Buddy Guy: Ambassador to the blues

Categories: Chicago Sun-Times

MUSIC | The faithful line up one last January before the legend moves to new digs

January 24, 2010

By MARK GUARINO | Chicago Sun-Times

Just before midnight on a recent Saturday, the temperature stops at zero. Snowflakes persist; sidewalks in the South Loop are abandoned. Into this kind of night, Buddy Guy decides to take a stroll.

His fingers flutter against the strings of his guitar as he steps off the stage, passes through the crowd, crouches to sing eyeball-to-eyeball with enthralled fans at one table — and then takes off. He leans against a post to say one last farewell, but it doesn’t take long: He’s out the door, the (wireless) guitar still at top volume. On the northwest corner of Eighth Street and Wabash Avenue, while his club, Legends, is packed with fans, Guy stands alone, playing to the night sky.

Days earlier, well before noon, Guy sits at the Legends bar reminiscing about learning that trick from one of his heroes, the Louisiana guitarist and singer Guitar Slim. “He didn’t have wireless or nothing, just a long cable, 75 or 100 feet,” Guy says, remembering a time ago, long before his move to Chicago in 1957 from Lettsworth, La., his hometown. “The announcer said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Guitar Slim!’ And all I heard was a guitar. And I go, ‘What the hell is this?’ And all of a sudden he came in the door and a guy had him on his shoulders. He wore a red suit. I thought, ‘This guy don’t need to play no more’ — I knew right there and then I wanted to play like B.B. King, but I wanted to act like Guitar Slim.”

Guy, the best global ambassador of Chicago blues the city has ever had, does not just deliver the showmanship of Guitar Slim every time he plays, he also goes out of his way to remind fans, no matter if he’s playing an arena or club, of the former Chicago greats he used to back up — Koko Taylor, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson — while a young, hot studio guitarist at Chess Records, the famed recording operation that put Chicago on the map and helped create the architecture that generations of rock hopefuls have returned to for inspiration.

The past is present every time Guy plays, but especially so this year considering that Legends, the club he has operated since 1989, is closing its doors come spring and moving one block north to a new location at 700 S. Wabash. The relocation will expand the playing space and add a second level in a building Guy will finally own, but he is insistent the change is not one he would be making if he had the choice. For years, Columbia College, which owns the current building, has wanted Guy out with hopes of expanding its campus.

At age 73, Guy realizes he has better things to do than open what will be his third club (the first was the original Checkerboard Lounge on East 43rd, which lasted from 1972-1985), but he understands a blues club is not just about the music. It’s about keeping an important heritage intact, a heritage that started to diminish in the 1970s once a combination of factors — migration of the black middle class to the suburbs, closings at the steel mills and stockyards, gang warfare, race riots — slowly muted live music on the South and West sides.

“In ’72, you still had 24/7 steel mills, and you could play blues all night,” Guy says. “Most clubs had the four o’clock license. All up and down 12th Street, Madison Street, 39th, 43rd, 47th, 63rd — all of them blues, man. And all the sudden after the riots, all those places disappeared. If that heyday was here, I wouldn’t have this club because I wouldn’t need it. So I’m keeping the club open to keep what belongs to Chicago in Chicago.”

Tailgate tradition

If Guy exited his club 12 hours before he started playing to the moon, he might have bumped into Kevin Marian, 46, of Palatine, who shepherds food to his sidewalk grill all morning and afternoon before the club’s doors open at 4:30 p.m. Despite the single-digit temperatures, his layers of clothing, Hamm’s beer and friendships lasting nearly 15 years provide enough warmth to get by.

“We all pretty much dig the hell out of Buddy Guy,” he explains.

These are the tailgaters, the super fans, a group of men and women who beeline to Legends the first weekend of January to celebrate the opening week of Guy’s annual monthlong residency at the club. (The final show at the current location is Jan. 30.)

There is a practical reason for the madness: They want to be first in line to get a table next to the stage. But after spending time with the group, it becomes evident something else is at play. There are friendships here, a community among strangers involving a shared love of music and a gonzo spirit that makes sleeping in a sidewalk tent or being crammed inside a camper parked feet from the door perfectly sensible.

Tool through a parking lot at your average college football game and the fare is predictable: hot dogs, hamburgers, beer, soda. Not so outside Legends. This group eats like they’re at Ravinia in July: crab legs, Icelandic cod, salmon, skirt steak, venison sausage.

“If we’re going to stand outside for a good seat, we might as well enjoy ourselves doing it,” says Mary Lewis of Palatine.

Friendships have been made at this annual pilgrimage. Mike Gelbach owns a farm in Memphis, Mo., and has invited his Buddy Guy brethren down for hunting trips. On this Saturday, they munch on wild turkey they shot this season. He first saw Buddy Guy by chance in 1973 in Frankfort, Germany, when on leave from the army, when Guy opened for the Rolling Stones.

“I’m a farm boy from Missouri. I know nothing about the blues. That was quite a good introduction,” he says.

Gelbach’s son Dylan, 20, grew up on this sidewalk, having first joined the January road trip when he was 5. Although the club’s age limit prevents Dylan from seeing Guy this night, he says he’s seen the guitarist several times since he was a teenager and once met him backstage at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis. “You’ll be surprised how many people my age are into the music,” he says.

At the head of the line is Mike Ilingworth, 50, a real estate appraiser from Brookfield. His claim to the title “Superfan” is that he has been first in line for every Guy show since the club opened.

“My wife’s a saint, she lets me do this,” he says.

Ilingworth is secretive about when he shows up — “We hate to get beat, we love being first,” he says — but it’s fair to say that when he arrives, sunrise is not in a hurry.

“Buddy’s a phenomenal performer,” he says about why he makes the annual trek. “It’s the whole thing — the performance, the show, the legend.”

Just then, a city tow truck pulls up and its driver asks about Ilingworth’s car. Once he learns it’s the property of a tailgater, he takes off. For years, the police and city parking authorities have had a hands-off approach with the tailgaters, known for inviting local homeless people to dine with them and respecting the street corner.

“They’re really good about leaving us alone,” Ilingworth says.

‘Blues has been pretty good to me’

That night, Guy plays just feet away from the tailgaters who, once again, have secured the front line of tables. He performs a set that includes special guest — harmonica virtuoso Billy Branch and soul-blues brothers Syl and Jimmy Johnson. The night features covers heavy on the past — covers of classics by Muddy Waters, OV Wright, Albert King — and the present, such as the title song of “Skin Deep” (Silvertone), his latest album.

In conversation, Guy says he plans to accept Carlos Santana’s offer to join him to christen the new Legends the weekend of June 26, when both will play Eric Clapton’s second Crossroads Guitar Festival, scheduled at Toyota Park. Because the all-day festival is studded with stars, he hopes that once again it will convince Chicago’s city fathers to pay more attention to the city’s cultural past.

He remains insistent, as he has for years, that Chicago should become a better caretaker of the blues, that the music should be played on the radio more and a museum should be erected to document its contribution to the world.

“When I was inducted into the [Rock and Roll] Hall of Fame [in 2005], I got invited to City Hall one day and one of the big alderman said, ‘Thank you, Buddy. We should have wheels on [the museum] so we can see it here.’ They didn’t let me speak, but I wanted to tell ’em it should have been built here in the first place,” he says.

He uses his own story as an example of how music can transform someone’s life and act as a passport out of a neighborhood and into the world.

“Blues has been pretty good to me. I don’t have a high school education, I never would have traveled around the world, I wouldn’t have met as many wonderful people as I met without being a guitar player,” he says. “We were playing for the love of music and the love of looking at a good looking woman smiling at you as you play. Then you were full.”

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