Two years ago, I attended the Second Annual Chicago Blues Festival in search of blues drummers whose stories have never been told and whose only real recognition outside blues circles was their names on the backs of albums. To me, they were the forgotten heroes of what is one of America’s richest and purest indigenous music forms. For years, I had listened to their work, marveled at their subtle mastery of the blues beat, and wondered what they had to say about the blues and blues drumming.
I spent a week in Chicago that June. When I returned home to New Jersey, I had taped interviews with Odie Payne, Jr., Casey Jones, Jimmy Tillman, and Morris Jennings. What they said was published in the December, 1985 issue of Modern Drummer. To be honest, it was one of the most gratifying assignments I had ever completed for the magazine. Yet, I felt the blues drummer story was incomplete. I had fervently hoped to speak with two legendary Chicago blues drummers, Fred Below and S.P. Leary, but didn’t. Neither played the festival. Below was ill at the time, and Leary was out of town.
Five months later, I heard a rumor that not one, but both of them would be performing at the Third Annual Chicago Blues Festival. At once, I made plans to attend and succeeded in interviewing them. What they told me about the blues and their long careers is part of this feature.
Leary and Below, however, are from another era. Their best work (and there’s lots of it) is well documented on record, and now they perform only occasionally. To balance out this “Blues Drummers, Part 2” piece, I searched out three young, up-and-coming drummers to contrast old and new—master and student. Chris Layton, Fred Grady, and David Olson together represent the newest generation of blues drummers. Some observers of the blues scene claim there’s a blues renaissance in the making. That could be. If there is, you can be sure these three drummers will be keeping the beat for it.
Fred Below is the dean of Chicago blues drummers. Born in Chicago in 1926, Below claims he’s never really lived anywhere else. His track record is long enough to span Chicago’s entire postwar blues era. A product of famed DuSable High School, Below worked the clubs and bars of Chicago’s Southside in the ’50s and ’60s with virtually every great bluesman of the day, including Muddy Waters and Little Walter. He helped define the role of the Chicago blues drummer and cut the path on which many other blues drummers would later follow.
Later on, Below recorded with such early rock ‘n’ roll pioneers as Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, and became a regular session player for Chess Records. That’s Below’s cool, steady beat heard on Berry’s ‘ ‘Maybellene” and Bo Diddley’s ‘ ‘Bo Diddley.”
Last year, Fred Below retired, yet friends will coax him every now and then to come out and play. Such was the case at the Third Annual Chicago Blues Festival. Below teamed up with members of his old group, the Aces. “Playing with these men brings back so many memories,” remarked Below backstage after the show. “I can remember a lot of things in my life by music.”
RS: You started your long career as a drummer at DuSable High School, an institution that turned out a number of excellent Chicago musicians over the years.
FB: That’s right. We got some of the best musical education you could get at the time.
RS: What drummers did you admire most as a student?
FB: Oh, Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. I studied jazz at school. Blues was something I came into in 1951. When I left the army in 1946, there were no jobs open for me. I was a young drummer back in those days. So I re-enlisted in the army and went to Europe. While I was in Europe, I ran into guitar players who were playing the blues. The blues was something brand new to me. I’d never heard that type of sound before.
RS: But you were born in Chicago. How could you not have been familiar with the blues?
FB: I don’t know. I guess I just concentrated on jazz. The reason I did that was because I could go to the movies each Saturday and there would be a stage show with a different band each week. I had an opportunity to watch and listen to drummers like Art Blakey, Buddy Rich, and Gene Krupa. And it didn’t cost me an arm and a leg to see them either. I picked up a lot of good things by watching these great drummers.
RS: Did you play drums in the army?
FB: The first time around, no. The second time I went in, I did.
RS: When were you discharged from the service for good?
FB: In 1951. That’s when I learned about Muddy Waters and other blues artists like Tampa Red. At the time, I was living on the Southside of Chicago.
RS: What were your impressions of the blues when you heard it?
FB: It was different. The beats were not substantial like in jazz, for one thing. I finally got with a blues group called the Aces. I had an opportunity to learn from them. But I had to make a lot of changes.
RS: What kinds of changes?
FB: Well, I was a jazz drummer going into the blues. That was change enough.
RS: In addition to your work with the Aces, you played with a number of other blues people.
FB: That I did people like Muddy, Jimmy Reed, Little Walter, Elmore James.
RS: What was the scene like back then? With so many great players in one city playing local clubs on a regular basis, it must have been very exciting.
FB: It was. There was plenty of work around if you were good enough to get it.
RS: So you played, what, five or six nights a week?
FB: Seven. I ‘d go to work at 9:00 each night, and play three or four sets a night, every night. I’d work three or four clubs steady. There was a lot of jammin’ going down, too. You had an opportunity to hear and play with some of the great ones. You always had musicians coming around and sitting in.
RS: You did quite a bit of studio work back then, too.
FB: Yes. The beat that I was playing was a beat that the blues people accepted and liked. So I got plenty of work.
RS: How would you describe your drum style back then?
FB: Well, it was a blues beat with a jazz feel. I still play like that, too. It made me different from the other drummers. And one other thing I played with the band; the band didn’t play with me. There’s a difference, you know. See, the role of the blues drummer is to bring the beats out, but not to overshadow the music. That means you do not play so loud that no one is heard but yourself. Play in a way that your music is felt, not heard.
RS: I’ve heard that before.
FB: It’s true. The rock drummers and blues drummers today don’t go along with that concept, you know. What they play is so loud, and they sustain one beat. Rock drummers do that a lot. They have one little lick. The young blues drummers try to double up on the bass drum and do things that are not necessary in blues.
RS: The blues was always given a bad rap by some, because on the surface, it appears to be a rather simple music form.
FB: The blues, if played correctly, is not easy to master. People who say that about the blues never played the blues. If they did, they probably didn’t play it right. It’s very hard to play somebody’s feelings, and that’s what the blues is.
RS: You did a lot of work for Chess Records in the old days.
FB: Yes I did. I played with Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Little Walter.
RS: Berry and Diddley were rock ‘n’ roll.
FB: They were the beginning of rock ‘n’ roll. I had to come up with a new beat to go along with what they were singing. They must have liked what they heard, because I did a lot of that kind of work. I also worked with the Moonglows and other groups.
RS: What Chuck Berry songs did you play on?
FB: “Maybellene” was one; that much I can tell you. But I don’t remember the names of the others.
RS: And what about Bo Diddley? What songs of his did you record?
FB: “Bo Diddley.” Now that had a different beat. But I played it like a blues drummer. I didn’t let myself overshadow the rest of the players and music. I made sure that the beat was there, but it wasn’t so loud, if you know what I mean. Bo Diddley wanted more fills than Chuck Berry wanted. We’d go into the studio, get two or three good takes, and that was it. My job was finished.
RS: Of all the blues and early rock greats that you played with, which one did you enjoy working with the most?
FB: Little Walter. He gave me more freedom than anyone else. So I was able to do a lot of experimenting. He just turned me loose.
RS: Did you do much soloing?
FB: No, I did not. The first solo of mine that was ever recorded was heard on “Off The Wall” by Little Walter back in the early ’60s. That’s what I mean about Little Walter. He’d let me do something like that. The other artists I played with wouldn’t go for that. When Little Walter told me to take a solo, boy, I was surprised.
RS: What kind of drums did you play back then?
FB: My first set was a Gretsch set. I used Zildjian cymbals. That was a good little set.
RS: You’re retired now. Do you miss playing the drums?
FB: Yeah, but when I’m feelin’ lonely for them, I just get them out and play.
These days, any talk of the “new blues” or blues-rock has to start with Stevie Ray Vaughan and his band, Double Trouble. By introducing the rich heritage of traditional blues to a new generation of music fans nurtured mostly on techno pop and heavy metal, and by reviving the potent hybrid of rock and blues for those who recall the golden years of the late ’60s and early ’70s, Vaughan and his band are at the vanguard of the back-to-the-roots movement that’s currently influencing the course of American rock ‘n’ roll.
Drummer Chris Layton has played behind Stevie Ray Vaughan for over ten years. Vaughan affectionately calls him, “my main man,” and “the guy with the thick sticks.” It’s Lay ton’s big, bold backbeat and classy shuffles that make up the foundation from which Stevie Ray Vaughan launches his guitar heroics. Often overshadowed by Vaughan’s vast presence on stage, Layton is, nonetheless, a highly respected drummer among his peers and one who has certainly put his mark on the growing blues-rock renaissance.
RS: No other blues or blues-rock band on the scene today is enjoying the success that Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble currently have. What are your feelings on this?
CL: I think the success we’ve had over the last couple of years has definitely helped draw attention to the blues, and as a result, people who wouldn’t have been exposed to the blues now know what the music is all about. Our success has also helped, I think, open the doors for other blues and blues-rock artists. If we can help them gain some notoriety and respect, why, that’s fine with us.
RS: What kinds of demands has this success put on you as the drummer in the band?
CL: I’ve always tried to do the best that I could when it came to playing drums. And I keep trying to do that. To tell you the truth, I don’t feel any unusual pressure or anything like that now that we’ve gotten some exposure and respect. If there are any demands put on me, they come from within.
RS: Did you always play drums in blues-rock bands, or are your roots from elsewhere?
CL: When I was growing up, my father had a lot of Ray Charles and B.B. King records in the house. I listened to them, as well as to records by Elvis Presley, Chubby Checker, and guys like them. They were the ones who got me fired up to play the drums. But I also listened to Lionel Hampton and Fats Waller. So my background is pretty varied, I guess. As for bands, I played in a few hippie bands, but that was about it.
RS: Did you grow up in Texas?
CL: Yeah, that’s right. I’m from the coast—from Corpus Christi.
RS: Was there a decent blues or blues-rock scene in Corpus Christi when you were a kid?
CL: No, there really wasn’t. There were a few people who were into the blues and who had a lot of blues records, though. Luckily, I got to meet these people. They were quite a bit older than I was. But still, they didn’t constitute a “scene,” so to speak. Before I actually began playing with Stevie, I really hadn’t played much blues.
RS: How did you wind up becoming Stevie’s drummer?
CL: One of my best friends, a horn player named Joe Sublett, moved to Austin and got in a band called Paul Ray & The Cobras. Stevie was one of the guitar players in the band. I met Stevie one day in my kitchen. I was playing my drums with headphones on. I looked up, and there was Stevie. He was tapping his foot and snapping his fingers. He’d come over to the house to see Joe. They were going to pick out some new songs for the band to do. He told me he dug the way I played.
A bit later, the Cobras’ drummer, who was a sheetrocker during the day, had missed a few gigs, so Stevie invited me on up to play with the group. It was from there that our association started. Then, when Stevie left the Cobras to start a band called Triple Threat Revue, which didn’t last long and which eventually turned into Double Trouble, he was having some problems with his drummer. I really wasn’t too happy with what I was doing. I wanted to do something more serious. So I told Stevie I wanted to play with him, and he said, “Okay, let’s go.” We’ve been together ever since.
RS: And this was the first time you played in a blues band?
CL: Yeah. I wasn’t the world’s greatest shuffle player, because like I said before, I never really seriously played the blues in other bands I was in. Fortunately, the bass player in Triple Threat, W.C. Clark, gave me a lot of pointers. He’s an incredible player. Any way, I guess I had a natural ability of sorts to play the blues, because I picked it up pretty quick.
RS: When did you begin playing the drums?
CL: When I was 14. That’s when I got my first set an old Ludwig set. I traded it off in a bad deal a long time ago. That was a great set.
RS: Why the drums?
CL: That’s a good question. I guess because I always used to beat on things. My father was a drummer, even though he had stopped playing by the time he was 23. Maybe it was something genetic that made me want to play. I don’t know.
RS: Did he have any drums around the house when you were growing up?
CL: No, he didn’t. The only thing he kept around was a pair of brushes. And I played with brushes before I ever picked up sticks. One thing he did do for me was encourage me to play. My father always said that a man becomes what he thinks of most of the time. Well, I was always thinking about drums and rhythms.
RS: Your father aside, what other drummers influenced you?
CL: Three people come to mind immediately: Mitch Mitchell, Michael Shrieve, and believe it or not, Stevie Wonder. I just love the way the man plays drums. He has a whole different approach to the instrument. The stuff he did on Talking Book still knocks me out.
RS: Let’s get back to Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble. Are you pretty much free to play what you believe is best for a particular song?
CL: Yeah. We don’t actually sit down and work things out. We just do a lot of playing. We don’t even have long periods of intense rehearsals. Stevie will throw out an idea, and everybody will just jump on it. We’ll try to play it like we’re breaking out of jail.
RS: What does Stevie like in a drummer?
CL: If it’s at all possible, don’t play the same thing twice. And always play with as much heart and soul as you can. You also have to be able to play loud, because Stevie sure does play loud.
RS: Is that difficult for you?
CL: In a way it is, because I have to play loud and hard, and still keep my finesse. Those are difficult things to put together.
RS: And how do you manage?
CL: The best I can.
RS: Every now and then, Stevie will venture off and include some interesting jazz themes in his music.
CL: I love when he does that. I’m not the best jazz player around, but I love playing it. By nature, I’m really a lighter player than I sound, so I kind of fall into the jazz grooves pretty easily.
RS: What kind of equipment are you presently using?
CL: I’m using a custom Tama set. I have a carbon fiber snare that has a lot of crack to it. I also have 12″, 13″, and 14″ toms. The 12 and 13 are an inch longer than the standard size. My kick drum is 16 inches deep, similar to the power kick series. As for cymbals, I have an 18″ Sabian crash-ride and a 20″ Paiste ride. My other crash is a K Zildjian. I also have Zildjian New Beat hi-hats that I’ve had for years. I got them when they first came out, and I’ve played them ever since.
RS: What is your general outlook when it comes to playing the drums? Sum up, if you will, your personal view towards your instrument.
CL: I want to do the best I can and play the most I can. Playing behind Stevie is a job I love. It also helps to have a strong woman behind you, and my wife, Betty, is just that. I owe her a lot.
Back when David Olson was in high school, he was torn between playing sports and playing the drums. “I was in love with football and was actually passing a few classes because I played on the school team,” he says with a smile. “But I also loved playing the drums.”
When the politics of high school football got “too heavy,” Olson not only gave up the sport, but he also transferred to another school. Looking back, he says it was the best move he ever made. “I settled back, rediscovered the drums, and was introduced to the blues.”
Olson has been a musician first and an athlete second ever since. He logged time in a number of R&B bar bands in the Pacific Northwest until he joined the Robert Cray Band, one of contemporary blues’ most exciting outfits. The band’s unique feel for the blues and Cray’s superb guitar skills have made blues-rock stalwarts like Eric Clapton big fans of the group.
Olson is a student of the drums. Watch him as he talks about them, and the enthusiasm he has for his instrument seems to coat each and every word. Cray considers him a cornerstone of the band. Olson says he’s got a lot to learn, and that he’s willing to do whatever it takes to become the best drummer he can. Talk about having the right attitude.
RS: As a kid torn between sports and drums, you certainly must have had some football players you looked up to. Did you also have drummers you especially admired?
DO: Oh, sure. The earliest ones were Mitch Mitchell and Clive Bunker from Jethro Tull. But then I was introduced to drummers like Benny Benjamin, Al Jackson, Sonny Freeman, and Bernard Purdie.
RS: You went from British rock drummers to American R&B and soul drummers.
DO: Yeah. After high school, I attended a community college in Oregon and actually learned how to read music. I even got pretty decent at reading big band charts. But I was playing in an R&B band and having a lot of fun in it. Then Robert Cray called me up and asked if I wanted a job in his band. The group had just moved from Tacoma, Washington, to Portland. I was getting very bored with school, so I quit. I took Cray’s offer and have been with him ever since.
RS: Is there a strong blues scene in the Pacific Northwest, in places such as Tacoma and Portland?
DO: I think it was better in the past than it is now. It’s weird, but today if you call yourself a “blues” band, there aren’t too many clubs that will hire you in that part of the country. A few years ago, however, it was a little bit better.
RS: Is there enough for the Robert Cray Band to play steady gigs and earn a decent living?
DO: Well, let’s put it this way: We persevered. We starved, but we kept knocking on doors, and eventually we beat them down. The turning point with the band occurred when we signed with the Rosebud Booking Agency out of San Francisco. They took a lot of interest in us.
RS: You mentioned before that Sonny Freeman was one of your main influences.
DO: The man could shuffle like nobody. I finally got that feel with the left hand incorporated into my own drum style, you know, with the accents on the 2 and the 4. I went to play with these guys who were blues fanatics I mean real blues fanatics before I joined with Robert Cray. The reason why they invited me to play with them was because I didn’t play loud. All they wanted was someone to play some relatively quiet shuffles. From that point on, I started to get very involved in blues drumming. I always feel really good when a band locks into a blues or soul groove. That’s the greatest feeling in the world for me.
RS: So many of the great blues drummers stress the fact that you have to play softly if you want to play the blues correctly.
DO: In this style of music, the right dynamics is essential dynamics and the right grooves. Sometimes I don’t think of myself as a blues drummer, but as a drummer who plays the blues. I don’t know if many people can see the distinction like I can, but for me it’s very real.
RS: There’s an increased awareness of the blues these days, if not an out-and-out revival or renaissance. Where do you think this comes from?
DO: I think it stems back to the Blues Brothers records. That group was so good, with Duck Dunn and Steve Jordan holding down that rhythm section. Jordan is a drummer who took the shuffle, switched it around, and gave it a whole new flavor. He’s incredible. He has so much class to go along with a very intellectual imagination. Some of the things he did on the Letterman show amazed me.
RS: What comprises a good blues drummer in your estimation?
DO: Most important to me is the groove the beat. Whether it’s a funk beat with a million notes or a basic Al Jackson 2 and 4, you must be able to get that groove right. That’s what’s most important, at least to me.
RS: Do you practice much at home?
DO: Yeah, I’d say so. When I’m home, I like to work on the shuffle, and move the double stroke between the snare drum and the bass drum just to give it a little flavor. I don’t do that on stage, because Robert doesn’t like that too much. But for my own dexterity, it’s fun to practice that. I’ve gone from practicing exercises to practicing grooves. I like to play to tapes. Bobby Womack is perfect for that. Yogi Horton is great. I’d love to apply some of the things I’ve been working on in a live situation. My goal is simply to be able to get people to tap their feet. The drummers who do that are the ones I admire the most.
RS: You’ve recorded with Robert Cray, right?
DO: Yes, I have. I’m on Bad Influences, False Accusations, and the new record. I haven’t done much else in the way of recording. I’m basically a band drummer, and when the band records, I’m a part of it. We tour a lot, too, so there’s little time for outside projects. Studio work is real weird for me. I much prefer playing on stage and touring. The studio is too demanding.
RS: You say you enjoy playing live and touring. It’s a good thing, because the Robert Cray Band always seems to be on the road.
DO: Well, it’s true. We do tour a lot. We go to Europe as much as we can. There’s definitely a demand for good American blues bands over there. Actually, I think a large reason why we got a major record deal with Mercury was due to our success abroad.
RS: What kinds of drums are you presently playing?
DO: I have a Pearl drumset. The bass drum is 22.” The extended toms are 12″, 13″, and 16″. I use Zildjian cymbals: a 20″ ride, a 16″ crash, and New Beat hi-hats.
RS: Do you ever use electronic drums?
DO: No, although I’ve played around with them, and on the new record, I was subjected to a LinnDrum for the very first time. I used it a bit on the tracks. With the LinnDrum, it was strange pushing buttons and all, but I think I need to know about such things. Let’s face it, that’s now very much a part of the overall equipment currently being used by drummers in the 1980s.
RS: You already alluded to the Robert Cray Band’s success overseas. Why is it more difficult to crack the U.S. market for blues bands?
DO: I think the American people have so many other things coming at them, musically. They have jazz, rock, pop, Top 40, videos, MTV — you name it. And how many radio stations are playing B.B. King records? It’s hard for me sometimes to look back and see how far we’ve come. We’ve always refused to compromise our music, and still we’ve made progress. That makes me really proud to be a part of this band.
S. P. Leary
Don’t ask S.P. Leary what his initials stand for, because he doesn’t know. “It’s just S.P., unless you want to add something to them,” he says amusingly. “I was called S.P. from the moment I entered this here world as far as I know.”
No matter. What you do need to know about S. P. Leary is that, when it comes to naming the truly great post-war Chicago blues drummers, you’ve got to include him. As a blues stylist, Leary proved that less was more and that to be felt was better than to be heard. Born in Carthage, Texas, in 1930, Leary and his family moved to Dallas early on. It was in Dallas that Leary kept the beat for the legendary blues guitarist T-Bone Walker. But it was after a stint in the army and after he had migrated to Chicago that Leary made his reputation as one of the steadiest and sweetest blues drummers in the Windy City.
The list of musicians S. P. Leary has played behind reads like a Who’s Who of Chicago blues. That’s why, at the Third Annual Chicago Blues Festival held last year, Leary, like his old friend and counterpart Fred Below, drew a standing ovation before he even hit a note.
“It’s nice to know some people remember and respect what I did.” remarked Leary backstage after his set with Barrelhouse Chuck. “It’s nice to know indeed.
RS: What’s your earliest recollection of yourself as a drummer?
SPL: Well, let’s see. I guess I’d have to go back to 1943 or so. My sister bought me a snare drum that year. She knew I was always beatin’ on something, so when she saw one for the right price, she bought it. I’ve been drumming ever since. It took a long time, though, before I got my first real set of drums. I just worked out on that snare for a long time.
RS: Early on in your career, you had the opportunity to play with T-Bone Walker. How did you wind up playing with him?
SPL: I’d been playing the blues, and T-Bone discovered me. He gave me a job. But because I was young like 14 -he had to come up to my house to pick me up and drop me off each night. That’s the way my folks wanted it. I had to ride with him all the time. During that time, there weren’t any kids my age able to go into nightclubs. You had to have an elder be responsible for you. TBone, Lowell Fulson, and Big Joe Turner helped me through the mill.
RS: Looking back, I’m sure that playing at such an early age with such great musicians must have given you a wealth of experience.
SPL: Well, it did. I never did run with kids my own age. I’d go to school with kids my age, but after school, I’d be with the big boys trying to learn something.
RS: What was T-Bone like?
SPL: T-Bone was a gift to music. Along with Lowell Fulson, he was one of the creators of electric blues guitar. All of today’s electric blues guitarists can thank T-Bone and Lowell for what they did.
RS: What do you remember about playing with T-Bone?
SPL: He made me learn how to play with the brushes because he didn’t like sticks. He didn’t like loud beats. He just wanted that drive—that steady drive, you know. He didn’t want you to get fancy and jump all over the place. He’d take care of the fancy stuff. He was the show. You see, that’s where many of the young blues drummers of today make a mistake. They think they’re supposed to be seen just like the fellows up front. But their job is to drive those guys. Just drive em that’s all. I learned early on that I wasn’t supposed to be heard; I was supposed to be felt. You ain’t got to hear me. You got to feel me.
RS: How long did you play with T-Bone Walker?
SPL: About six years. Then, I went in the army and played drums there. After that, I came out and went to school. I wanted to become an accountant, but my mind was always on music. Finally, I moved to Chicago.
RS: What drummers were you listening to for inspiration?
SPL: One drummer: Art Blakey. That’s the man who gave me my first pair of drumsticks. I was up at the Rose Room where Mr. Blakey was playing with Billy Eckstine. This is when Mr. Eckstine had his big blues band. Anyway, after the show, I asked Mr. Blakey if he’d give me a pair of sticks, and he did. I didn’t have any business being in the club, because I was just a kid. But I wanted to meet that man. And you know what? To this day, Mr. Blakey remembers me as the boy he gave a pair of sticks to in Dallas a long time ago.
RS: Were you influenced by Art Blakey’s drum style?
SPL: I was then, and I still am. I think he’s the greatest drummer in the world.
RS: Talking with other blues drummers, I’m amazed at how the names of the same jazz drummers pop up when discussing influences.
SPL: Do you know why? Because the only blues drummers around when we were starting out were Dixieland blues drummers. And remember, the blues didn’t need a drummer back then. You just needed a guitar, and that was it.
RS: When you moved to Chicago, was it with the idea that you’d join a blues band there?
SPL: Chicago was, and still is, the blues capital of the world. When I first came to Chicago, I was living with my sister out in Maywood. I was trying to find a regular job, but I couldn’t find one. So I was ready to pack and leave, but one day I was down in the basement practicing my drums, and Sonny Boy Williamson [Rice Miller] came over. He lived across the street. I didn’t know that at the time. He asked my sister, “Who’s that beatin’ on those drums down in the cellar there?” Well, my sister told him it was me. This was the same sister who bought me my first drum. Well, ol’ Sonny Boy gave me a job. I played with him and Johnny Shines. I worked with Sonny Boy until he broke me into what was going on in Chicago. From there, I just went.
RS: Those were truly classic days in blues history.
SPL: They sure were. You could go from door to door from one club to the next. There were so many clubs back then and a lot of great players.
RS: Who else did you play with back then?
SPL: Oh, boy, you’re going to make me bust my skull trying to remember. I’ll give you a couple of names: Elmore James, Homesick James, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Magic Sam. Is that enough?
RS: That’s fine.
SPL: You know, when I played with Magic Sam, that was important for me, because after working with him, I knew that I was able to play the blues. He taught me quite a bit about the moves I should make behind a blues musician: go for that steady backbeat and set up the drive. Now T-Bone, like I said, taught me the same thing. But I was too young to get it down the way I needed to. But with Magic Sam, I did. See, I never was a solo drummer. A technician is what you might call me.
RS: You did quite a bit of recording once you settled into the Chicago scene.
SPL: Yeah, but not right away. It took me a while to get into it.
RS: And who did you first begin your recording career with?
SPL: With Howlin’ Wolf on Chess Records. From Wolf I went to Muddy [Waters], from Muddy to Jimmie Rodgers, and from Jimmie Rodgers to a lot of others.
RS: What are your recollections of Howlin’ Wolf?
SPL: He was one of the greatest men I ever worked for. He and Muddy were great blues people.
RS: Do you remember what kind of drumset you used back then?
SPL: I sure do. It’s the same one I’m using now. It’s a Slingerland set. I got that kit in 1952, and I’ve been using it ever since. Some players today change drums like they change clothes. What for? You find a good set of drums, and you stick with them. They treat you good, and you treat them good. There ain’t no other way. You talk cymbals with me, and I’ll tell you Zildjian all the way. That’s the way it is with me.
RS: There were blues drummers who played the blues in the Delta region and blues drummers from Chicago. From what I’ve been told, they approached the blues differently. Yet no one has been able to tell me what it was that was different. Can you?
SPL: Well, I’ll try. The Delta blues drummers played by hearsay. By that I mean instinct. They played the way they thought blues drummers ought to play. They didn’t know the way Chicago blues drummers were playing, until they actually got here and saw how it was done. Now don’t get me wrong. Some of the greatest blues players I know came from Mississippi and the Delta. Once they got to Chicago, they changed the way they played. Chicago was like a blues college. You brought your talent with you, and you refined it here. There were no chumps keeping the beat here. There are still no chumps here.
RS: Do you still play out regularly?
SPL: Well, I’ll play with Jimmy Walker and Barrelhouse Chuck, and that’s about it. I’m not playing full-time anymore. The blues has been good to me. I ain’t complaining. I’ve been around the world nine or ten times. I played on Muddy’s “I Got My Mojo Working.” I was around for the days when blues was king. I’ve got no right to complain. I’ve got a good wife, too.
RS: Do you have any children?
SPL: No, no children. But I’ll tell you what. I’ve got three ol’ dogs out there in the back if you want to interview them. [laughs]
RS: Maybe another time.
Although Fred Grady is well known in Chicago blues circles, it’s only been since joining Jimmy Johnson’s blues band that he’s begun to get some outside recognition. At age 34, he’s old enough to recall and to have been influenced by such legendary blues drummers as Fred Below and S.P Leary. Yet, he’s young enough to be considered part of the new generation of blues players. He brings to the blues a keen sense of tradition and a remarkably strong respect for standard blues. However, he’s never been afraid to insert fresh ideas into his drumming.
For this reason, Grady is a good choice to represent Chicagos new breed of blues drummers. As he points out in the following interview, young blues drummers often borrow from rock and rhythm & blues, and in the process, are slowly but surely redefining the role of a blues drummer. Grady’s drum style can be summed up this way: cool, crisp, a touch of funk here, a dash of rock there but always mindful, as he says, “to keep my job of laying down the beat in front of everything else I do.
RS: You weren’t always a blues drummer. You crossed over from funk and Top 40, correct?
FG: That’s true. In the ’70s, I played in mostly funk groups around Chicago. But in 1979, I switched over to the blues. I started out free-lancing around the city, and I played with a bunch of different blues artists. I’d work four or five nights a week with pretty much everyone around town. I did that until I met Jimmy Johnson. He was working steady enough to keep everything happening, so I hung around.
RS: But why the change to the blues?
FG: Two reasons: first, because I always loved the blues and, second, because I had friends who actually found a way to make a decent living as blues musicians. It used to be that you couldn’t make any money playing the blues, and that kept a good many players away from playing it regularly. Blues musicians have to eat just like anyone else, you see. So when I saw that I could make a decent living, plus get to travel to places like Europe and still have a couple of dollars in my pocket, well, I made the switch.
RS: Did you grow up listening to the blues?
FG: Yeah, I did. I came up listening to the blues and hung out at blues clubs. I knew the music. I was born and raised in Chicago, so there was no getting away from the blues even if I wanted to.
RS: What neighborhood of Chicago did you grow up in?
FG: I grew up pretty close to the Checkerboard Lounge. Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters they all played there. I’d hang out there and listen to these players, and I’d be torn between playing the blues and playing funk. I loved the earthiness of the blues, but I also dug the rhythms heard in funk music.
RS: When did you begin playing the drums?
FG: Oh, when I was about 16. So I’ve been playing for about 18 years now, although it doesn’t seem that long. I always loved the drums always loved the way they sounded in a band. As a kid, I’d beat pots and pans, and then I went out and got some real drums. I went down in the basement and learned how to play them, and a year later, I was in my first band.
RS: Did you take drum lessons?
FG: No, but I had friends who took lessons, and I would learn what they learned.
RS: From a drummer’s point of view, was it difficult for you to make the transition from funk to the blues?
FG: No, not really. When I was playing in funk bands, I’d still make it to the blues clubs and sit in whenever I could. I’d play with local bands. But in order to sit in, you had to know how to play the blues. You couldn’t play like you were stuck in a funk groove. They’d throw you off the stage.
RS: It seems that a number of young blues musicians did, and still do, the very same thing. They play in contemporary soul or funk bands around the city, and jam with blues musicians until they make the change. Would you say that’s a fairly accurate statement?
FG: I think so, yeah. A lot of young black musicians don’t like to play the blues full-time, because that’s the music of their parents and grandparents that sort of thing. But once they get the need to discover their roots, they take the blues more seriously. Then, sometimes you have to get the blues before you start to understand the blues and want to play it.
RS: What blues drummers did you especially admire when you were learning to play?
FG: Fred Below. When it comes to the blues and blues drumming, he’s the master. There ain’t no better than Fred Below. I’d listen to him all the time. He was an inspiration.
RS: Describe, if you can, the changes you had to make as a drum mer when you went from playing funk to blues.
FG: When I was playing funk, I’d play more upbeat stuff and maybe a little more all the way around. But funk is derived from the blues, so I don’t think it’s all that difficult for anyone with a good knowledge of both music forms to make the change. A blues drummer is also less showy. He’s there, but he’s not, if you know what I mean. Blues musicians don’t like drummers who go around proving they can play this or that and being fancy. You might get away with that in other forms of music, especially in rock, but not in the blues. You’d be out of a job.
RS: Yet, when you play with Jimmy Johnson, you seem to blend together a blues-funk feel so that your playing is sharper and more robust than the average blues drummer.
FG: Well, that’s because I’m not from the old school of blues drummers. I listened to the greats—people like Fred Below, Odie Payne, and S.P. Leary—but then I developed my own style. In the old days, before electric instruments, you had to play soft, so everyone else in the band could be heard. But these days, I think it’s okay to play a little harder—a little heavier—providing you’re not too flashy or playing with one of the greats. When you play with them, you play drums the way they’re used to hearing them, mostly because that’s the way they know the blues to be and also out of respect.
RS: Would you say that blues drumming is evolving into some thing more dynamic than the styles heard 30 years ago?
FG: Yeah, I think so. Blues drummers are influenced today by drummers in rock and R&B, and they’re sneaking a little more into their fills along with a little more volume. There’s a little mixing up going on with the younger blues drummers.
RS: What kind of drumset do you currently play?
FG: I use Ludwig drums. I have two kits. My fiberglass kit is the one I’m using now. It has four toms: 13″, 14″, 16″, and 18″, a 24″ bass, and a 14″ snare. I also use a 16″ crash cymbal, a 20″ ride, and a 14″ hi-hat. My other kit is a wooden one.
RS: Do you ever use electronic drums?
FG: No. Now you’re really putting me off the blues stage. That’s going too far. That would definitely change the sound of the blues.
RS: I know Jimmy Johnson is quite popular in Europe. Do you enjoy playing there?
FG: Oh yeah. They love the blues over there. Blues acts from America don’t get over there as regularly as they’d like, so when they do come, thousands of people turn out. Some blues artists have even moved over there. I saw Memphis Slim in Paris, and the cat was driving a Rolls Royce. He’s going good. I’ve been to Europe on seven different tours. The money is four times what you make here in the States.
RS: What’s the current Chicago blues scene like?
FG: It’s pretty good, you know. There are a bunch of good clubs around to play. People who dig rock ‘n’ roll seem to be searching out the music’s roots, so they go looking for the blues.
RS: Is there enough happening in town to keep most blues players working?
FG: If you’re good, there’s always a gig for you. I made a good living free-lancing. Others are doing the same.