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Sam Lay was the drummer for Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Fest.
courtesy Sam Lay

Awards connect Calgary's best bluesmen to Chicago

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For over 50 years, Chicago's Maxwell Street has been famous for their Friday Night Blues and Fish Fry. Musicians from the Mississippi Delta would migrate to the area and electrify their sound, making Chicago world famous for the blues.

On February 19, the Black History Month Foundation of Canada, in conjunction with the Black American Blues Historical Society will present the 5th annual Motown and More Gala and Awards Night in the Crossroads Community Centre.

This year, billed as Blues and More Blues, the evening will consist of a fish fry, awards ceremony and a concert and dance featuring Calgary's own Gary Martin and the Heavenly Blues band. When Martin's band Heavenly Blues plays their dance set, Sam Lay will sit on the drums, a fitting conclusion to yet another chapter in Calgary blues.

The 2010 Gala will be presenting Pioneer Awards to those who have paved the way for the blues in Calgary.

Among those honoured is the legendary "King of the Shuffle," Chicago blues drummer Sam Lay, who's resume reads like a who's who of influential blues masters. Over the years Lay has played and recorded with Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Willie Dixon, James Cotton, Paul Butterfield and Bob Dylan. When Dylan went electric at the infamous Newport Folk Festival in July, 1965, he enraged the acoustic folk music purists-- Lay played drums in Dylan's band that day.

Speaking from his home in Chicago, Lay recalled that night on stage in Newport.

"They booed him," says Lay. "When he came back by himself after our break. He did a song like "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" or somethin' like that. You heard the truth about that. I would say the crowd was angry."

Lay also played drums on Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited album. The release was Dylan's first album to be recorded entirely with a full rock band and is considered by many to be his best work.

Lay was the first Chicago bluesman to play Calgary's King Eddy, creating the now legendary Saturday afternoon blues jams in the early '80s. Originally dubbed "Jam With Sam," the jams became a regular event.

"I came there for three days, and they put me up for a whole week and the next time three weeks," recalls Lay. "The second time I came back on the weekend and there was so many people there. I said, 'Listen, I've got an idea. Why don't we come down here on Saturday and tell all the musicians to bring their instruments with them? We'll have a little thing and call it Jam With Sam.' That started it. The place was so full of people they made more money on Saturdays than they did the whole week. After that we kept the jam going but we didn't get paid for it. That was the way they made their money."

As for favourite memories from his past associations with a huge cast of blues and folk luminaries, none stand out.

"Man that would be hard to say," he mused. "I've enjoyed all of it actually. Between Corkie Seagull and Bob Dylan, Paul Butterfield, Howlin' Wolf. All of 'em were personal favourites for me."

Lay is not impressed with modern day blues.

"I'd have to think of so many people who call themselves playin' the blues with those dog-gone sound effects and pedals and all that crap. Which is okay for them that likes it, but I don't approve of it. I don't need no sound effects. I just go straight from the heart, not the pedal," he laughs. "The blues practically went haywire with all those sound effects and stuff. That's only my opinion."

The awards ceremony will mark Lay's 75th birthday, when he will also receive a drawing of himself by Calgary artist, Earl Klatzel. Presenting the award to Lay is none other than former Alberta premier Ralph Klein, who has been Lay's best friend for 30 years.

A posthumous Pioneer Award will be presented to the wife of Reverend Ron (nee Ronald J. Predika) who hosted CJSW's "The Blues Witness" for close to 20 years and sadly passed away on November 12, 2009. Ron was a true original and was recognized by the committee for being a "champion of the blues every Wednesday night." The Pioneer Award will be presented by Klatzel, Ron's close friend.

In 2009 Ron received a lifetime achievement award from the Calgary Blues Music Association.

"Some of the best parts of blues music is the history and characters," says CJSW station manager Chad Saunders. "It's art that must be appreciated before it's gone and has to reinvent itself. The characters of the blues scene are even more championed when you have someone like Reverend Ron who was a character in his own right. He totally deserves this award for sure and I think he'd be really happy about it. It's a shame that he can't be there to celebrate and have a soda pop with everybody."

West side Chicago native Martin, who has his own long history with Calgary's blues scene, summed up this year's choices.

"The Awards Ceremony is to honour the people who pioneered the blues here. Sam Lay was the one who first brought the blues to Calgary and we consider him to be a trail blazer. Same with Reverend Ron. He was another one who kept the blues alive. I only knew him from doing interviews on his show or when he came out [to]see me play, but he believed in the blues to the end. Being in the blues community, we want to show our appreciation."

A Few More Questions with Sam Lay

G: What kind of music do you listen to today? What's in your CD player?
SL: You gonna be surprised. I'm really sold and stuck on bluegrass and country man, I love it. I can't help that, it's a part of my life. I listen to some classical, I'm not sold on rap at all.
G: Are you working on a project right now?
SL: I've got something in the hole baby, and when it's necessary I'll pull that out. I've got it all written out, I just need to put it together.
G: Do you have a current band?
SL: I've got people in mind that I work with occasionally like Corky Siegel. We've been together about 40 years, backwards and forwards.

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