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Francis Clay

John Lee Hooker and Charlie Musselwhite
Mark Naftalin's Blue Monday Party, Volume 2
Video -- with Francis Clay and Luther Tucker

Francis Clay Biography
Poetry by Francis Clay
Essays by Francis Clay
Interview with Francis Clay

Francis Clay's work is well known to those who have studied Chicago Blues. If you've listened to Muddy Waters, you've heard Francis. He was Muddy's drummer on and off for about 15 years starting in 1957. Francis was in the thick of things during the heyday of Chicago blues and played with all the greats. His highly original and immensely propulsive drumming drives numerous recordings by Muddy Waters and others. You can find his name on some of the classics of Chicago blues, including the much-acclaimed album "Muddy Waters At Newport." He has toured and recorded with Little Walter, Otis Spann, Clifton Chenier, John Lee Hooker, Big Mama Thornton, Lightnin' Hopkins and Jimmy Reed (to name a few) and was a founding member of the James Cotton Blues Band. Francis Clay is truly one of the all-time masters of blues drumming.


Through the unique, jazz-rooted style which he brought to his recordings and performances with the Muddy Waters band in its heyday (1957-1967), percussionist Francis Clay has influenced a generation of drummers.

Francis Clay was born into a musical Rock Island, Illinois, family in 1923. By age five, he was doing bird and animal imitations, playing guitar and singing country-western songs learned from his father (a multi-instrumentalist and square dance caller from Missouri). At ten, he carved a pair of drumsticks, made a practice pad and started teaching himself to play drums.

Francis's first professional engagement was with Pat Patrick's band at the American Legion Hall in Davenport, Iowa, in 1938; by 1939, he was advanced enough to fill in for three weeks with the Jay McShann band (which, by that time, featured Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie); in 1940, he formed his own group, Francis Clay And His Syncopated Rhythm. During the early and mid-forties, Francis performed with his own group and with other bandleaders. He also played at the Faust Club (a vaudeville house in Peoria, Illinois), on the S.S. Idlewild (a riverboat) and for the Austin Brothers Circus (the world's largest at the time).

From 1947 to 1957, Francis played in jazz groups in the Chicago area. In 1957, his historic association with Muddy Waters began. Among the many recordings he made with Muddy was the highly acclaimed "Muddy Waters Live At Newport" album (1960). His other recording credits include John Lee Hooker, Lightnin' Hopkins, Jimmy Reed, Big Mama Thornton, Otis Spann, Little Walter, Jimmy Rogers, Earl Hooker, Victoria Spivey, Luther "Snake Boy" Johnson and Clifton Chenier.

In 1967, Francis helped put together the James Cotton Blues Band. He toured Europe and recorded the album "Pure Cotton" with the group in 1968.



I must pay tribute to this Black man
Who stood tall with pride and with good reason.

As a young man of 17, he left the family farm in Missouri.
He played music, sang, and called barn dances.

He felt there must be more to life and set out by bus, train,
or when money was low -- freight cars.

He had hidden in his shoe for insurance a $20 gold piece.
He didn't trust much to luck.

He ended up in Rock Island, Illinois on the Mississippi River.
Money was scarce so he took a job as a waiter while going to Barber school at night.

Soon he was promoted to Head Waiter.
He was told if he were not a Black man, he could have been manager.
He stayed for 65 years in this private club.

This man knew his worth, was strong on principles and the "trues" of life.
His teachings are still the strongest influence on my life.
Like a gentle giant, he sacrificed for his children and for my life as a musician.

I deeply loved this man.
Townspeople called him, "Mr. Clay"
I proudly called him "Papa."

* * *

Almost three decades ago,
you gave us the formula for a good way of life,
and led us down the path that would give birth to a true democracy.

What went wrong, why are we not moving forward?
Oh sure: we have a few opportunists who go around shouting cliches
Beckoning, follow me, can they be trusted?
Who can we turn to?
Where are our leaders?
Where are our morals?
Where are our principles?
Where are our dignities?
Where are our birthrights?
Where is our tolerance of others?
Where is our togetherness,
of creed, color, and love,
that we might save humanity?

FREE at Last
FREE at Last
Great God Almighty
Won't this bigotry ever pass?
Here it is the year 1996, Martin,
America still reigns with power and might,
no matter how high we hold our head.
We have yet to see any sign of purity and light!

* * *

Who will lead the people now, Walter?
You would plan well and move with wisdom
As though you felt the pain and tricks played
Upon your oppressed people.
There are those without a vision of tomorrow
Some who gave up at age seven.
But, you were there fighting for single mothers
With children trying to budget their dollars, though few,
In hopes that they could eat every day.
They could count the drawn out 30-31 days only too well.

You cradled the homeless, some, men with families
Some who knew not where their families were.
Each year money became tighter and the means to endure
Became more difficult.
Men and women trying to eke out an existence against the odds
So heavily dumped on them by politics.
Politicians who believed serving the rich was a virtue.

Your work must not stop here.
There is much, much more to be addressed
If we just look around.
Think how Walter would have handled it
Then act and perhaps feel that Walter would say:
"Well done, well done."

* * *

Mama, please help me paint a rainbow.
The color of gold for a rich and high
quality of life.
Green like a tree strong in texture
of fiber, muscle and grit, saying:
"Son, Keep trying and never know the
meaning of giving up."
Red, a symbol of the blood that flows
through our veins, yours and mine,
will always remain the same.
Blue, for perseverance; I prefer Cobalt, a tint to show Purity and Grace.
I have wondered if that is why your
parents named you Grace.
The name served you well in showing me
how to grow wise and true.
Thank you Mama, for helping me
paint my rainbow.

* * *



If you feel that you must learn to play the drums and that love of drums is so strong that you feel you could dedicate your whole life, your whole being, and set priorities so that nothing comes before your music, then drumming has become your destiny.

Most often, when approaching a teacher, he can, almost from the start see the potential in your already acquired knowledge of music. He sees your sense of rhythm and even your appreciation and taste in various types of music and its musicians. Your bone structure and how loose and fast the movements of your hands and particularly if your coordination is good, are all taken into account.

If you love music and your instrument, you must study and practice with a metronome for hours each day. After you have learned your rudiments and other basics, you can go on to better and better teachers. When you have learned to play well in a group along with other instruments and you have mastered your own instrument, it is time to find a coach. For a good coach can help you apply all your knowledge and technique to music with a professional touch and taste.

Remember, after you have learned all the rules, mastered your music and your instrument, only then are you allowed to break the rules in order to create.

If you are lucky and you have been true to yourself, then you will see a reflection of yourself in your music, thus creating an original style of your own.

In beautiful music, you can feel a "together" person, who has gained and maintained a peace of mind through his dedication to his art.

Thoughts to remember: Never sell yourself or your art in any manner that would shame you. It's a good life, being a musician, so don't trade it in for a temporary high. If your music doesn't give you a natural high, then there is something missing in your music or yourself or both.

* * *

Tell me have we become a violent culture mainly through life's influences and the copying of movies and TV? We have learned only too well all these horrors. Now we have to be untaught these woes if we are to survive.

We are not as fortunate as what we so deem dumb animals, who instinctively KNOW how to eat, hunt, fish, swim, even know how and when to mate. They are also navigators. They distinctly know the direction North opposed to East, West, or even South. Don't you find it strange that well-educated people MUST BE TAUGHT the same things, to the extreme behavioral patterns of being a GOOD PERSON as well as everything else to sustain one's LIFE?

Some self-righteous SOULS seek out smut no matter how trivial, sometimes even exaggerate a story just for the sake of putting DOWN another HUMAN BEING.


Oops! There I go again. Who am I to JUDGE? Besides, ONLY GOD CAN POINT A FINGER!

* * *

How well I remember my Grandmother, a figure of dominance, but that was very deceiving. She was appreciative, kind and caring.

Dressed in gingham, flowered, sometimes plaid. Seemingly the design was the same. She spent a great part of the day cooking and cleaning and other house chores in addition to feeding the chickens and attending the gardens, vegetable and floral.

When she settled down in the late afternoon, she would tutor most of us grandchildren to make sure that we had our homework for school the next day.

Sometimes I could feel her lengthly stare, she would smile, shake her head and say Francis, your're so wise to be so young--hey after that compliment, I would take out the ashes, chop the kindling wood, bring in the coal, shovel the snow off the sidewalks and the driveway. Whether she meant it or not, we can all benefit from this story.

If she were alive today, her life would appear hum-drum to most. The trust and love she extended to all people, even those she didn't know. When someone needed help, the neighbors would send them to Grandpa and Grandma Stoner's house.

It's strange how images pop into our minds when we think back to our childhood. I remember most of all her long silken hair, snow white and so long she could sit on it. She never missed a night of brushing her hair one hundred strokes.

Without saying a word, what was she thinking; could she be? -- no, she wouldn't by any chance be thinking of a loving compliment to use on me. The next day, would she...oh well, it's worth it because: I LOVE YOU GRANDMA!

* * *

by Tom Mazzolini

Francis Clay has long been considered one of the all-time premiere blues drummers. Trained in jazz, he joined the Muddy Waters Band in the mid '50s and over the next 15 years revolutionized blues drumming with an inventive approach that sparked the great Muddy Waters Band sound. His appearance with the Waters band at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1960, for example, stands out to this day as a classic study of modern blues drumming.

Clay moved to San Francisco in the late 1960's after several years with the James Cotton Band and, although semi-retired, he occasionally sits in at local clubs and frequently appears as a guest artist at the San Francisco Blues Festival. His style can best be described as unique, personable, original, and masterful. After listening to Francis Clay behind the drum kit one realizes how few imaginative blues drummers exist!

A veteran of numerous jazz ensembles during the '40s and '50s, which also included the old Jay McShann Band with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Clay was working with Gene Ammons when he heard that Muddy Waters was looking for a drummer.

"I was living in New York and Jug was in trouble with the law and so I took it. I had never played downhome blues before in my life. The band went one way and I tore out and went the other. It was a horrible mess. Eventually we got together after a few days and by the end of the week we were cookin'. Muddy said, 'I don't know what you're playing but it felt good and it sounds good.' I ended up staying with him at that time four years."

The Muddy Waters Band of that time consisted of Otis Spann on piano, Pat Hare on guitar, James Cotton on harmonica and Muddy and Clay.

"Smitty's Corner in Chicago was our place then. We used to have them lined up six nights a week, two blocks on 35th Street, and two blocks on Indiana. We started getting writeups from all over the world. That's when they came down to ask us to work Carnegie Hall. And we were the first blues band to play the Newport Jazz Festival. That's the one that did it. It's really the first time they exploited blues all over the world, from that album, which was a big influence on the Rolling Stones and Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield."

I asked Francis about the role of a drummer in a musical unit, was it just to keep time?

"Yes, but also to enhance what the other musicians are playing. That can make a great difference in a band. A drummer can make a band sound great or make it sound lousy. A lot lies upon a drummer's shoulders. He's got to compromise from every aspect -- the number, who's playing, and bring them together and hold them together. Some jazz musicians want you to be a machine for them, and some bluesmen are the same way. But, if they allow you to express yourself instead of being a machine for them, I think you would have a lot more happier drummers in this world.

"When I first went into blues you were strictly a machine. As a matter of fact, they felt that drums shouldn't be heard, just felt. I mean I can go along with that because basically they are to be felt because if they are not felt then nothing happens. There is so much voice used today, things that you can play in unison with other instruments, fill-ins, you have a wider range of taste to use in blues now. I'm not bragging about taking some credit for that, but it was a tough fight. I'm the only one with guts enough to do that years ago."

And what about the possibilities that exist for blues drummers today?

"There's so much that could be done. I think that some of the musicians that you play with are going to have to broaden their own scope to play with you. Because they only understand certain combinations that they're familiar with; anything else is unnatural to them. That's why I had such a fight years ago because they don't want to play anything they're unfamiliar with."

And the best advice for a drummer who wishes to improve?

"Study. Practice with a metronome by all means. It is precise in the meter tempo. The rudiments themselves -- learn the basics. I'll give you an example: if we were to read a newspaper and one of us couldn't read, we'd have a heck of a time reading it together wouldn't we? In order for musicians to play together they must know some of the same rules or it won't work. It's quite simple.

Originally published in the Australian magazine "Crazy Music"
© 1979 Tom Mazzolini

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