The washboard was the rhythm instrument of choice for street musicians playing the Blues in the early days, but Washboard Sam took it into the studio and made himself a strong career as a session musician in Chicago. He also had a great voice and a talent for songwriting that saw him record more than 160 tracks as a solo artist. Sam was a great showman and bandleader too, and he could pack out big theatres with fans of his good-time music. When the Blues went electric after WWII, Sam’s style seemed old-fashioned, so he switched careers to become an unlikely Police Officer. However, with the Folk/Blues revival, he returned to the Blues in the mid-60s, touring Europe and recording again.
In 1935, Sam began a solo career, which saw him record a string of hits like ‘Diggin’ My Potatoes’, ‘Mama Don’t Allow’, ‘Low Down Woman’ and ‘Back Door’. He was a popular live performer too, with his happy ‘hokum‘ material, his powerful, versatile voice and his cast of excellent sidemen, which meant that his washboard was mainly just used as a stage prop. After WWII, however, Sam found that the new electric Blues was leaving him behind and his record sales began to fall away. He cut a final session with Willie Dixon at Chess in 1953 and then retired from music, and it is said he joined the Chicago Police Department. When Chicago Blues got a big lift in 1963 with the popularity of British bands like The Stones and The Animals, Sam was coaxed out of retirement by Willie Dixon. Sam played some gigs around Chicago and recorded some tracks for Victoria Spivey‘s label and even made a trip to Europe in 1964. Sadly Sam’s health was failing, and he passed away in his adopted home-town in 1966.