There are lots of blues songs that are downtempo, that play out with a slow burn that may feature lyrics about a lost love, about being broke and downtrodden, about how the thrill is gone. But a visit to any blues club reveals that much of the blues music that fans are so rabid about is fast-paced dance music. With that in mind, here we salute the players who keep the beat that moves the feet. Here are 13 of our favorite blues drummers.
13. Neil Gouvin
Currently a member of Sugar Ray & the Bluetones, Gouvin is also an in-demand session player who has recorded with John Hammond, Ronnie Earl & the Broadcasters, Luther Allison and many others. Sugar Ray & the Bluetones play out regionally in the northeast but until you can get to a show you can groove with Gouvin on any number of Sugar Ray & the Bluetones records, including 2016’s Seeing is Believing.
12. Francis Clay
Clay passed away about a decade ago and he initially gained his reputation working in the jazz genre where he played with some of the jazz giants like Benny Golson, Jay McShann, Gene Ammons and the much-revered Charlie Parker. But Clay got the blues bug big time when he joined Muddy Waters’ band during Muddy’s heyday. Clay was also a founding member of the James Cotton Band.
11. Matthew Robert Johnson
When you’re a musician and part of your name is Robert Johnson, you know you were born to play the blues. Matthew Robert Johnson didn’t make a deal with the devil; he came by his talent the old fashioned way and practice, practice, practice. Johnson keeps the beat for the hotshot guitar player Mike Zito and also as one half of his own band, the duo Dry Johnson. For a real treat seek out the latter’s Long Live Them Blues album.
10. Al Jackson, Jr.
The situation surrounding Jackson’s 1975 death from a gunshot wound would be great fodder for a blues song if it weren’t so tragic. The shot was fired by Jackson’s wife, allegedly in self-defense, at the culmination of a nasty physical altercation. Jackson had plied his trade working for Stax Records as the drummer for the legendary Booker T & the MGs, where he earned the nickname “The Human Timekeeper.”
9. Mark Teixeira
Not to be confused with the baseball great of the same name, this Mark Teixeira wallops the heck out of a drum kit, not cowhide. Currently a member of guitarist Duke Robillard’s band, a good place to hear Teixeira’s work is on Robillard’s Duke Robillard and His Dames of Rhythm album that features a host of female vocalists like Maria Muldaur, Madeleine Peyroux and Elizabeth McGovern.
8. Steve Potts
A cousin of the late Booker T & the MGs drummer Al Jackson, Jr., Potts is the current drummer for the MGs. Potts has recorded with blues luminaries like Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Johnny Lang, Otis Rush, Luther Allison, Lonnie Brooks and Shemekia Copeland as well as with rock stars like Gregg Allman, David Crosby, Joe Walsh and Golden Earring.
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7. Mark Stutso
Stutso is the drummer for the long-running Washington, DC-based band the Nighthawks, an outfit that he joined in 2010. A coal miner in his younger days, Stutso kept the beat for Black Oak Arkansas spinoff band Ruffryder and also played with former Nighthawk Jimmy Thackery for about 20 years. To find out more about Stutso’s role with the Nighthawks, check out the documentary film “Nighthawks on the Blue Highway.”
6. Jay Davenport
Playing in a band that’s helmed by revered bluesman John Mayall has been a rite of passage for many stars; Eric Clapton, Mick Fleetwood, John McVie, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, Walter Trout and Coco Montoya among them. So to note that Davenport is currently the drummer for Mayall says pretty much everything about his standing in the blues world. Hear Davenport at work on the recent Mayall release Three for the Road.
5. Cedric Burnside
Talent runs in the Burnside family; Cedric is the son of drummer Calvin Jackson and the grandson of the late bluesman R.L. Burnside. Cedric has played with greats like Othar Turner, J.R. Kimbrough, Kenny Brown, Jessie Mae Hemphill and T-Model Ford to name a few. Burnside also recently taught himself how to play guitar.
4. Tony Braunagel
Consistently rated as one of the best blues drummers, Braunagel won the 2018 Blues Music Awards award for Best Instrumentalist - Drums. Formerly the drummer for the Robert Cray Band, classic rock fans may remember Braunagel sat behind the kit for Back Street Crawler. And yes, this is the same guy who appeared on 40 episodes of the TV sitcom “According to Jim” with Jim Belushi.
3. Tom Hambridge
You’d better have plenty of paper if you set out to jot down all of this blues drummer’s accomplishments. Also a songwriter and producer, Hambridge has collaborated with ZZ Top, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Billy Ray Cyrus, Susan Tedeschi, Johnny Winter, Hank Williams, Jr., George Thorogood, B.B. King and on and on. Among the numerous accolades that Hambridge has earned are two GRAMMY Awards for his work with Buddy Guy.
2. Jimi Bott
Bott’s resume is extensive and includes stints with Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers, the Fabulous Thunderbirds and the Mannish Boys. And his award shelf is overflowing; he’s been nominated 19 times for Blues Drummer of the Year in the annual Blues Music Awards. One of the many projects that Bott is keeping busy with now is a band called the Proven Ones that also features Kid Ramos, Willie J. Campbell, Brian Templeton and Anthony Gerracci.
1. Sam Lay
Now 83-years-old, Lay’s career stretches back to the days of the blues masters, and Lay played with them all. Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, James Cotton, Willie Dixon, Hound Dog Taylor and Paul Butterfield are just a few of the bluesmen who had Lay playing drums for them. And that fateful day at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 when Bob Dylan played his first electric set? It was Sam Lay on the drum kit behind him. Lay is often cited as being the best blues drummer of all time, and with good reason.