Buddy crowned: Before rock hall induction, Buddy Guy talks about his lifelong career in the blues
By Mark Guarino
On Monday in New York City, Buddy Guy gets inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Not that it takes a museum ceremony to legitimize his credentials. The moment the Louisiana native stepped into Chicago in 1957, he developed a guitar style that deeply influenced rock statesmen the next decade. As the go-to guitarist at Chess Records, playing on seminal songs by Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, then in his partnership with harp force Junior Wells and finally as a solo artist, Guy’s influence on future rock guitarists — Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Stevie Ray Vaughan in particular — is immeasurable. His high, honeyed vocals, heavy, distorted guitar style and manic showmanship created an immediate link between the blues elders of the ‘50s and the hard-driving British rock stylists of the ‘60s.
It was Eric Clapton, one of Guys’ most adamant admirers, who helped reignite his career in the early ‘90s, after a decade when the blues diminished in popularity and Guy could not score a record contract. After a series of well-received albums and five Grammy wins, Guy plays to new audiences, becoming the music’s most recognizable ambassador across the world. At 69, he continues to make some of the best music of his career including “Blues Singer” (Silvertone), his most recent album of quiet acoustic music and, before that, “Sweet Tea” (Silvertone), a return to the raw blues of the Mississippi Hill country. Although Legends, the South Loop club he opened in 1989 is Chicago’s ground zero for live blues, Guy is adamant that Chicago needs a blues museum and has campaigned the Daley administration in recent years that it needs to do something to preserve its cultural legacy forever.
The Orland Park resident talked this week about his long career and shared memories from his days at Chess and beyond.
Q: Buddy, what was going on in your head when you learned you were inducted into the hall?
A: As usual, with all the rest of the awards I won, man, these awards should have been presented to the people I learned every damn thing I learned from, Son House to Little Walter to Howlin’ Wolf, I could go on and on. I came into Chicago September the 25th, 1957 and that was like going to high school to get an education in the music. I didn’t even plan to be a professional musician; I just wanted to see those guys do it like it was supposed to be done. And I got a chance to meet and greet and play with all of them and now, I’m left holding this torch and I’m receiving things they should have gotten long before I even thought of getting into things.
Q: When you arrived in Chicago, Chess was already successful with people like Muddy Waters bonafide stars. What was that like stepping into that scene after a life spent, up to then, in rural Louisiana?
A: I left Baton Rouge and Baton Rouge was like, you get up and go to (expletive) work and it’s work week and no party. On Friday and Saturday you party a little bit, now it’s church Sunday and you’re back to work again. When I came to Chicago, I thought every (expletive) day was Sunday. The Muddys, the Junior Wells, the (Little) Walters, the Earl Hookers, I could name names until this time next year and I still don’t think I would run out. We had that big stockyards 24 hours a day, the steel mills was 24 hours a day, I could go play a little blues club, when somebody’d recognize me, I would get a little $2 or $3 a night gig. And I would get off, two o’clock in the morning, trying to catch a bus to come home and I would have to wait on the fifth bus cause it was full of people, you couldn’t get on. I often tell people that when I came here, which was in September, the worst part of the year, that when I looked at the robins and all the smart birds fly South I thought, “well, I don’t have as much as sense as the birds.” But when I ran into (people like) Muddy Waters, I found out they were so warm I didn’t get cold.
Q: One of the first clubs you played was the famed 708 Club, at 47th and King Drive, a building that’s still standing.
A: Yeah, that building is still there, man. A stranger walked me in there and Otis (Rush) was playing there.
When he took me down there, it wasn’t completely freezing but it wasn’t hot. And I didn’t have anywhere to go and thought, “wherever this guy’s taking me is better than where I’m at,” because I didn’t know anything different than 47th and Lake Park.
Q: So you arrived in town and almost immediately started exclusively playing alongside the major players here.
A: Yeah, but I earned that. Because when I came to Chicago, most of the blues guys were kind of quiet … I went into there trying to play loud blues and (Chess) would run me out. But Muddy found out in the clubs that I could play their stuff. In 1963, they called Muddy in to do this folk album, this acoustic album (the classic “Folk Singer”). And Leonard (Chess) told Muddy to go to Mississippi because the colleges, they wanted to put this on for college kids because they were buying it. And he set things up and I walked in and … Muddy turned the tape on I started playing it, (Chess) said, “mother (expletive) how’d you learn that?”
Q: You introduced a youthful energy they never heard before.
A: Well I saw (West Side guitar ace) Magic Sam, He was really wild in Louisiana. And I saw B.B. King, T-Bone Walker, Big Joe Turner. You didn’t have different names of music than what you have now. You were an R&B player regardless of what you play. So when I went into Chicago, all the guys were sitting down in chairs and playing. And I said, “you can outplay me, but you’re not going to outdo me.” And I started to get wild like (‘50s New Orleans R&B great) Guitar Slim. And people started saying, “you need to see this wild (expletive) from Louisiana.” And that’s when Muddy and the Wolf started to roll in and watch me. My thing was, “pay attention to me because I want to learn from you.”
Q: How real was the rivalry between Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf?
A: I never did see that. People told me that. I think people misunderstood that. When I come to Chicago, I didn’t use profane, man. But when I went into Chess, the jazz and the blues musicians, everybody was a “mother (expletive).” When you call someone “mother (expletive),” where I come from, from Louisiana, you’re like, “okay, they’re in for the fight.” And I think people … thought they didn’t like each other because every time you see them, they’re calling each other a “mother (expletive).” I went into Chess Records and was sitting in a corner waiting to play a session with (Little) Walter or Muddy or somebody and this voice out of the engineering room (goes), “hold it, take ten — hey you mother (expletive), you mother (expletive),” and I never looked up. And they come out of the engineer room and punch me on the shoulder and said, “hey, I’m talking to you, mother (expletive).” And I go, “well, I didn’t know that was my name.” And pretty soon I started answering when they called me “mother (expletive).”
Q: You got hazed into the club. You recorded many albums with Junior Wells, creating one of the best partnerships in the blues. Why do you think both of you worked so well together?
A: When I arrived, Junior and I was more closer (in) age than the rest of them. Muddy and Wolf were like, “you are my children.” Junior took Little Walter’s place in Muddy’s band. I also knew Junior always had a hard time with a band. In 1970, we were invited to open the shows for the Rolling Stones throughout Europe. He had problem with his band. I had good rhythm section and we had the same management, Dick Waterman, which was Bonnie Raitt’s boyfriend at the time. And I told (Waterman), “I’ve got a tight rhythm section and Junior can’t fire my band, so put him with me and we’ll do the tours with the Rolling Stones.”
Q: Did you guys get along particularly well?
A: I heard a lot of times, me and him didn’t get along. Because I had to call him a “mother (expletive)” and he called me and people would say, “they don’t like one other.” Same thing with Wolf and Muddy. And we would go back and laugh about it. Good thing they made this movie about Ray Charles and they weren’t using the profane because every time you saw him, that’s the way he was. All musicians were like that, the jazz cats too. We would go listen to them and that’s what it was: “hey mother (expletive).” It was never “hey Buddy Guy”
Q: You show up in “Festival Express,” last year’s documentary film about the famous 1970 train tour featuring the major ‘60s icons — the Grateful Dead, The Band, Janis Joplin — and yourself. What was that like as one of the first blues singers to share bills with, what were then, bands that represented an entirely new musical culture?
A: It was so wild and crazy, so many beautiful people back then. After the war in Vietnam, so many kids were marching and protesting and a lot of people were smoking their weed — I never did get into that, I always did have my little drink, because I still have stage fright — but it was so much fun. When I first went into San Francisco, that’s when I started realizing the white audience was listening to (the blues). I thought, “what the hell is this? A white person asking me to play a B.B. King or Muddy Waters record? I didn’t think you guys knew anything about that!” Then there was that Jerry Garcia and Janis Joplin and I thought, “wait a minute, these people know more about me than I do my (expletive) self.”
Q: You were closer to their age than elders like Muddy.
A: Well, I was a little wild. I learned that from Guitar Slim. I didn’t know what damn else to do. I was just trying to get attention. I didn’t come to town and say, “I’m going to learn this from somebody from Chicago.” I had that when I came here because I saw Guitar Slim do it.
Q: I’ve often thought that, in the ‘60s, it must have been strange for the Chicago blues players, who were playing mostly on the South and West Sides, to suddenly hear what they were doing being replicated by young rock musicians from England. How did that connection between Chicago and London strike you at the time?
A: First thing was, when I was there at Chess, I would turn my amp up with distortion. And that’s all we had, we didn’t have the special effects you had now. And they would run me out. I didn’t hear it coming from England then, because my thing was listening to (Little) Walter, Muddy Waters, T-Bone (Walker) and B.B. King. Then all of the sudden, Willie Dixon came to house and said, “Leonard Chess wants to see you.” And I was making $20, $30 whenever I would play to pay for my little kitchenette. But I had never been in (Chess’) office and Dixon told me to put on a suit. And I thought, “well, I guess this is the end of my sessions at Chess, I guess they got tired of my playing,” because they would never give me an album or nothing like that. And when I walked in, Leonard Chess bent over and said “I want you kick me in the ass.” And I thought, “well, this sounds good to me,” but I said, “what do you mean?” I think Cream had come out with the guitar loud, and Chess said this “mother (expletive) shit you wanted us to listen to is selling like hot (expletive) cake and we were too (expletive) dumb to listen to you!” And when I met Eric (Clapton), I said, “you came up with new (expletive)” and he said, “no I haven’t. This is yours.” And he said, “Everything Gonna Be Alright” is (Cream’s) “Strange Brew.” And I said, “well, I’ll be damned.” And that’s what I’ve been trying to do, just turn it up and let it ring. It was like a horse — (Chess) had bit in my mouth, wouldn’t let me run.
Q: Clapton returned the favor in the ‘90s after a period of time you couldn’t even get a record contract.
A: First of all, (Clapton) was doing every February in (London’s) Royal Albert Hall three weeks at a time (captured on the 1991 album “21 Nights”). And he invited me there two weeks in a row. The first year I was doing pretty well, I was doing Muddy Waters stuff and getting standing ovations. And a guy approached me and said, “I’ll sign you to a record deal.” And the first thing on my mind was “oh (expletive), I have to pull a Jimi Hendrix now.” Because Hendrix had to leave New York and go over there because they were running him away because all the effects, the wah-wah, nobody wanted to hear that here. I had just opened Legends on June 9, 1989. I signed that contract in Legends then went to England and made the best record I ever made, “Damn Right I Got the Blues” (on Silvertone, from 1991). The next thing I knew, I was interviewed more than I had ever been interviewed in my life. I thought, “damn, maybe I should move to England.” But I kept saying, “I’m not going to leave here. Because I was born and raised here, it can be done. If I can do it there, I should be able to do it here.”
Q: What’s the status with Legends? I know your neighbor, Columbia College, wants you to move because it owns your building. But you just purchased the lot next door and there’s been rumors of a land swap.
A: I think I’m going to stay where I’m at. I have a good relationship with the college. I bought the lot over there next to the college. And it’s just switching lots. To be honest with you, clubs don’t make a lot of money. If they close that club, where’s the next Eric Clapton going to come from? You’re not going to drive the street in Chicago and find the next young lady or young man playing in their house and say, “wow.” You have to have a blues club. Just like when I was walking down the street with the 708 Club, the Theresa’s, the Zanzibars, that’s how they found ‘em. That’s my purpose for keeping the club.