A History Making Story of Profound Musical Sensibility

Sam Lay - photo by Paul Natkin

Sam Lay - photo by Paul Natkin

Starring Rock N Roll Hall of Fame, Blues Legend; SAM LAY, and Indian Tabla/World Percussion Virtuoso,  Kalyan Pathak.

I experienced a cathartic moment in the history of music performance I need to share. First, for some background, here's a quote that appeared in Rolling Stone Magazine when they interviewed me in 1971.  I was talking about Sam Lay. 

"He's the best blues drummer in the world. The best drummer of any sort I've ever heard. He has taste, he has ideas of his own.  Most of my concepts of the blues are things he showed me.”  - Corky Siegel Interview - Rolling Stone Magazine

 That was an understatement.  I met drummer Steve Smith, a most honored and respected jazz drummer who was first known for his performances with “Journey.” He was in Chicago rehearsing with harmonica genius Howard Levy when he called and introduced himself because he wanted me to introduce him to Sam Lay in person. He said something to the effect:

             “Every drummer needs to understand what Sam is doing and why he is doing it.”  

 As Charle Musselwhite insists, 

             "Sam doesn't just play the drums, Sam sings the drums." 

Those harp players that were fortunate to play with Sam can tell you that Sam's playing took them to high places they could otherwise not have experienced.

Here is part of a telegram from Bob Dylan when he heard Sam won the Grammy's Legends and Heros Award. 

"Congratulations. … It's good to be recognized. … It's so well deserved. … you are second to none — your flawless musicianship and unsurpassed timing, maestro with the sticks and brushes."

Other drummers like Iggy Pop and Jim Keltner (who plays with every major name from Paul McCartney, George Harrison ... you get the idea) say the same thing;

            "I don't want to just play like Sam, I don't want to just be like Sam, I want to BE Sam Lay.”
Left: Steven Van Zandt; Above: Elvin Bishop and Family; and Sam Lay - Photo by Holly Siegel.

Left: Steven Van Zandt; Above: Elvin Bishop and Family; and Sam Lay - Photo by Holly Siegel.

When Sam was inducted into the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame along with Ringo Starr, and with Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, John Legend, Jerry Lee Louis, Joan Jett, Steven Van Zandt ... standing there, everyone knew about Sam's contribution to American Music - not only because he was a founding member of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band (with Elvin Bishop pictured here), was the drummer with Bob Dylan when he went electric, but also because of the 40 or so classic Chess Records blues hits he helped create.  People around the world - like Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton - got to know about the blues by listening to these albums and listening to Sam Lay who was on many of those classics. 

A DIFFERENT DRUMMER

Now a little secret about me.  I like digging deep into psychologies to understand the expressive subtleties of music. I don’t accept what comes up, there is always more there beyond the notes.  When I’m told; “It’s a feel thing,” I want to understand the mechanics behind the feel. And I don’t give up till I find it.  In the Italian Shuffle on the Chamber Blues Different Voices album, I have 64th note rests added within almost every beat throughout the piece to help create a certain feel.  And many times during that piece the players are actually able to play it and you can feel it.  In a discussion about music I drive everyone nuts and they go screaming from the room. That’s me. So I have some ideas of what make's Sam Lay’s drumming different than other drummers.

EXPRESSION ON EVERY NOTE

My dear friend and mentor, William Russo who wrote the Titan Symphony for Leonard Bernstein and was the trombonist and arranger/composer for Stan Kenton and also wrote the two first symphonic works, one for Siegel-Schwall and one for me, used to talk about how we and Aaron Copland and a few other composers believed that we should be putting some kind of expression on every single note.  No two notes should have the same dynamics, tone, articulation etc.  

NO TWO BACK-BEATS ARE THE SAME

Sam Lay - photo by Chuck Osgood

Sam Lay - photo by Chuck Osgood

Well, that's how Sam plays.  No two back beats, or any beats for that matter, are the same and his dynamics are constantly changing as they flow through the tune.  But the dynamics and tonal changes happen also “between" the different drums and cymbals on his traps.  In addition - like some other great blues players he is constantly varying the rhythm to keep things exciting. For Sam Lay, “groove” is a limiting concept. You can't offer your best to the tune if you are locked into a groove or a steady time.  Here's the secret; As spontaneous variation is added to each musical element whether it be time, tone, dynamics, pitch, articulation and etc. it adds energy to the performance and it's exciting to play and exciting to hear.  People heard this force coming from Sam.  They dismissed it as power and loudness. That's not what was happening.  It was the more subtle and spontaneous variation coming from Sam as personal expression that created the explosion you feel when you experienced Sam.  

In regards to the power of rhythmic variation found in all styles of performances, from classical to rock, three good diverse examples are Reggae music, Jerry Lee Lewis, and the Viennese Waltz. The energy created by this variation I call “rhythmic dissonance.”  

NOTE: If you know absolutely nothing about music and you don't understand what I'm talking about here, it's ok.  You will get the gist of it.   For players, keep in mind when you use rhythmic dissonance, accuracy is essential.  You place the notes like you are taking part in target practice, other wise the dissonance doesn't resolve and energy is lost instead of gained.   

JERRY LEE LEWIS and THE VIENNESE WALTZ

 Jerry Lee is known for playing what we might call "even 8th notes unevenly,"  or a "lilt." The first note is right on the beat, the 2nd note is slightly off the beat, the third note is again right on the beat and so on. "Consonance / Dissonance / Consonance / Dissonance / Consonance ..."  Every other note in the series of 8 is slightly off (according to a symmetrical grid) and it creates a desire for a stronger resolution back into the beat and right on it.  So 4 times during a measure with 8 notes the rhythm offers a very strong feeling of coming home (4 times) that does not happen when all the 8th notes are right in time along the symmetrical grid.  This extra energy that comes from "rhythmic dissonance" on every-other beat offers the feeling that makes us want to get up and dance.   Or in the case of the Viennese Waltz that adds time on the last two beats; makes us want to get up and promenade. 

Again, If I've lost you here don't worry - just follow me. 

 But the spontaneous variation of tone, dynamics, articulation, pitch all contribute to the intensifying of the energy of a performance for both the player and the listener (which is why many players just do it all very naturally).  And Sam did it all the time as Charlie Musselwhite says;

 "Sam doesn't just play the drums, he sings the drums."  

Thank you Charlie. 

 A string quartet can do just about anything but being "readers" they need to be told exactly what is desired.  So my normal focus to dig deep and understand the mechanics behind “feel” have been very helpful.  And the work with string quartet has actually led me to dig even deeper and continue to put the esoteric into practical applications.  So I can talk about this stuff.  LOL!

ENTER KALYAN

Kalyan "Johnny Bongo" Pathak

Kalyan "Johnny Bongo" Pathak

"I was trained for 5 years of rigorous training in tabla by Ustad and student system. I won a state level music competition in Best Instrumentalist category not only amongst Tabla players but sitar, flute, sarod etc included. I was 12 years old in a competition that had age cut off at 19 years. So there were many much older musicians in that competition. After this my Gurus were even more thrilled to put me on more of a path to be a legitimate Tabla master. Around my age 14, I started serious interest in practicing and studying drumset, western music and world percussion. That's when my tabla teachers asked me to choose between studying other musics of the world or focus just on Indian music and tabla. I chose to continue to listen to, study and perform ALL types of music and hence my legitimate Tabla study path came to a halt. However, at that age I also began to study Indian folkloric rhythms on various drums and Carnatic music rhythms as well. By the age 18 I went to Mumbai to be an apprentice for India's premier jazz drumset player, Ranjit Barot.   - but I understand and I studied many different approaches to Western music, including Cuban, Afro, and many diverse folk forms.” - Kalyan Pathak

NOTE:  I didn’t know that Kalyan had known about Sam and heard him perform. 

SAM LAY AND INDIAN TABLA VIRTUOSO

I had always thought that Sam played drums with an approach similar to the tabla masters of India because they also used ornamentation and subtle variation as the expression.  I hoped that for this reason Indian tabla playing might be especially appealing to Sam.  But this would be unlikely because Sam is also very particular with the blues bands that the song be played “exactly” like it should be played.  And how it was recorded was an essential piece of evidence that was important to Sam - to a degree.  In some ways he's like a classical performer trying to be true to what the composer had in mind.  And Indian tabla is just not going to fit in that picture.

Sam Lay with Chamber Blues (Me and Jocelyn Butler Shoulders in background) photo by Chuck Osgood

Sam Lay with Chamber Blues (Me and Jocelyn Butler Shoulders in background) photo by Chuck Osgood

All of a sudden I became concerned about an upcoming performance in Milwaukee. Sam has played with Chamber Blues many times. But this will be the first time he will not be playing drums. He will just be singing and relying completely on the Indian tabla being played in a style new to Sam.

The reason I called the rehearsal with just Sam and Kalyan, was because I wanted Sam to get used to Kalyan’s style and I didn’t imagine it would be easy for Sam.  Though Sam isn’t about playing just a groove I expected he would still demand a groove from any percussion instrument accompanying his singing.

THE TIME WAS 1PM ON THURSDAY, MAY 4TH, 2017 - A MOMENT I WILL NOT FORGET

In my front room, Sam was singing, I was on piano, and Kalyan was playing the tabla.  As soon as we began, Sam’s face just lit up.  Pointing to Kalyan Sam raved;

            “That sounds like me!”  

It was like lightening had struck us all in the heart.  For the three of us time had stood still.  It was jaw dropping.  It was goose bumps and holding back the tears.

Even though I was the OCD of trying to dig deep into subtle musical realms, I never quite figured exactly what Sam was doing when he played the Mojo beat he called the "Double Shuffle."  I didn't know anyone who understood it.  I knew a lot of people who certainly mis-understood it. All I knew was that he was varying everything constantly as I explained above but that was as far as I ever got.

Sam & Kalyan beginning "Got My Mojo Working" Sam getting ready to sing. Photo by Holly Siegel

Sam & Kalyan beginning "Got My Mojo Working" Sam getting ready to sing. Photo by Holly Siegel

Kalyan asked Sam to sing the drum part for Mojo.  I tried to interfere because I knew this was something that Sam could never do.  It was hard enough to get him to sing a song without accompaniment much less sing a drum part. In fact, though he is genius on the drums, if you hand him a stick and ask him to just play a rhythm he gets all confused and just can’t do it.   But Kalyan raised his hand for me to stop.  

            "Corky, let me handle this please."  

 Then Sam sang something for Kalyan and I have no idea what he was singing. It made no sense to me what-so-ever.  And Kalyan played something and said; 

            “Like this Sam?”  

And Sam said; 

            “Yes but add this sound.” 

And Sam sang something else that made no sense to me and Kalyan said; 

            “Like this?”  

And Sam just about fell off the chair. He said: 

            “No one has ever been able to do that. That’s the double shuffle, you are getting the ‘double’ part of it perfectly - two licks in one.  You sound like me!” 
Kalyan explains: One is the train rhythm brushes beat of Sam and then Shuffle back beat is the 2nd lick.  These 2 licks combined is 'Double Shuffle'".

I still don't get it. 

And then Sam just started laughing and looking around the room for someone to tell him he's dreaming.  Then we all played Mojo together.  Sam cried out; 

             “This is so strange.  I’m sitting here singing, but I feel it’s me behind my own set of drums - but I’m not - but it ‘feels’ like I’m playing.  I don’t have to do anything. There is nothing left for me to do!”  

OMG!  

Kalyan and Me - photo ;Holly S.

Kalyan and Me - photo ;Holly S.

 Kalyan explained that he added a little extra technique to get the ‘double’ sound akin to how one uses brushes in a jazz band.  But this technique is specifically avoided by tabla players.  You get the sound of the hit but you also get the sound of the lift and that’s the double sound Sam has been talking about all these years (all along with the spontaneous variation I mention above). Up to this moment I never saw anyone willing to dig deep enough into what Sam was doing to be able to replicate it.

Kalyan also expressed great joy in how Sam was singing and phrasing the tunes and he verbally expressed this appreciation to Sam.  You could tell that Kalyan was looking upon this experience as monumental.  

Honestly.  This was like the spirit of the great music masters were in the room dancing and laughing with the muse.  

 After the short rehearsal Kalyan came into the other room with me and gave me a very long and very hard hug.  He said; 

            “Corky, thank you thank you thank you.  This is a special moment in my life.  I am completely blown away.  I will never forget this moment as long as I live.”  

Neither will I.

Then he shared the same with Holly.

Before leaving Sam asked Holly with a bewildered tone; 

Chamber Blues with Sam1574.jpg
             “How long have you known this guy, where did he come from, why haven’t I met him before, and why haven’t you worked with him all along?” 

The next Friday we all played in Milwaukee with Chamber Blues and Sam and Kalyan played like they’ve been playing together all their lives.  Sam kept pointing at Kalyan with wide-eyed amazement.    

I saw worlds come together.

Corky

P.S.

Poster by Steven Hausheer

Poster by Steven Hausheer

I thank you for caring so much to preserve the joy, true spirit and love of music making and for honoring Sam in a right way.  I still get goose bumps thinking of that afternoon and the gig in Milwaukee with Sam. - Kalyan Pathak

See Kalyan, Me, and a little bit of Sam Lay singing with us on September 3, 2017 for a 3pm matinee at the Metropolis in Arlington Heights.

 

P.P.S.

I've added a couple seconds of Sam playing the double shuffle. I think it was the year 2000 at College of DuPage with both Chamber Blues and Siegel-Schwall at the same time.  Keep in mind that during the second section when Sam is cooking he is accompanying the string quartet. 

Filmed by Bobby Lay

Copyright considerations won't allow me to include a whole verse.  

P.P.P.S. If you haven't read the Summer of Love Story please do.  If you have read it you may want to look at the updates with images of vintage Siegel-Schwall posters from San Francisco.