Sam Lay, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Drummer for Bob Dylan, Dies at 86

by Maria Hartfield

Beloved blues musician Sam Lay died on Saturday (January 29), at 86-years-old. Lay’s record label, Alligator, confirmed the news. A talented drummer and vocalist, Lay performed alongside some of the most iconic musicians of all time. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, Lay was experiencing heart problems and taken to a nursing facility in Chicago. Shortly thereafter, the iconic musician passed away.

Sam Lay achieved many achievements in his lifetime. Lay set the foundation for a new genre of music bridging the gap between Chicago blues and rock and roll. Sam developed a unique drum-beat imitating the hand-clapping from his church days as a child. The distinct drum rhythm goes by the term, “double-shuffle” in today’s industry.

The Makings of a Legendary Musician

Lay got his start on the stage in Cleveland, Ohio in the 1950s. Eventually, he moved to Chicago where his career really took off. After spending some time with Little Walter’s band, Lay joined Howlin’ Wolf’s band recording a series of songs including, “Killing Floor,” “I Ain’t Superstitious,” “The Red Rooster,” “Goin’ Down Slow,” and “300 Pounds of Joy.”

In the 1960s, Sam Lay went on to join the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Some of his most notable appearances include being behind the drums in 1965 at Bob Dylan‘s notorious Newport Folk Festival concert rocking the crown with amplified guitars. In 1969, Lay joined Muddy Waters’ as the drummer on Fathers & Sons, Waters’ best-selling record on Chess Records.

Finally, Sam Lay came out with his first recording under his own name, Sam Lay in Bluesland, and he doesn’t stop there. The Alabama-native recorded six more albums as a bandleader. Lay recorded two albums with Siegel-Schwall Band for his now-label, Alligator. He worked with Alligator up until his recent demise.

In response to his recent passing, Alligator Records said: “Lay has always been renowned for his trademark, hard-to-copy ‘double-shuffle’ — based on the double-time hand-clapping from his childhood church. In addition to his work with Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, Lay was an original member of the hugely influential, racially integrated Paul Butterfield Blues Band, among the first groups to bring hard Chicago blues to the burgeoning rock and roll audience.”

Friends of Sam Lay share fond memories of the late musician

Sam Lay’s list admirers is a long one. Fellow musicians and friends from around the world reflect on their time with Lay and the different music techniques he brought to light during his time.

Chicago pianist and harmonica player, Corky Siegel said, “I always say this to explain Sam’s playing: Sam didn’t just play the drums, he sang the drums.” The Corky Siegel Chamber Blues frontman continued saying, “He just followed the music and just made it explode into ecstasy.”

“He could be light and delicate or he could have more power than a locomotive,” said Grammy-nominated filmmaker John Anderson. “And he did it without playing loudly.” Anderson directed the 2016 documentary Sam Lay in Bluesland.

In the same vein, documentary producer Starr Sutherland said, “The reason the Butterfield Blues Band was as good as they were was all the players, but he was definitely behind it.

Sam Lay is survived by his daughter, Debbie, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.