Featured Interview – Buddy Guy

“Buddy Guy”

“Buddy Mutha-fukin’ Guy”

That’s how royalty gives it up for other royalty.

At the end of The Rolling Stones’ spirited charge through “Champagne and Reefer” in Martin Scorsese’s Shine A Light, that’s how an exuberant Mick Jagger acknowledges the fedora-sportin’ firebrand with the polka-dotted Fender Strat slung over his shoulder.

Buddy Guy.

That was after Guy, with a mischievous grin etched on his face, had nearly blown Stones’ guitarist Ronnie Wood clean out of his shoes when the legendary bluesman leaned into the mike and belted out the song’s second verse.

Then, in an even more surreal moment, as Guy makes his way off stage, Keith Richards hands him his beloved white Guild guitar and says, ‘it’s yours.’

That is the power of Buddy Mutha-fukin’ Guy.

While the list of people that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards admire is probably a short one, rest assured that Buddy Guy’s place on that list is etched in stone.

But Guy’s affection for the Glimmer Twins is every bit as solid and deep as theirs is for him.

“White America (in the 1960s) was calling it a British invasion,” Guy said of the explosion that groups like The Stones, The Animals and The Yardbirds created on popular music in the United States some decades ago. “But they were playing hardcore blues. They said, ‘no, this is something you (America) already had. There was a television show called Shindig and The Rolling Stones were getting bigger than bubblegum and they wanted them to play on it. Finally, Mick Jagger said, ‘we’ll do it, if we can bring Holwin’ Wolf.’ They said, ‘who’s that?’ And Mick got offended. He said, ‘you mean to tell me you don’t know who he is?’ And they (The Stones) had named themselves after a Muddy Waters record and nobody over here knew that.”

While those on this side of the pond may have been a bit slow on the draw to salute the talent we had right in our own backyard in the 1960s, budding musicians in England absolutely worshipped names like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Buddy Guy.
Names, that thanks to the efforts of Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix, we now treasure as some of the most important ones in the history of popular music.

Names that are enshrined in the Rock-N-Roll Hall of Fame, along with those of Jagger, Clapton and Hendrix.

“The British guys opened up the door and we started getting some recognition then,” Guy said. “You know, I don’t think that Muddy Waters was getting any awards back in 1948 and 49. Or B.B. King. So I say, thank God for them (British bands). A British guy (Chas Chandler) came and got Jimi Hendrix and took him to England, and thank God he did. The British guys woke everybody up.”

Once he was squarely on the radar of blues lovers, over here and over there, there was to be no stopping Buddy Guy – not in 1967, when he issued the classic I left My Blues in San Francisco on Chess Records – or in 2011, when Guy’s latest release, Living Proof (Jive Records), has earned the 74-year young guitar slinger a whole bushel-basket of kudos.

At the recent Blues Music Awards (BMAs) in Memphis, Guy took top honors in all five categories he was nominated in.

Living Proof won Album of the Year and Contemporary Blues Album of the Year, while the title track, co-written with Tom Hambridge, earned Guy Song of the Year honors. He was also selected as Contemporary Blues Male Artist of the Year and took home the prestigious B.B. King Entertainer of the Year award.

Those five BMAs should fit nicely beside the Grammy that Living Proof earned Guy in the Best Contemporary Blues Album category back in February.

Though he probably is running out of display space to acknowledge all the accomplishments he’s achieved over the course of the past 50-plus years, Guy is still humbled every time he hears his name called to the podium.

“I’ve got six Grammys and had won 21 (Handy Awards) of the awards I won last week, which is the most you can win. Then they changed the name and then I could win these other ones (BMAs) that I picked up,” he said. “And every time I accept an award, I do it in honor of the people that I learned from that never even thought about getting an award. Like Lightinin’ Hopkins, Lightnin’ Slim … I could go on and on … T-Bone (Walker) might have gotten an award before he passed, but he was the first guy that started playing the guitar down the neck without a clamp. And then you’ve got guys like Fred McDowell, Son House and Johnny Shines … and I got the chance to meet those people and play, so I think those guys are looking down and saying, ‘thank you, Buddy. We made that road for you to get it (awards and recognition).”

As hard as it is to fathom now, at one time in the not-so-distant past, it would have been easier to walk on the moon than to walk into a record store and find a new Buddy Guy album.

And it sure wasn’t because Buddy Guy had retired from the recording studio.

“First of all, I was ignored (by record labels) for about 27 years and when I got signed to this label (Jive), I got signed in London,” Guy said. “I was doing those 21 nights at Albert Hall with Eric Clapton and the guy said, ‘I want to sign you and make a record.’ I said, ‘I’m ready to come here like Hendrix and make a record.’ So I made the record (Damn Right I Got The Blues) in London, thinking it was for a British label. And come to find out, it was a label from here (United States).”

And while we have Jive Records to thank for the outpouring of new music from Buddy Guy over the past couple of decades, it’s not like the label is stocked with a who’s-who of blues legends.

Among artists like Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys and Crystal Bowersox, you’ll find Buddy Guy.

“I was in New York promoting Living Proof and one of the executives there at the company said, ‘you know, you’re the only blues person on this label.’ I said, ‘you’re kidding?’ But I’m blessed, because the blues are mighty thin now and you don’t hardly hear it on your radio anymore. So I can understand why a record company won’t hold onto you if you’re not selling any records. You’ve got to be profitable for them to record you. They’re not going into bankruptcy with you, that’s for sure.”

Like the rest of the blues-loving masses, Guy finds it totally disheartening that roots music is shunned by the majority of radio stations these days. Not surprising that back in the early 80s, Guy recorded an album called DJ Play My Blues.

 “So it’s not our lyrics why stations don’t play the blues. It’s something else.”

“I’m going to continue to keep speaking out about some of these big radio stations,” he said. “These stations that don’t play no blues should at least play blues once or twice a week. You know 40 or 45 years ago, we had AM stations that would play everybody’s music. Now they don’t play blues. What would it take away from one of these big stations if they played the blues? These hip-hoppers that broke out 20 years or so ago were singing stuff they wouldn’t even let us pass by a studio and say. We beat around the bush with our lyrics. So it’s not our lyrics why stations don’t play the blues. It’s something else. Something I don’t know. You turn on a big FM station these days and all you hear are the same two people’s songs all day long. People who don’t need to recognized to start with. People who make millions just by showing up. Half of them ain’t singing themselves anyway, with all those microphones around their head.”

Not one to just sit around and complain about the sorry state of radio these days, Guy is doing his part to help show the younger generation that’s there’s more to music than the latest boy bands and high-dollar, lip-synced videos, all created in a record company board room.

There’s dudes like Quinn Sullivan, a young man that’s turning heads with the way he attacks a guitar and plays the blues. Guy has taken Sullivan under his wing and that tutelage has resulted in Sullivan’s first album – Cyclone – just released in late March.

“I first heard him at 7 years old and that song on Skin Deep (Guy’s previous album before Living Proof), “Who’s Going to Fill Those Shoes” … he was 8 years old when he played that solo,” said Guy. “He just turned 12 and he’s going to open a lot of outdoor shows for me this summer. I told his parents I didn’t want to take him out of school, but I did want him to come out on the road with me. He did the Jimmy Kimmel Show about a month ago, so I’m trying to get him on the biggest shows I can.”

All in an effort to help keep the flame of roots music burning in an ever-increasing plastic society.

“Like I said, I got it from somebody, too. I take my awards in the honor of the guys I got it from and I feel proud these days when I hear anybody play the blues,” said Guy. “If you turn on your music television, you don’t see nobody doing nothing on there. So I gotta’ see if I can find somebody to help keep the blues alive.”

But a young, white kid from the Northeast playing the blues?

“Please believe me – I don’t see color. Some people have asked me, ‘can Stevie Ray Vaughan play the blues, because he’s white?’ I tell them, blues is played with five fingers,” Guy said. “Unless I’ve got about 15 fingers, I don’t have any advantage over Stevie or Eric or any of them. That’s so stupid for someone to say that. It (ability to play blues) comes from inside and it’s a learning thing. Just like football or anything else. If you spend time on it, you can do it.”

Young up-and-comers, along with veterans of the blues, have another reason to be thankful that Buddy Guy is not afraid to give back.

Because of Guy, they have a regular place to play when in Chicago – Buddy Guy’s Legends club.

Now open at its new location on the corner of Balbo and Wabash, just one block away from its original spot, Legends has been a Windy City staple for two decades now.

And two decades is a virtual eternity in a business that sees new clubs open and close faster than the speed of sound.

“I went up on stage at my club last night and told people I’m the damndest fool ever, because I don’t take no for an answer,” Guy said. “I had a blues club before B.B. King, I had a blues club before The House of Blues, or any of these other clubs started. But first of all, a lot of people will go into business and if they don’t make a lot of money in the first six months, they’ll close the doors. When I first opened Legends, I lost millions of dollars keeping the doors open. And I couldn’t afford that. I used to come off the road and meet payroll (at Legends) with money I had just made on tour. And I still didn’t close the doors.”

That kind of determination has paid off in a large way, as Legends remains the toast of blues clubs all around the globe.

“Last night, you couldn’t get a seat in my club,” the proud owner said. “And someone asked me how I do it. I said, ‘I don’t know. People just come here and they know if I’m here, they’re going to get a free shot at Buddy Guy singing one or two songs.’ And on Monday nights, it’s open mike. If you can play any damn thing, you’ll get called up to play on Monday night at my club. When I came here 54 years ago, they had so many blues clubs that I didn’t get to see them all. But over the years, the drugs, the DUIs and the non-smoking really killed a lot of clubs all over the world.”

Not only victims of changing society, a whole host of venues have been relegated to empty, burnt-out shells because of a plague of another sort.

Greedy – or maybe just plain clueless – promoters.

The kind that wouldn’t think twice about stiffing performers of their pay, even if they were stuck hundreds of miles from home with limited resources.

“I used to go play at clubs and the place would be packed. But the guy (promoter) would say, ‘well, I didn’t make no money tonight.’ And I would ask for cab fare home and the guy would say, ‘you heard what I said. I didn’t make no money tonight,’” said Guy. “So if I didn’t end up walking home, I’d have to beg somebody for cab fare. So I said to myself then, that if one day I was able to do what I’m doing now, I would never strand a musician. I have their money before the doors even open. I’ve been through that and I don’t want any other musicians to go through that.”

Those tough times that Guy endured on the road back in the day have included making a meal for a crew out of what most of us would probably consider to be a light snack.”

“Before the late Junior Wells passed away, we were in California one time and didn’t get paid,” Guy said. “So I saw a hotdog stand and we got one hotdog and got a knife and cut it into four pieces for us and the band. And we survived. And we still played. When you run into stuff like that, you should probably say there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. But I didn’t have that much sense. Music is what I had dedicated my life to and I’m still doing it.”

That dedication has saw Guy through plenty of tough times and with the way things are in this day and time, even tougher ones may be on the horizon.

Still, Guy refuses to be swayed off the path of playing the blues.

“I’m not afraid to do something. Even in this economy. I was born on a sharecropper’s farm and we had to walk everywhere we went. I know how to boil a pot of potatoes on a fireplace,” he said. “So I’m used to this. I grew up with this – not knowing what you’re going to eat tomorrow. When I got old enough to catch a fish, my mama said, ‘thank the Lord.’”

Even though he’s midway into his seventh decade on this earth, the teachings that Guy absorbed as a child growing up in Lettsworth, Louisiana still have special significance to the man named as one of Rolling Stone magazine’s top 100 guitarists of all time.

“My parents brought me up the right way. I grew up in church and still go to church and respect people,” he said. “I know about riding at the back of the bus and going to different bathrooms with the black and white signs on them. But my parents always told me, ‘whatever you do when you’re grown, don’t try to be the best in town, just be the best until the best comes around.’”

Even though he’s called Chicago home since 1957, the recent bender that the Mississippi River has been on due to the near-record flooding in the south has Guy paying close attention to the devastation afflicting his native home territory.

“They opened the (Morganza) spillway a couple of days ago about six miles from where I was born. I watched them when they built that thing,” he said. “I was about 13 or 14 years old then. I’ve got some family still in Baton Rouge and they avoided that (floodwaters) by opening that spillway. It was fixing to crash Baton Rouge and New Orleans, so that was the purpose of them building that (spillway) some many years ago.”

And while 2011 has been one to remember for all the success that Buddy Guy has racked up, it will also be remembered for all the historic damage that the elements have unleashed all across the globe.

“Every time you wake up this year, you hate to turn the radio on or television on, because if it ain’t a tsunami on the other side of the world, it’s something here. Like storms, tornados, floods …but that’s Mother Nature … what can you do? I left for Chicago 54 years ago this year and some people want to know how I can stay there. But I tell them, in Chicago all you need is a coat and some boots and a shovel. When those rivers go to rising on you in the south and then the ground gets shaky out in California with the mudslides and earthquakes, the snow and cold is not so bad.”

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