious Business (both on Alligator Records)—are fine examples of his cool, calculated backbeat. He plays out with his own band whenever he can, has his own small, independent record company called Airwax Records, and plans on recording some of the songs he’s written recently.

When I spoke with Jones, he was fresh from his dates with Winter. An exuberant, proud musician, Jones is the type of drummer who’d do three sessions a day, every day, if he was given the chance. “I like to work,” he says with a smile that reminds me of a James Brown smile. “I’m ready, able, and willin’.”

RS: What made you migrate to Chicago in the mid-’50s?

CJ: Well, my brother-in-law’s brother had a band in Chicago called Otis Luke & The Rhythm Bums. They needed a drummer. So I got a call one day, but I didn’t know anything about a whole set of drums. The only thing I was used to was marching band drums. But I came to Chicago to try it—feel out the gig, you know—and I just fell into the groove. It was no problem except for the hi-hat. I had a hard time getting that hi-hat going the way it was supposed to go. At first, I didn’t even have a hi-hat. I had a bass drum, a snare, and a cymbal, and that was it. You know, back then you could go out seven nights a week and hear a different blues band each night. The city was kickin’. Today, there aren’t that many clubs around to play. The clubs used to be on the south side of town. Now those that are still around are up on the north side. So it’s more competitive for musicians and bands.

RS: You’ve played with Albert Collins, Otis Rush, Jimmy Witherspoon, and Johnny Winter. Who else?

CJ: Oh, let’s see—Howlin’ Wolf, Magic Sam, Muddy Waters, Eddie Clearwater, Lou Rawls, Lonnie Brooks . . . lots of others.

RS: What was playing with Howlin’ Wolf like?

CJ: Me and the Wolf got along real well— real fine. Now, I heard stories about the way he treated his band, but maybe they should have been treated that way; I don’t really know. Wolf used to call me “Longhair.” I used to have a perm and my hair hung down by my shoulders. “Okay Longhair,” he’d say. “Okay.” [He imitates Howlin’ Wolf’s low, gritty voice.] “Now just go and lay back on that beat.” I did what he wanted done. I played “Smokestack Lightning” the way he wanted it played, not the way I felt like playing it. I’d do it his way. That’s what the man was paying me to do, see. I remember things like that.

RS: Is there such a thing as a Chicago style of blues drumming?

CJ: I don’t know if you can pinpoint it as a specific style, but Chicago blues drummers concentrate more on shuffles. Now, shuffles seem simple, but they’re not as easy as people think, especially if you’re trying to do them right. I don’t care for shuffles, though. I’m not a bad shuffle drummer. But shuffles can be a whole lot of work for a drummer, and little recognition is what you get out of them. I like solos. I’ll take a solo anytime you want.

RS: What does it take to become a good blues drummer

CJ: You’ve got to know how to listen and what to listen for, see. A lot of drummers will get up and play a whole lot of pocket with the rolls and such, and want to do something that will get them noticed. I’m lucky. I never had a problem getting recognized, [laughs] So all my concentration goes into my playing. But a blues drummer has got to know and, more importantly, has got to understand the nature of the singer. I mean, playing with Albert Collins and playing with Little Milton—well, your whole approach has to be different—very different. You can’t force drum patterns or backbeats in the blues. They have to fit like a glove. What you play when you play the blues comes from here, [strikes his heart] When you see me on a stage and I’m up there a-smilin’, you know this son of a gun is playin’ hard and tight.

RS: What kind of kit are you currently using?

CJ: I’m using a Ludwig kit. I’ve got a 20″ ride, an 18″ crash, two rack toms, a bass drum, a snare, and a floor tom, and that’s enough. Having a lot of drums looks good for flash and show; I know that. But you can’t play all of them at once, can you? Not when you’re playing the blues, anyway. I got my Ludwig set on February 11, 1961. I remember that day as if it was yesterday. Hmmm, those drums sound just as good today as they did in 1961, too. I play my snare fairly tight on stage, and boy, I get a pop worth talkin’ about, let me tell you.

RS: Is it difficult to make a living as a blues drummer these days?

CJ: Playing just the blues? Well, let’s say it’s not like it used to be here in Chicago. You might starve if you were only a fair drummer. That’s why I learned to play all kinds of blues-related music. I love playing funk and would like to be recognized as a versatile drummer. See, people hear you as a blues drummer, and they say, “Shoot, this dude can’t play nothin’ but the blues.” But that just ain’t so. The blues is a base for a lot of music forms. If you play the blues, you got the foundation down for funk, rock ‘n’ roll, boogie, disco, jazz—you name it. If you’re called nothing but a blues drummer these days, that’ll mess up your career real good.

RS: What album that you’ve played on would you say is most representative of your best work?

CJ: That’s a hard question. I really like the things I do on the Johnny Winter albums. But I guess I’m most proud of my playing on a Lonnie Brooks album, Bayou Lightning. I’d have to give credit to Otis Rush, too, for helping me become a good blues drummer. I was young when I played with him, and boy, he showed me how to do it, if you know what I mean. He would play a song and keep it going for so long; it would be very tough to keep things right from my end. But eventually I got it right, and then it was no problem.

RS: You’ve been a Chicago blues drummer for quite some time. Do you have any particular ambitions that extend beyond what you’ve accomplished thus far?

CJ: Yeah, I want to play the blues, not live them. Do you know what I mean? I want to make enough money so I can live comfortably and not have to scratch and scrape for everything. I’d like a hit record more than anything. I’ve got three kids. I want to give them the best.

Morris Jennings

Morris JenningsMorris Jennings is known as the Bernard Purdie of Chicago. “I played, and still do play, a lot of different gigs, but I don’t have any signs that I hang up behind my kit or anything like that,” says Jennings. “I just play my drums. That’s all.”

In a way, Jennings represents the Chicago blues drummer who has gone far beyond the blues and has adapted rather successfully to offshoots of the music, namely jazz, funk, R&B, rock, and even mainstream pop. He is also established in the Chicago jingle field. For Jennings, this stretching out was due, in part, to his education, particularly in jazz and, as he says, “the classics,” as well as his fascination with diversity. But it was also necessary for him to be able to survive as a drummer, and make a living in Chicago doing live dates and recording sessions.

RS: What was it like growing up in a town like Chicago with the blues all around you?

MJ: The music was all around; that’s for sure. The whole thing was great. Bo Diddley lived a block away from me. Muddy Waters wasn’t far away, either. All of the main streets had blues joints on them. Now this was when I was a little shortie, you understand. It was nothing at night to sneak out of the house and stand outside the blues joints just listening. Your education was right there. It was your Ph.D. I still draw from those experiences.

But the biggest and best thing about Chicago back then, for a musician at least, was to go to Dusable High School and study with Captain Walter Dyett. He taught everybody—Wilbur Campbell, J.J. Johnson, Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan. Lots of people who went to Dusable High School went on to become great stars and good musicians. The education was on the street, and it was in school, if you took advantage of it. The blues education I got is no longer available to the young ones. It’s not possible to go to ten or 15 joints in one night, and see a whole range of bands and musicians. It just ain’t possible anymore, because the clubs aren’t there like they used to be. Now, I had formal music training at Dusable, two years of junior college, and one year at Roosevelt University where I studied music as a minor. Then in 1964, I got involved with Chess Records and that was it. It was music as a career from that point on.

RS: How did you come to work for Chess?

MJ: Being in the right place at the right time. I used to go by to hang out with my friends—people like Louis Satterfield. Well, it came to be that they had problems keeping a good studio drummer. There were a lot of drummers in Chicago, but the key to studio work is discipline. If you were disciplined, you could sit there eight to ten hours a day and make some money. I was easygoing and easy to work with, and somewhere along the line, I acquired discipline, which to this day, I still have.

RS: Working as a studio drummer at Chess, you must have played with some pretty decent blues artists.

MJ: That’s right. Jimmy Reed, Koko Taylor, Albert King, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters—too many more to mention right here and now. See, Chess had a knack for recording as much as they could get from you in an eight- or ten-hour day. Mr. Chess would turn on the tape and we’d record—all day. My biggest asset with the blues was Willie Dixon, because Willie knew I could lock in and learn fast. You know, with blues players you never read music. It was all by ear, so you had to be able to pick things up quickly. Willie would request me on drums all the time.

RS: What was it like recording with Dixon? Was he a very demanding boss back then?

MJ: No. He gave you a lot of room and was very sensitive to how you went about creating your patterns and whatnot, as long as he had confidence in your playing. Willie would say, “Just follow me and do your own thing.” Everybody would come to the studio with a fifth of this or a fifth of that in brown bags. Now, you’d never see anyone take a drink, but by the end of the session, all the bottles were empty, [laughs] Willie was real melodic, and I learned from him. It’s funny how lyrics could be the key to a tune or the music in general. Willie’s lyrics were always funny, so they were meant to be heard. Willie was the one who taught me all about the relationship of Gospel to the blues. He’d say that, if it weren’t for the Gospel sounds, you wouldn’t have the blues or jazz.

RS: What kind of drums were you using back then?

MJ: The exact same set I’m using right now, a 1964 Gretsch kit. It contains a small tom, a 20″ bass drum, a 14″ floor tom, a snare, and some cymbals. That era—the early and mid-’60s—was a good era for drum making. I’ve played Yamaha, Slingerland, Tama, and others, but nothing compares to what I have.

RS: What drummers did you especially admire in your formative years as a drummer?

MJ: Art Blakey, Max Roach—drummers like that. My early influence as far as drums go was jazz, not blues. In high school, I was taught the basics of jazz. I was leader of the marching band drum section during my second year of school. We were taught to read also. That enabled me to do jingles and, of course, lots of record dates.

RS: How did you get involved with jingles?

MJ: Jingles came along when the Chicago music scene opened up, I guess, in the late ’60s and early ’70s. The people who wanted jingles recorded wanted the disciplined players to do them. Doing jingles is a whole different head trip; it’s got what I call the “30-Second and 60-Second Syndrome,” where you play for half a minute or a minute, and that’s all. If you don’t get out and play at night to surpass that syndrome, you become a weak player. You lose your creativity. So when I do jingles, I always play out, too.

RS: You’ve managed to make yourself versatile enough over the years so that you play the blues and other types of music as well. How would you compare the blues to these other music forms?

MJ: The blues is the black man’s country & western. It depicts hard times, broken relationships, and heartache. A lot of times, people think the blues is a downer because of this, but it’s not. The blues is an amazing music form. You can trace its roots from here in Chicago to the plantation all the way back to Gambia in Africa, if you wanted or cared to. Your insight into the blues, as a drummer, becomes the most interesting thing. One thing about playing the blues: You have to give. You also have to understand the lyrics. It’s just as important for a drummer to understand the lyrics as it is for a guitar player or keyboards player.

RS: Does it bother you that many young black kids have rejected the blues—won’t listen to it, won’t appreciate it? Instead, whites, especially in the ’60s, practically adopted the music as their own. And now, with Stevie Ray Vaughan, a whole generation of whites and blacks, who grew up in the ’70s, when the blues was nowhere to be found in mainstream markets, are being introduced to the music. But they’re being introduced to it not by blacks, but by whites.

MJ: It’s certainly disappointing, yes. Blacks have always been proud of jazz. But blues, I guess, was too close to the plantation. I think, however, things are starting to change. As more and more black kids are becoming better and better educated, they’re looking back to their cultural and musical heritage, rather than running away from it. That wasn’t done in the past, because there wasn’t time for it, people didn’t have the educational tools to do it, and finally, because the past reminded them of bad things. Nowadays, things are more open.

RS: If someone who never heard you play drums before asked you to describe your style of playing, what would you say?

MJ: I’d say that I play drums the way I was taught to play them—melodically. I’m also what you might consider an on-top player. Some drummers play right in the middle of the beat; I usually play right on top. The way I got my confidence as a drummer was playing with an organ trio. An organ is a very dominating instrument, and that affected me as far as being strong and solid goes, especially in the studio. Finally, I think that, if you heard me play and heard my approach to whatever it was I was playing—blues, funk, jazz—you could hear my jazz background in my licks and how I keep the rhythm. My philosophy has always been to be seen and not heard—to be totally part of the music.

RS: The blues has to be one of the most constant of all music forms. It hasn’t changed much, if at all, over the years, has it?

MJ: The only thing you can do with the blues is come up with some new lyrics and some different sounding solos. The changes in the music will always be the same. It will not be the blues if you take it out of its context. I’m very glad to have been a part of the classic albums that were recorded in the mid-’60s with Muddy Waters, Albert King, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, and the other Chess artists. I’m glad I’m part of history, because even though the music doesn’t change, like we just said, the feeling of it does. And the feelings we captured in the studio back then are classic feelings.

Jimmy Tillman

Jimmy TillmanJimmy Tillman approaches the blues and blues drumming with an undeniable and powerful sense of history. No other drummer that I met in Chicago possessed such a commitment to the blues heritage and the preservation of it. Along with being a respected drummer in his own right, Tillman is also a teacher, composer, lecturer, playwright, and author. He was a driving force behind the theatrical production of Muddy Waters: The Hoochie Coochie Man, and has penned a booklet called The Art Of Blues Drumming, which seeks to give those drummers not familiar with the blues a most splendid introduction. Articulate and earnest about his work, Tillman states the case for the blues in a most convincing way—in print or in person.

Tillman invited me to a performance of Muddy Waters while I was in Chicago, but due to the Chicago Blues Festival, I was unable to make it. Thus, he gave me a rundown on the show’s beginnings and its special relationship with Muddy, which I’ve included here.

RS: Tell me how Muddy Waters: The Hoochie Coochie Man came to be.

JT: This play was inspired by Muddy in 1982. I was working at the time with the Chicago Blues All-Stars, and touring with Muddy. He made mention of the fact that there hadn’t been anyone who had written any books or anything of substance on his life. I told him that I’d been working with some children at a Chicago elementary school as a blues artist in residence, teaching them the history of the blues. I asked him if I could do something on him. Well, he said he’d love it and would really appreciate it. He wanted so badly for the young generation to know what it was like being a blues musician coming up in Chicago, and to know about the things he faced and the hardships he encountered. So during this tour, we’d sit down and Muddy would start telling me stories. Most of the information that is in the play came from him and from Willie Dixon. Shortly after that, Muddy became very ill and had to stop touring. When I got back to the school and finished work on the production, we invited him to come to the show, but he was too ill to come. Two weeks after the play was performed at school, Muddy died. The whole purpose of his coming was not so much to have him see the show, but to also give him an honorary diploma. Muddy never did graduate from any school, you see. From that point on, I took the script that I had written and gave it to some people to get it on the stage. We made it into a “bluesical.” It is about the blues, and it is a story of Muddy Waters’ life. It’s been running for more than six months here in Chicago. By the time people read this interview, hopefully, it’ll be in New York, Canada, and Europe.

RS: With all the research you’ve put into the play, your booklet, The Art Of Blues Drumming, and your experiences as a blues drummer, can you define for me the qualities that make up good blues drummers?

JT: Blues drummers aren’t any different from other drummers out there. First and foremost, they’re drummers, so they must be able to keep a steady beat, have dynamics, and have control. Because the makeup of the blues is so simple, it must be played well. Blues are the roots to all American music. Drummers who come from other backgrounds and try to play the blues often feel that they must fill every space in the 12 bars. Well, that’s not so. A drummer in a blues band is only one of four or five musicians working in concert together. The drummer sets it up for what it really is. In blues, the rule is that less is more. If drummers remember that, they’ll be fine. The less they do, the more effective the song becomes.

RS: What about tuning the drums? Do blues drummers approach tuning any differently than drummers in other music forms.

JT: Blues drummers tune the drums to the sound that the bands have to have. Some drummers say, “Well, I tune my drums to G,” or whatever. Well, listen, that may not work so well if you’re playing in a band that does most of its material in E all night.

Do you understand what I’m saying? Most blues bands are going to be in E, A, B-natural, and maybe once in a while B-flat or F. But the hardcore Chicago blues groups, because they use harmonicas, will play in E, A, or B. Jazz cats in Chicago and elsewhere use the flat keys.

RS: Does the fact that a majority of the great blues players in Chicago come from Mississippi have a great deal to do with what we hear, blueswise, coming out of Chicago?

JT: Well, yes. But there’s another segment of Chicago blues players that came out of Memphis and another segment that came out of New Orleans. So Chicago blues is like a melting-pot blues. I learned a lot from Odie Payne, Jr., and Al Duncan about this—Morris Jennings, too. He and I graduated from the same high school— Dusable High School. He’d come back to the high school when he just turned professional, and play in the concert band. I would remember everything he would play and try to master it when I got home. He would say to me, “Man, you’ve got to learn how to play the blues before anything else.” Then I met Casey Jones, and his style was completely different. I think he came from Mississippi. He played the blues with a rock ‘n’ roll feel. So everything was sort of mixed into a general Chicago blues style. But if you picked it apart, you’d find that there were lots of different roots. Casey played great shuffles; I always loved his shuffles.

RS: It’s funny that you should mention Casey’s shuffles. I spoke to him about them.

JT: Well, people take shuffles for granted; they take the 12-bar blues for granted, too. But inside of them is the whole rudiment of African drumming that made its way to the States. The blues is African drumming or a drumkit with cymbals playing African drum patterns. It is not 4/4 time; it’s 12/8 time. People count it in four, because it takes too long to get to 12.

RS: Talking about the combination of drum styles and blues types in Chicago, I’ve read somewhere that Muddy Waters’ drummer, Willie Smith, was the perfect example of this.

JT: Absolutely. Check this out: He played drums unlike anyone I’d ever seen. He played backwards and inside out. He’d play his floor tom on the left-hand side; he’d also play left-handed drums. But the drumset would be set up in a right-handed manner. Looking at him play and then listening to what he was doing, you couldn’t connect the two. He was the best when it came to delaying the beat but never dragging the tempo. Muddy had a style of playing whereby, if you listened to him and his band for a while, the sound just seemed to roll at you, like the Mississippi River. First a little ripple would come in, but as the show progressed, Willie would keep on coming up, and you’d never realize that the dynamics had gotten up there. Like when Muddy called for “Rock Me,” one of his great songs, Willie would pull that beat back, but he would never drag that tempo. It always would be right in the pocket.

RS: What about blues drum solos?

JT: Listen to Odie Payne, Jr., for solos. Now, I love to solo, but Odie can really do it right within a blues context. I learned to blues solo from him. A lot of blues drummers won’t solo, but Odie would.

RS: When did you begin playing the drums?

JT: In 1959 at Dusable High School. I learned to read, play, and perform in big bands. I was born in Meridian, Mississippi. Down there I played washtubs, buckets, and things like that. It was just keeping a beat on the buckets. My first professional gig where I made some money was with Otis Rush.

RS: Would it be safe to say that you’re somewhat of a blues drummer historian?

JT: That’s pretty cool, yeah. I feel that someone has to keep the word and the information alive. The blues is our heritage. When people in other countries look for the first music that America has contributed to the world, they look to the blues. It stands the tallest and the strongest. It tells the story of black people through lyrics and song. To me, it’s the most powerful music on earth. The blues is the truth. That’s the easiest way to say it. It’s the truth. Amen.