In praise of the sideman

I’m a sideman. I’ve always been a sideman. When you’re a sideman, if you’re any good, your role isn’t just to play the parts of a song for your instrument. It’s to make the whole band sound better.

I’ve never been a lead guitarist or the B-2 player or anything like that. Sure, I play harmonica, and in some bands that means you get to play some hot-shit solos, but mostly you stand with your hands in front of your face and findplaces to make everything sound better.

I’ve been thinking about this because this week, an amazing sideman died: Sam Lay. You’ve probably never heard of him. You should have.

Sam Lay played drums with all of the blues cats of the 1950s and 1960s: Muddy, Howlin’ Wolf, Magic Sam, Little Walter, Paul Butterfield and on and on. They always sounded better with him, but if you listen to these guys, you always think of them, not the drummer. Yet they never sounded the same — or as good — without him. That’s what a sideman does.

I’ve played in a lot of bands. Occasionally, my ego tells me that I should front one, but honestly, I don’t want to do the work that fronting a band requires, and I have a day job that makes this even less appealing. As a result, I’ve concentrated on a sideman’s role.

One of the things that makes me laugh about it is that some band members, for some inexplicable reason, notice the band doesn’t sound as good/thick/cool/something when I’m absent. The more cash-driven among those band members want to cut me out anyway, because what am I adding, really? And yet they get paid more with me than without me, and the connection isn’t always made.

But I know. I patch the bare spots. I give the lead players something to bounce back against. I blow the occasional solo and sing the occasional song to give everyone else a break. I harmonize. All of this matters.

You should salute the sideman. The lead folks make you want to see a band, but the sideman makes you want to hear it, even if you don’t realize that at first. And for someone like me, who never tried to make a living from music but has played in bands for 37 years anyway, that means a lot.


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