Over the years Sam has worked with Chaka Khan, Dr John, Ben E. King, Robert Plant, The Foundations, Gordon Haskell, Billy Ocean, Desmond Dekker, Eddie Floyd, Roger Chapman, Michelle Shocked, Stan Webb, Gary Moore and Ottis Taylor………… to name but a few. Recently, with Mick Ralphs, Paul Jones, Imelda May, Robben Ford, Andy Fairweather Low and Chris Barber.
Sam’s long career covers live gigs, festivals, drum workshops, theatre work, radio and TV sessions, both in the UK and overseas. He has been voted into Blues In Britain magazine Gallery of the Greats, as a five-times winner of the ‘UK Drummer of the Year’ award. In 2014 Sam was awarded first place in the “Drummer” category for Blues Matters Writer’s Poll and runner-up in the British Blues Awards 2016. Combining his years of experience and his reputation within the UK blues fraternity, Sam is a highly accessible, sought after drummer.
Sam Kelly is a name that is well known in the UK and international live circuit and the personnel line up in the “Station House” looks bloody impressive on paper but when you go along and experience the show, the entity on stage is far bigger than the sum of it’s parts.
Sam in the guys have played together in various incarnations for the best part of 25 years and this allows the rarest of phenomenons to appear live right in front of your eyes. A discipline and professionalism that results in total communication on stage while at the same time allowing freedom of expression to intertwine as if it were rehearsed. You suspect from the smiles on their faces that a lot of what is happening on stage has never happened before but that’s between them and them alone because from out front it is a tight as a duck’s proverbial.
This is where Sam lives and breathes. The joy of music, the joy of expression and the freedom to breathe his art unhindered. There are not a lot of artists that can get away with that all of the time and as you will read later on it has got him into trouble on more than one occasion but he remains true to his passion and has done so for the last 40 years so he must be doing something right
The album is outstanding and is a testament to artistic interpretation at the highest level. To embrace multiple styles and genres in the one album takes guts and often lays the artist open to criticism but this one has been crafted so elegantly that there is a palpable thread that runs through the seemingly disparate music and it is, without doubt, a cohesive and passionate piece of work of the highest quality. Considering that the whole thing was recorded in 3 days this is no mean feat.
I will reiterate Sam’s words in summary of the album and live performance…
“If you are into a diverse musical experience then this is the band to come and see”
Kirk: Hi Sam and welcome to Glasgow Blues Players. Thanks for taking time out to have a chat. How are things going with the album launch gigs?
Sam: Really well. We’ve been playing together as a band now for a very long time. Some guys I’ve been playing with for 25 years. Rowena is the newest member of the band but I feel that I now have all the personnel in the band that we need in order to make this work.
The thing is, there is so much more to playing in a band than just playing ability, you must be able to get on as people. You could be the best player in the world but if you don’t get on then it is never going to work. There is no place for ego. Having said that, you cannot run a band as a democracy. Someone has to take charge but still be able to take advice because there will be people that have been doing this as long as you have. It takes one person to make the final decision, whether that be bad or good, that needs to happen. In this band, that’s my job.
Kirk: The album “No Barricades”, I think I have picked up what this is about but can you tell me from your point of view please?
Sam: No Barricades relates to the music. It’s stuff that I’ve played over the years with various musicians. It’s a bit of Blues it’s a bit of jazz, it’s everything. It’s funk, it’s the stuff that we all enjoy playing. We all get off on it. We jam a lot, even though we won’t be doing a lot of that tonight but we do love to go off on different tangents. We can stick Latin bits in or a Reggae bit or whatever, we have freedom to play. So yeah, No (Musical) Barricades. If you are into a diverse musical experience then this is the band to come and see.
I also think it shows the diversity of British musicians, not just in this band but in the UK. I feel we, as a nation, don’t get enough compliments, we don’t get enough praise as musicians. You know what, I’ve played a lot of places over the years and I can tell you, British musicians are bloody good!!
The thing is, we always seem to be comparing ourselves to the Americans, obviously, but a lot of times, what we tend to forget, and I’ve done this myself, is that a very high percentage of American players are dross, just like they are here in the UK! We only get to see the top 5% of musicians in America a lot of the time and if we gauge ourselves on that, that is not an accurate measure of our ability.
There are certain areas in which the Americans excel. Horn sections for instance seem to excellent. There is a certain tradition of marching bands and playing in college bands. But technically they’re no better than us.
When I go over there I get a real reaction on my playing but I maintain that’s because I stick to my own style and I do not try and copy anyone. Believe in yourself, develop your own style.
Kirk: I have a real passion for photography and image creation and I was instantly drawn to the album cover of “No Barricades”. Can you tell me if there is any symbolism or personal connection there?
Sam: Wow, yeah, you’re picking up on a lot of stuff here man. Yes, there is a connection. My brother is a very well-known sculptor and artist and his name is George Kelly but he works under the artist name of Fowokan and that is one of his pieces.
The whole album has been like a “Cottage Industry”. Everyone has contributed and has taken part in the process. The artwork has been put together by a friend of ours. Diane, my wife, came up with the album name. And the studio we used was Le Studio du Flâneur which belongs to Christophe Pelissié , who is a friend of ours as well.
Kirk: Yes, I noticed that it had been recorded in France. What prompted that approach?
Sam: The easiest way to get the album done was to remove everyone from everyday distractions for 3 days and we concentrated on playing and bang, bang, bang, we did the whole album in 3 days. So, it was Christophe’s studio but he also wrote one of the tracks and played guitar on some as well.
One of the other tracks is written by another friend of mine, Adrian Byron Burns, who is a Black American that I’ve worked with and now lives in France.
There is another track on there by Geoff Achison, who is Australian and I’ve been touring with him for about 15 years.
Kirk: I think you guys are up in Glasgow soon?
Sam: Spot on! We are at Webster’s Theatre on Great Western Road on the 7th March. You should come along.
Kirk: So it sounds like this project is a bit of a kick back against all the other times you’ve had to play a certain thing and be at a certain place at a certain time and you are taking this opportunity to be in complete control and just do what you want to do, which must be liberating.
Sam: You’ve got it in a nutshell! That was a very conscious move on my part. Also, I wanted to be able to pick the material and I wanted to be able to arrange the material with the help of everyone else in the band. It was an opportunity to experiment and at times go against the “technical” boundaries of music.
Kirk: What do you mean by that?
Sam: There are times when people will tell you that a certain combination of chords, rhythms or styles will not work together. I do not believe in adhering to the theoretical approach to composition and tend to throw ideas into the mix that at times, go against the rules. If it jars then we will take it out, if not then “’Let’s do it!”. You very often do not get the freedom to work like that so this is very much a case of taking control and trying to produce something that I have always wanted to do. A lot of the material is from a guy called TW Henderson who I toured with about 20 years ago. Originally it was very guitar based but we took it into the studio and softened something here and there and took the emphasis away from the guitar and rearrange the material.
Kirk: Can you tell me how “The Bessie Smith Show” came about?
Sam: We were doing a Blues gig in Reading a couple of years ago and the guy that ran the gig said that there was a local lady that had heard us play and that she would love to get on stage with us and would it be ok for her to get up and do a number. To be honest my initial reaction was that we had a show planned and that this was a total stranger so I was a bit hesitant but I agreed.
So, about half way through the second act we invited her up and she sang and it was jaw-dropping! We corresponded after that and then Julia Titus, which was her name, had been talking to Andy Wilkes, who was the Reading gig promoter, came up with the idea of expanding this and putting on a show.
I love working on different projects with my guys.
Kirk: I’ve seen the posters for the show and it looked very authentic. Did you ever feel like you were going back in time when you performed this show?
Sam: Yes, in a way. My father used to love that style of music so it was around the house all the time. I wasn’t consciously aware of the music from my childhood when we started the project but when we started to rehearse, memories started to materialise.
Another thing that happened was that this show expanded me as a player. I cut down on the size of the kit. I worked with bass drum, snare, hi-hat, and one crash/ride cymbal and that was it. Also, 90% of the time I was playing brushes. If you listen for drums on that stuff…there aren’t any! They are there in the studio but I was concentrating on adding colouring to the music more than anything else.
Kirk: Are there any other projects in the pipeline
Sam: We’ve talked about the Geoff Achison tour and as well as that I am working on something coming up with Lisa Mills. I’d done a gig in Switzerland a while back with Ben Waters and Lisa came up and jammed with the band and we really got on well together. I really loved her voice. So, when I found out that she had a solo gig in the 100 Club in London I went along to see her. It was just her and her guitar on stage and she had been on for a little while and I was thinking “She could do with some rhythm behind that”. I just snuck on stage with my snare drum and just started playing. I wasn’t invited but I thought, if she wasn’t into it, then I would just get off stage. But she turned around and smiled and I could see in her face that it was cool and so it has developed since then. She then invited me and my guys to come along and do the backing for European tour.
Kirk: My daughter, Emily, is 13 and has been learning the drums for a year. She’s very dedicated and is looking to join a band. If there was one tip from a man of your experience, that you could give her. What would it be?
Sam: Just one thing. Play from the heart. For me, it’s the only way. There are a lot of very, very good musicians in this country. There are a lot of very, very good drummers. Technically good drummers. But, there are only a few people that you hear, as a non-player and think …” That person is good!” And that is not because they can do a paradiddle or a ruff or whatever, but there is just something that they exude, which will be their passion, coming from the heart. If she can get that and keep that then the technique will come.
Kirk: Can you tell me a little about the time you spent playing with Gary Moore?
Sam: Gary was a phenomenal guitarist. Amazing! Gary saw me play with a guy called Papa George. Gary came up on stage and did a guest slot. At the end of the gig Gary came up and said that he liked how I played and that he was doing an album and he would like me to come along and play on it. And I thought “Yeah sure”, thinking he would never get in touch, but I gave him a card. I was a bit cynical. Anyway, shortly after that, he called me. This was exciting, not just because it was Gary, but because Blues/Rock was a style I hadn’t done before.
I made sure he knew one thing before we started though. I said “Gary, I’m not a copyist. If you want me to play like your previous drummer, I’m not the guy to do this, because I don’t play like that.” So, it all went ahead and I’m on a stage somewhere in Germany and there are thousands of people in the audience and Gary is rocking out and the bass is pumping and I am getting right into it and I’m roaring out saying “Yeah!!” and shouting out various things as I immerse myself in the music. What I didn’t realise was that the microphones around the drumkit were picking all of this up and going out front!!
So, after about 3 nights he asked to have a word and he said, “Sam, I love what you’re doing, but can you not do…. that?” (meaning the “vocals”).
On the new album that had been recorded at the time it was fine to experiment and feel our way but with the older established numbers he needed me to sit and play exactly what had been done before.
We tried but I ended up saying, “Look, it’s not working. It’s better that we part as friends, rather than etc, etc, etc…”
And he was cool with that. He’d said if I was ever doing an album and I needed some guitar done then he would be happy to come along and play. I just wish he had been alive and I would have asked him to come along and guest on this album. He was an amazing musician and the crazy thing is that he under-rated himself so much!
One of the things about Gary was, because he couldn’t read music, he felt a bit embarrassed. He knew all the cords and could play anything and everything he wanted to. When we recorded the album, he and I would stay behind in the studio. The bass and keyboard player would do their 9-5 and head off as they had been doing it for so long, but Gary and I just stayed and jammed! We would go through Funk, Jazz, Blues and throughout he would say things like “You played with so and so back in whenever, can we give that a try?” He knew all my work, all my history, and he was telling me things I’d done that I’d forgotten about.
I’d suggested we go out and do a Jazz thing under a pseudonym but again he didn’t have the confidence to go out in that scene. It was such a shame.
Kirk: Although, having said that, I do believe that it is sometimes those insecurities that make us who we are and what drive some people forward. We are very complex creatures and without that insecurity there is sometimes nothing to fight against. I think a lot of creatives are haunted by and driven by the thought that they aren’t good enough. In a strange way, if embraced, it can be very positive.
Sam: Absolutely, your right. Embrace it!
Kirk: Ok last question Sam. Bucket list gig?
Sam: Oh wow! You know who I would really have loved to play with? Hendrix! I heard him on record and to be honest, as a Black musician, I didn’t really get him. It just sounded like “too much” at that time. I was listening to James Brown and Otis Redding and that kind of thing.
Some years ago, someone was putting together a Hendrix project and they asked me if I would like to come along and play on it. For the first time, I actually listened to the music. It’s simple songs that have been coloured by his style but if you check the words and the music it’s a simple style and I would have loved to work with him. We’ll meet one day (LaughsI) …in the “Great gig in the sky” (Laughs)
Kirk: Thanks again for your time and insight Sam and I’ll pass on your advice to Emily. Oh, and I’ll catch you in Glasgow at Webster’s next month.
Sam: A pleasure Kirk. See you next month!
the hideaway jazz cafe