The legendary drummer with Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon, and Paul Butterfield has been inducted into the Blues and Jazz Halls of Fame, was present for two of the most important chapters in Bob Dylan’s career, and as a founding member of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
On early dreams of stardom
My ambition was to become a track-and-field star, but I guess it didn’t turn out that way. I still enjoy watching track-and-field competition on any level, really. The drums came about later.
On the Chicago music scene of the ’50s and ’60s
It was booming: clubs, crowds, music, and bands playing right next to each other. I wasn’t a full-time drummer [when I arrived], because I had a job working at the Sealtest Dairy. I really became a professional in 1953, ’54, with a local jazz outfit named the Moondog Combo. That’s where I got my start and learned about keeping time and all. My first notable gig in Chicago was in 1960 with Hound Dog Taylor.
On the bandleader who made the biggest impression on him
Now, that’s a real hard question to answer. I was impressed with all of them, because they all stood out. In fact, every time I sat in, I’d get an offer to join the band! One leader would offer me, say, one dollar more than the last gig, so how could I refuse? [laughs] Actually, I stayed with Wolf longer than anybody. It wasn’t about the money; I just liked playing with him and fell in love with his music. As for John Lee Hooker, I also play guitar, and I still play several of his songs. I copied them exactly like you’d hear on his records, note for note.
On his famous “double-shuffle” beat
I put that beat together when I went to sanctified church. It just sounded right, you know? I don’t know how to express it. Let me put it this way: “I just do it.”
On the most memorable of his forty-plus recordings released by the famous Chess Records label
I would say Muddy Waters’ Fathers and Sons was the most memorable. But there’s a story to that: I did the whole album—every song and the live concert. I mean everything. But somebody else [Buddy Miles] got the credit on the album. I don’t know who was responsible, but I want to set the record straight. That was just plain wrong!
On influencing drumming greats like Jim Keltner and Levon Helm
Oh, man, I feel blessed if I made a mark out there, and I’m honored to even be mentioned in their company.
On performing with Bob Dylan during his iconic Newport “electric” gig in ’65 and on his famed Highway 61 Revisited album
The Highway61 session: I believe [Dylan manager] Albert Grossman asked me if I wanted to record with him. I said, “Who the hell is Bob Dylan—I never heard of him!” The only thing I knew was the song “Like a Rolling Stone,” which I still love. It wasn’t until after the session was over that I got to know who he was. After that, he was like family. He’s a great person, one of the best around.
The Newport gig was hot. We all hung out backstage, and I got to play with anybody who needed a drummer. Cats like Skip James, Son House, you name it. Although it was a controversial day for Bob, the band…well…we had a ball.
On the Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s self-titled 1965 debut album, for which he’s given credit for helping start the blues-rock revolution
I’d like to think that, musically speaking, we broke a lot of ground. Whatever it was or is, if it was good, it was all me! [laughs]
On whether, if he had the chance, he’d do anything differently
I don’t believe I could have done anything different. I had my own sound, which is a mixture of many sounds from other people—like one big bowl of soup. I’m not what I used to be, but I still am. I’m like a Timex watch: I take a licking and keep on kicking.
Sam Lay endorses Pearl drums, Regal Tip sticks, and Remo heads.