Let’s face it, traveling the world as Buddy Guy’s keyboard player has got to be one Hell of a sweet gig.
Sure, Buddy’s probably a fairly demanding boss and being on the road all the time can be quite a grind, but the plusses still have to outweigh the minuses.
For Chicago native Marty Sammon, who has been playing the keys in Buddy’s band for over a decade now, one of the biggest perks of the gig happened just around a year ago.
So what was it?
Having lunch with Mick Jagger?
Or maybe flying on the Concorde from New York to Paris?
“Hugging Michelle Obama,” he laughed.
That once-in-a-lifetime close encounter with the First Lady occurred when Buddy, Sammon and Tom Hambridge played at the White House in October 2015 as part of the celebration for the 50th anniversary of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
“There were so many good musicians there. I got to watch James Taylor do a rehearsal and him and Keb Mo played together so well,” Sammon said. “Just seeing the professionalism of the musicians there was amazing. When you put together musicians that have never played together before … I had never played with the band that we had there; to see that level of playing and to be involved in that, I was honored. And of course, to be at the White House with the leader of the free world, that was pretty exciting, too.”
The day was long ago and far away that Buddy Guy eclipsed the realm of just being an ordinary and average, run-of-the-mill bluesman.
For decades now, Buddy Guy has been held in the highest regards for his supernatural talents and is probably one of the few people on the face of the earth that can count larger-than-life figures like Keith Richards, Steven Siegel, Eric Clapton and yes, even President Barack Obama, as members of his hardcore fan base.
“It’s never a dull moment … there’s always excitement. I mean, going to the White House and seeing President Obama praise him and then we’ve been on tour with Jeff Beck and Jeff has nothing but respect for Buddy,” Sammon said. “And that’s great to see because I think he deserves it after being around on the planet for 80 years and for playing for 60 years. It’s exciting and it gives you hope that the rock-n-roll musicians still appreciate the blues, especially when blues seem to be under-appreciated these days.”
Even at 80 years of age, Buddy still is able to play with all the fire and passion that once prompted Clapton to dub him as ‘the best guitar player alive.’ Sammon doesn’t take the opportunity to climb on stage and play nightly with a living legend lightly, either. He says the key to being able to play with Buddy is to remain alert at all times.
“Buddy’s so unpredictable. When they talk about jam-bands and how those groups just get up on stage and jam, they don’t consider blues bands to be jam-bands,” he said. “But I do, because with Buddy Guy we play everything different every single night. He’ll cut the song off in the middle of a verse and start something new and you just have to be on your toes at all times.”
And as should be expected from the way that he wrings sheets of notes out of his signature model Stratocaster, Buddy wants his band members to pour everything they’ve got into their performance, as well.
“You have to play. He likes you to play hard and with a lot of passion, so you sure can’t phone it in,” said Sammon. “You have to go for it every night.”
In addition to globetrotting all over the world with Buddy, Sammon has also been involved in a host of other projects, with a diverse group of musicians that run the gamut from blues-rock (Devon Allman) to jam-band (Giles Corey) to sacred steel (Robert Randolph and The Slide Brothers) to houserockin’ Chicago Blues (Lil Ed & The Blues Imperials).
“I get called sometimes where they want a specific keyboard part and then sometimes they’ll call me because they want me to do what I do. I grew up listening to a lot of styles of music, so I can pretty much accommodate what anyone asks for,” he said. “But I really like it when someone just wants me to come in and do my thing, because that’s when the cool stuff happens. You might be playing with someone you’ve never played with before and they’ll do something a little different and you can mix your styles together and that’s when you come up with something unique. That’s the studio experience that I love because it’s a lot of freedom, as opposed to playing something specific. I try to throw a little Marty in there when I can. The trick (to playing on other artist’s projects) is to not stand out and to not try and throw your bag at someone. You want to compliment what they’re doing.”
As if all that wasn’t more than enough to keep him busy, there’s also the little matter of the Marty Sammon Band to keep ‘Chicago’s Keyboard Madman’ busy.
“Touring out of town with Buddy so much can make it hard to focus on my own project, but I am working on an album of all original material right now. And I’m hoping to very soon do a solo piano album, as well,” he said. “I’ve got a million ideas and not much time to get them done, but I’m at least trying to get these two things going. I’m about halfway through my studio project right now.”
Buddy Guy is not the only one of Eric Clapton’s favorite guitarists of all time that Sammon has had the good fortune of working with. For roughly half-a-decade, Sammon was in the amazing Otis Rush’s band.
“To play with Otis, you had to listen quite a bit and play in between what he would play. He was pretty high-energy, so I walked away from that gig with some muscles in my arms from playing so hard,” laughed Sammon. “If I played lightly, he would look at me and start strumming the guitar real hard as if to say, ‘Come on with it.’ You’d play three sets (a night) sometimes and you’d just be so wrecked by the end of it, because he would just go and go. Playing with Otis was the first time that I got to play on big stages with professional equipment. It’s a different way of playing when you’re playing for festival audiences on big stages as opposed to some of the smaller club venues. I not only learned a lot about how to play that kind of gig from Otis, but I also learned how to travel. And that lesson has paid off with Buddy, because we constantly travel.”
As a youngster learning his way around the piano on Chicago’s south side in a family of Irish heritage, Sammon was – naturally – deeply into playing the Irish folk songs that he would hear around the house. So what was Sammon’s master-plan to transition from Irish folk music to the Chicago blues?
Turns out there was no master-plan at all, but instead there was kind of a happy accident.
“Well, I got thrown into a gig as a sub for someone in Eddie C. Campbell’s band. I met his keyboard player at Guitar Center – I was in there just trying out equipment when I was 14- or 15-years-old. So he heard me and asked me if I wanted a gig. I said, ‘I’ve never played blues before.’ And he said, ‘Oh, it’s easy. You just play three chords all night.’ So I got on the gig and I looked so lame and so square,” Sammon laughed. “I had no idea what I was doing. But I tell people that I remember liking the smell of the club … it was a real sweaty blues club kind of vibe. I mean, I was hooked. Plus, I got paid so I thought, ‘Oh, I can do this.’ So I got into playing the blues by being thrown right in the fire and I’m still burning.”
Buddy was not the first member of the Guy family that Sammon had the opportunity to play with; that would be the highly-underrated Phil Guy. Sammon says meeting Phil Guy was like having the door into the world of the Chicago blues unlocked for him.
“When I met Phil, that’s how I first met all these other amazing players. Through Phil, I met Big James Montgomery, who got me the Otis Rush gig. Then Phil and Big James were key in getting me the Buddy Guy gig,” he said. “And then meeting Buddy got me on the Devon Allman record and The Slide Brothers record and all these things that I’ve done. So if I hadn’t met Phil, who knows what I’d be doing right now? The connections I made through him are priceless.”
Just as it is now with Buddy, Sammon says sharing the bandstand and the road with Phil Guy was magical, too.
“I talk about Phil so much and we always share stories and laugh about him on the road, because all of Buddy’s band traveled with him at one time or another. I would come home from a trip with him and my stomach would hurt because I laughed so hard and had so much fun out with him,” Sammon said. “He never really made the records that he could have. I think that’s one of the reasons he’s not more well-known. I can’t really explain why he never got the credit he was due. I’ll mention his name to people and some of them will say they’ve never heard of him. I’m like, ‘Really?’ I really wish it were different because he really contributed a lot. I mean, just look at all the records that he played on … the Junior Wells stuff. He deserves more recognition that what he gets. I’m just thankful that I got to know him.”
Last year Sammon did something that not every musician is capable of doing; sitting down with pen and paper and writing down just how it is that they are able to do what they do. The result of that is the highly-successful Blues Keyboard Method (Hal Leonard), an instructional primer on what makes Sammon tick when it comes to playing the blues.
“That was terrifying, because the first thing the guy (at Hal Leonard) asked me was, ‘Do you read and write music notes?’ I said, ‘No, not really.’ After the look on his face when I told him that, I thought I’d lost the deal. But they agreed to get somebody to transcribe what I would record. When I started out writing the text for the book, it was really hard, because I’d never really thought about trying to describe my craft, I guess,” he said. “Eventually it started happening and I started getting good at it. I’d read it back and go, ‘Yeah, that’s kind of what I do.’ I had just never really thought about it in those terms before. It was challenging at first, but when I read through it and look back on it, I guess I didn’t do too bad. A lot of people are learning these techniques that have never been described like this before, so I guess it’s a success, as far as that’s concerned.”
Sammon is also very active in trying to keep the gospel of the blues alive by reaching out to the younger crowd in an effort to spark their interest in the music that he loves so much, even if the net results are sometimes a bit frustrating.
“I throw this little festival in Chicago called Marty Sammon’s Blues Fling and I insist that it be an all-ages event. I’ve been really disappointed that a lot of people haven’t brought their kids out to it. I bring in real players – the real guys from the Chicago clubs – and this is an opportunity for the younger kids to see them. The parents seem to be like, ‘My kids are not interested in that.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, maybe they’ve never seen this and if they do, they might be into it.’ When I was playing ragtime piano back in the day, people that I went to school with would go, ‘Screw that stuff.’ But then they’d hear it and go, ‘Hey. That’s pretty cool.’ But I’m going to continue to provide more opportunities for people to bring their kids and after that, it’s on them. And when they’re there, I don’t believe in dumbing it down for kids. I want to give them the real deal and give them the way that it happens in the clubs and in the studio. I want to continue to be more involved in that and hopefully, the younger generation picks up on that.”
The history of piano-based music in New Orleans is long and rich. That New Orleans style of playing may not have been Sammon’s initial inspiration, but once he started hearing the legends from the Crescent City, he was pretty much hooked.
“When I started getting into the blues style, I gravitated to the New Orleans players. Guys like Professor Longhair and James Booker and Dr. John. When I got with Buddy, he turned me onto Otis Spann. I listened to him and that changed everything. I love all those guys and I also dig a lot of rhythm-and-blues artists, too,” he said. “I listen to Donny Hathaway a lot … his keyboard playing is very blues-oriented. I listen to Stevie Wonder quite a bit. But I keep going back to those New Orleans’ guys. At a recent soundcheck with Buddy I broke out some Longhair … I always go back to that stuff. It’s just such a fun style to play.”
They’re not making bluesmen like Buddy Guy anymore – that much is certain. However, Sammon is of the mind that the form of music that Buddy and his contemporaries helped to spread all over the world is still alive and well and in the right hands, can still have a bright future ahead.
“Lets’ face it; the guys that invented this music are mostly gone. It would be not right for people of my generation and my upbringing to sound just like they did. You can root your sound in the blues … I mean some of the acts out there now that they call the blues are not playing the same I-IV-V chord pattern that we’re used to listening to. But it’s still rooted in that kind of music with those same kinds of stories,” he said. “If that’s the case, we have to open up our minds as to what we define as the blues or blues-rooted music. But there’s still enough people out there that appreciate the blues so that’s hopeful for the future of the music. I can’t see it disappearing … if it does, I guess I’ll be disappearing with it. I’d be in serious trouble, man.”
And just like his mentor has done, Sammon hopes to one day have a large and unwavering fan base backing his every move.
“Yeah, my goal is to make a living playing music and to have a fan base loyal enough to where I can experiment and come up with different projects and have different creative ideas and to have them still be listened to,” he said. “But as long as I’m traveling and playing, I’ll be happy.”
Visit Marty’s website at: http://news.martysammon.com/.