This past May 9, the Blues Foundation, a Memphis-based nonprofit organization that preserves and celebrates blues heritage, inducted their thirty-ninth class of Blues Hall of Fame members at the Halloran Centre for Performing Arts & Education in Memphis, Tennessee. This year’s thirteen honorees collectively represented all five of the organization’s qualifying categories: Performers, Non-Performing Individuals, Classic of Blues Literature, Classic of Blues Recording (Song), and Classic of Blues Recording (Album).
The organization’s 2018 inductees included both the legendary blues drummer Sam Lay and one of Lay’s main influences, the late sticks-man Fred Below of the blues group the Aces. Both players became the first Chicago-based blues drummers elected into the Hall of Fame.
Lay earned crossover fame in both the blues and rock worlds, beginning with his work with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. But his résumé includes blues credentials both before and after he played on Butterfield’s historic 1965 debut, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band. He’s the fourth member of the band to enter the Blues Hall of Fame, following Butterfield, Mike Bloomfield, and Elvin Bishop.
Lay—who developed his drumming trademark, the “double shuffle,” after listening to the double-time rhythms of handclaps and tambourines he heard at his hometown church in Birmingham, Alabama—began performing professionally with various artists after a move to Cleveland. Later, the drummer relocated to Chicago to play with the blues harmonica player Little Walter. Lay left Walter’s combo to begin a long stint with the blues legend Howlin’ Wolf’s band, and he played on Wolf’s classics “Killing Floor” and “I Ain’t Superstitious.” After his tenure with Wolf, Lay switched bands again when Paul Butterfield offered him a pay raise to play Chicago clubs for twenty dollars a night.
During his time with Butterfield, Lay also accompanied Bob Dylan at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival and on one studio cut, the title track of Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited album. Soon after, Lay joined the blues songwriter, singer, and harmonica player James Cotton’s new band while also beginning a long association with the Chicago-based Siegel-Schwall Band.
As he established his name, Lay launched a career leading his own band while continuing to play for others in the studio, in Chicago clubs, and on the road. In 1969 he played with Muddy Waters, Butterfield, and others on Waters’ historic Fathers and Sons album, which comprised studio performances and live recordings.
Lay sang “I Got My Mojo Working” on the Paul Butterfield Blues Band album and followed that with leading performances on the 1966 Testament Records compilation Goin’ to Chicago. The drummer released his first full album as a leader, Sam Lay in Bluesland, in 1969. Lay also played on sessions by Bob Riedy, George “Wild Child” Butler, Carey Bell, Eddy “the Chief” Clearwater, George “Mojo” Buford, Jimmy D. Lane, Hubert Sumlin, Rockin’ Johnny, Sunnyland Slim, Barrelhouse Chuck, and Easy Baby, among many others. His group, the Sam Lay Blues Revival Band, toured the U.S. and Canada with Butler, Jimmy Rogers, Eddie Taylor, and others featured in the traveling revue. Lay also developed a talent as a blues guitar player.
In addition to his musical accomplishments, Lay earned a reputation for his cordiality and for silent home movies he shot in Chicago clubs that captured rare footage of Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, and others. He was elected to the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame in 1992.