Even the most famous blues drummers in history are somehow overshadowed by the star soloists of the day.
We’ve already covered those iconic blues singers and legendary guitarists in detail, so in this article turns the attention to their lesser-known but equally important bandmates on the drums…
Despite the rhythm section being an integral part of most genres, it is perhaps overshadowed the most when it comes to blues music.
This is hardly surprising, given the number of leads that are present in both instrumental and vocal music in the genre (harmonica, brass, and most prominently the guitar).
As such, it can be easy to overlook the great drummers behind the beat.
This list attempts to comprise a broad and varied picture of some of the the best blues drummers – and ‘blues rock’ drummers – throughout the years, from household names to pioneering obscurities.
10. Tony Coleman
Drummer Tony Coleman got his start with soul singer Otis Clay, and toured extensively with the man for a few years, even recording a live album in Tokyo.
Through Clay, Coleman was introduced to the R&B and blues scene.
This led to a chance jam at The High Chaparral (a Chicago club), where Clay jammed with blues legend BB King, leading to a short-term job in King’s rhythm section.
Although Coleman only played with King for a few months before returning to Clay’s band, Coleman would play extensively with King later on in his life, as well as for the Bobby Blue Band.
9. Buddy Miles
Originally one of the founding members of the Electric Flag in 1967, drummer and vocalist Buddy Miles later played with blues-rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix and his Band of Gypsys from 1969 to 1970.
During this time, Miles even featured on Hendrix’s famous album “Electric Ladyland” as one of many guest artists.
After a few short stints in prison for theft, Miles notably sang for the ad campaign “California Raisins“, temporarily dropping the drums in order to sing R&B covers for the campaign.
He would later form the Buddy Miles Express before forming the Buddy Miles Band, and later performed and recorded alongside Carlos Santana.
8. Fred Below
Fred Below was widely known for his performances with Little Walter, and later for various Chess Records artists during the 1950s.
He was a prominent blues drummer during the genre’s heyday and an important figure in the development of Chicago Blues rhythm.
Below’s most famous performance was as the drummer on Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”, as well as a variety of other Berry tracks.
7. John Bonham
Often regarded as one of the greatest rock drummers to have lived (and known primarily for his work with Led Zeppelin) John Bonham was renowned for his extreme speed and power, a prime example of which was his single-footed kick drumming.
Led Zeppelin are by no means a straight blues band, but it’s no secret that much of Zeppelin’s work (like many of the London rock bands at the time), especially their earlier work, is heavily steeped in the blues.
Moreso, Bonham’s drumming would not have been out of place on some of the more uptempo blues tunes from artists such as Howlin’ Wolf.
Albeit, Bonham is perhaps a little more aggressive and relentless than many of the classic blues drummers, but not without restraint.
He was also influenced by famous jazz drummers such as Buddy Rich, Max Roach, and Gene Krupa.
As a member of Led Zeppelin, Bonham was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame long after his tragic death, in 1995. Some years later, in 2016, Rolling Stone named him as the greatest drummer of all time.
6. Willie “Big Eyes” Smith
Originally a harmonica-turned-harp player under the name “Little Willie”, Smith switched to drums in the late 1950s, as they were more in demand than harp players.
This netted him a job with Muddy Waters, who he played in stints with throughout the early 60s.
Surprisingly, work was relatively sparse, so Smith ditched music entirely in favour of a job as a cab driver for a short period in the mid 60s, before joining back with Waters in the late 60s, where he would remain until 1980.
During this time, Smith performed on many of Waters’ albums, including all of those that were Grammy Award-winning.
- Hard Again
- I’m Ready
- They Call Me Muddy Waters
- Muddy “Mississippi” Waters Live
- The London Muddy Waters Session
- The Muddy Waters Woodstock Album
All released sometime between 1971 and 1979, Smith didn’t play on every song, but he is estimated to have played across twelve recording sessions for these iconic blues albums, totalling around 84 tracks.
5. Sam Carr
As the son of Robert Nighthawk for whom he played bass at a young age, Sam Carr was practically born into the music industry.
Although he is no household name, he was best known as the drummer for the Jelly Roll Kings.
Carr had a unique and minimalistic style, which was predominantly engineered by his three-piece drum set (snare, kick, and a high-hat).
Most regularly playing in “low-class” clubs in various bands with friends and relatives in his early days, he joined electric blues guitarist Big Jack Johnson in 1962 to form the Jelly Roll Kings.
Carr’s drums can be heard on albums by various blues artists including Robert Walker, David Edwards, Sonny Boy Williamson II, and Buddy Guy.
He was also featured in some documentaries (both film and television), including The Blues: Feel Like Going Home (2003), which was directed by famed director Martin Scorsese. He also featured in “Full Moon Lightnin'” (2008).
Carr also received a Heritage Award at the Governor’s Awards for Excellence in the Arts in Jackson Mississippi and is mentioned several times on historical markers over the course of the Mississippi Blues Trail.
4. Al Jackson Jr.
Producer, songwriter and drummer Al Jackson Jr. played for (and co-founded) the Stax Records house band Booker T. & The M.G.’s, who often produced their own instrumentals.
Inducted into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame in 2015, as well as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (as a member of Booker T.) in 1992, Jackson Jr. was an integral part of the Stax Records machine.
During his time with Booker T. at Stax, Jackson recorded for a plethora of artists, including Eddie Floyd, Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, and most notably Albert King, who Jackson also produced for.
As a session drummer, Jackson found himself on tracks by many of the great artists at the time, including Elvis Presley, Bill Withers, Eric Clapton, and Aretha Franklin.
During the 1970s, Jackson also found work with Al Green, co-writing and playing for hits such as “Let’s Stay Together”, and “I’m Still in Love with You”.
Jackson Jr. was best known for his impressive abilities to keep time and stay in the groove. As such, Jackson was affectionately dubbed “The Human Timekeeper” by his colleagues.
3. Ginger Baker
Co-founder, drummer and sometime-vocalist of the rock-blues band Cream, Ginger Baker was often referred to as rock’s first superstar drummer.
He got his start early as a member of Blues Incorporated and the Graham Bond Organisation alongside the bassist Jack Bruce, with whom he later formed Cream.
Although Cream would later stray further and further from the blues, their 1966 album “Fresh Cream” contains a plethora of blues-rock, and even a couple of blues covers (see Spoonful, and Four Until Late).
Baker was regarded highly for his showmanship and style, most notably of which was the use of two bass drums, as well as sprawling drum solos (see Toad).
As a member of Cream, Baker was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, and later the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame (2008).
2. Odie Payne
Born in the blues melting pot of Chicago, Illinois, Odie Payne was studied music at the Roy C. Knapp School of Percussion, where he graduated from after being discharged from the U.S. Army.
In 1949, Payne was playing with pianist Little Johnny Jones through whom he met Tampa Red, a blues musician that Little Johnny was known for working for.
Tampa Red took Payne under his wing for three years, before Payne went on to join Elmore James’ Broomdusters in 1952, along with Little Johnny Jones.
Particularly noted for using a bass drum pedal and extensive use of the cowbell, cymbal, and drum roll techniques, Payne also utilised a double-shuffle technique that was frequently replicated by contemporaries Sam Lay and Fred Below.
Payne’s work soon made him a renowned session bluesman, playing for Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, and Magic Sam for Cobra Records, as well as on a variety of albums that were released by Chess Records.
This went on to include work with the legendary Chuck Berry, with Payne’s drumming being present on many of his hit singles, including “Nadine”, and “You Never Can Tell”.
1. Sam Lay
As both a drummer and vocalist, Sam Lay performed blues and R&B during the 1950s alongside some of the blues greats, including Howlin’ Wolf, Paul Butterfield, and Little Walter to name a few.
After a stint with the great harmonica player, Little Walter, Lay joined up with Muddy Waters in 1960 and became a regular drummer for the blues legend.
He went on to stay in Waters’ band for six years, leaving in 1966.
During this time Lay performed on what are often considered Waters’ most definitive works, as well as performing for several other blues greats on some of their own best work, including Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, and John Lee Hooker.
Overall, Lay laid down drums on 40+ albums for Chess Records.
He later went on to join the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, where he performed extensively both live and in the studio.
Lay would later go on to drum for Bob Dylan during his first electric rock performance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965.
Same Lay was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame (Memphis) and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Cleveland).
Thanks for reading!
Whether you’re a true aficionado or a newcomer to the blues style of music, hopefully this has given you some additional listening ideas which will help appreciate the ever-important yet underrated part the drummer plays!
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Casey Jones, Tony Braunagel, Frosty, Chris Layton, Odie Payne,