The amazing legacy of Sam Lay, legendary Birmingham blues drummer

Sam Lay
Sam Lay at the Blues Hall of Fame. (Joseph A. Rosen)

On Saturday, January 29th, legendary blues drummer, guitarist and vocalist Sam Lay passed in Chicago at the age of 86. Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, Sam Lay traveled the world as the drummer for some of the biggest names in the Blues and R&B genres, including Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. He even played alongside Bob Dylan when he made his move to electric—but more on that later.

We spoke with several people familiar with Sam Lay to learn more about his life and legacy.

Nearly six decades of playin’ the blues

(Roger Stephenson Photography)
Although he was best known as a drummer, Sam Lay was a master guitar player and vocalist as well. (Roger Stephenson Photography)

“Despite his fame as a drummer—having played along with Howlin’ Wolf, the Paul Butterfield Band and even Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 and on his Highway 61 Revisited album—Sam Lay was a gracious, down to earth gentleman. He was known best as a drummer, but he was also an excellent guitarist and vocalist.”

Roger Stephenson, Magic City Blues Society 

Born in Birmingham in 1935 to parents who worked on Pullman train cars, Sam Lay was drawn to music at an early age. Once he was old enough to explore the world on his own, Lay moved to Cleveland in search of work and began playing drums at jazz clubs in The Forest City. It was there that he met and began playing with Little Walter, a blues virtuoso who made a name for himself as a harmonica player.

(Roger Stephenson Photography)
Sam Lay being inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. (Roger Stephenson Photography)

Throughout the 60s, Sam Lay performed as the regular drummer for Muddy Waters while regularly performing and recording with a number of prominent blues musicians. As he developed his career over the years, Lay became known for his ‘double-shuffle’ style of drumming, which he developed after years of clapping double-time at church. You can hear Lay’s ‘double-shuffle’ on recordings with Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and many more.

In 1965, Sam Lay performed as the drummer with Bob Dylan on “The Day Dylan Went Electric” at the Newport Folk Festival, a turning point in Dylan’s career that transformed his public image from a folk singer to a rock n’ roll icon. Sam Lay continued to tour with Dylan and can be heard on Dylan’s album Highway 61 Revisited. As reported by the Chicago Tribute, Dylan was a longtime admirer of Lay’s drumming, saying, “You are second to none — your flawless musicianship and unsurpassed timing, maestro with the sticks and brushes.”

Later in his life, Sam developed his skills as both a guitar player and a singer in order to play, perform and tour solo.

Sam Lay in Birmingham

Sam Lay
Sam Lay singing at Gip’s Place in 2008. (Roger Stephenson Photography)

Although Sam Lay lived his later years in Chicago, he never passed up an opportunity to visit his home city of Birmingham. According to local photographer Roger Stephenson, Sam played at Marty’s PM in Birmingham several times and was a close friend of the late owner, Marty Eagle.

In 2008, Sam played at the one-of-a-kind Gip’s Place juke joint. At the time, his ankles were swollen due to his treatment for prostate cancer—making it painful to play the drums. Sam didn’t let that stop him, however—he picked up his guitar and began singing, mesmerizing the audience with his renditions of famous blues songs.

“Sam had a strong allegiance to both Birmingham and Alabama. He played with many blues musicians when he was in the area— including Gip’s Place—he loved coming home to Birmingham. On one of his visits, Sam took us to Elmwood Cemetery and showed us his future resting place with his beautiful and large headstone. It is very wonderful that Sam chose to be buried here in Alabama. As the founder of the Alabama Blues Project, whose mission is to promote and preserve our state’s blues heritage, our blues heritage has been over looked. Sam knew that. It is our hope that there will someday be a historic marker there and other places of importance marking and celebrating our blues heritage.”

Debbie Bond, blues singer/guitar player who backed Sam Lay on many shows in Alabama, as well as Founder of the Alabama Blues Project

Remember Sam Lay through his music

(Roger Stephenson Photography)
(Roger Stephenson Photography)

Want to learn more about Sam Lay? Check out the 2016 documentary, “Sam Lay in Blues Land” to learn more about Lay’s influence in the evolution of blues music during his nearly 60-year career. The documentary is available on iTunes, Google Play, YouTube Music and Amazon Music.

Click here to learn more about Sam Lay’s discography.

Sam Lay will be laid to rest at Elmwood Cemetery on Monday, February 14th after a morning visitation at the Smith & Gaston Funeral Home in Birmingham, Alabama.

Nathan Watson
Nathan Watson

Senior Content Producer + Photographer

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