“Buddy Guy just hit the spot for me.” Jeff Beck leaned back in the overstuffed couch in a studio loft in London’s Soho District. He was there to shoot a guitar magazine cover shot with his mentor Buddy Guy. I asked him to put Buddy’s mojo into words. Where did the blues master get his secret sauce? The year was 1991.
“It’s his youthful vigor, sort of manic stuff and comedy. He has a lot of very exquisite timing and is delightfully out of key sometimes. That’s what I find so charming. It’s just a hair sharp. It wouldn’t be right, had it been dead on the note. From there on, I was like a junkie. I would go around looking for other people to share the same stuff. I was bringing it up to Eric (Clapton) and Jimmy (Page). ‘Have you heard this stuff?'”
I was working on my Buddy Guy biography, Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues. At the time Buddy hadn’t recorded in nine years. He and his sometime partner Junior Wells were riding around in an old van with James, their driver, the back packed with gear, taking on the road hundreds of miles a day, going from blues club to blues club. Yet, at the same time, he was rubbing shoulders with Britain’s rock elite. He did six dates with Clapton at the Royal Albert Hall that year, running down the center aisle of that vaunted venue at full gallop, guitar screaming as Clapton looked over his shoulder, expecting Buddy to come from backstage.
“Buddy is the last generation of the true blues musicians as we know them,” explained Clapton in the foreword to my biography. “He knows the language and speaks it as I imagine he always did. He’s the last one-of-a-kind, he-man of the blues, a muscleman of the guitar heroes. When Buddy played the Marque Club in London in 1965, I saw an amplified bluesman for the first time. He was the epitome of it all, and he really changed the course of rock and roll and blues. He gave us something to strive for – the way he dressed, the way he moved, the way he expressed himself. He’s still doing it, but he was established as someone to copy, many, many years ago.
“It’s always a blast to see Buddy play live. He comes through the way he is, playing with his teeth, on the floor, throwing his guitars around. A lot of people can’t get away with that, but he can because he not only has the nerve but he can entertain and make good music too.”
To this day in concert Buddy often interjects a signature guitar line from ‘Strange Brew,’ Clapton’s most famous song with Cream. There are those who say Clapton admits stealing those licks from Buddy. “He didn’t say he stole it from me,” corrects Buddy today. “I was telling him about the licks I love where he was playing, and he told me I should love it because that’s where he’d got those licks from because I think I played some licks like that. It might have been my record or Jr. Wells’. I’ m not sure.”
Buddy first recognized the importance of guitar feedback as a creative tool in 1959 when he observed a young woman’s skirt brush up against his guitar resting by the band stand and heard a squeal coming from his amps. By the time Jimi Hendrix broke out in England and came back to the states, he was heavily incorporating feedback he’d learned from Buddy. “We jammed a lot in New York the first time I met him,” says Buddy today. “I didn’t know who he was. He was playing in a blues club at 48th and 8th St. And I was like, ‘Who is that?’ This was 1967.”
Linda Porter, a friend who lived with Jimi in London in 1966, told me, “I think, in a way, Jimi felt he had permission to be flamboyant from seeing and appreciating Buddy. I felt that there was a strong link from that point of view. The whole showmanship, that whole distinction from the traditional blues players, was the key to the way Jimi could take the blues and turn them into something else. And I felt Buddy unlocked the door for Jimi to a great extent. Buddy’s flamboyance, and moving away from the traditional blues manner and method, was something Jimi wanted to do. ‘Ok, if Buddy’s dong it, it must be ok for me to do.’ That attitude was there, but I think it was quite subconscious.”
In 1993 Buddy covered Jimi’s “Red House” on Stone Free A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix. In the 21st century, Buddy has played on the Experience Hendrix tour.
The titans of rock worship Buddy Guy who gave them a road map for their combination of emotional excess and guitar wizardry from the start of the British Invasion to the recent day. Even by 1991, many in the fan base for Clapton, The Stones, Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan thought Buddy was retired or dead if they knew him at all. Buddy lived in a different world, separate and unequal to the deities who were selling millions of records to Buddy’s few.
It didn’t help that his records to that point were pale comparisons to his live performance until he signed with Silvertone and began a continuous string of Grammy-winning recordings. Bill Wyman had been four years out of the Stones in 1991, but he nailed what at the time was Buddy Guy’ s Achilles heel. “If I was producing, I’d like to spend a little more time working things out and getting it right ’cause when it’s right, it’s magnificent. And when it ain’t quite right, it’s a shame because it could be right. I’ve got two albums of (Buddy) and Junior that sound like they weren’t quite finished. And they could have been done better because, I mean, the musicianship is there. It could have been a bit better for a few dollars more. That really disappoints me.”
In the ’60s Leonard Chess of Chess Records thought Buddy Guy’s original guitar playing was noise and was shocked at Buddy’s acoustic guitar prowess on Muddy Waters’ Real Folk Blues album. Delmark recorded him on Junior Wells’ Hoodoo Man Blues on a shoestring which is what Wyman is talking about. Buddy’s albums for Vanguard were with a label built on traditional folk music, not the electric “stepchild” of Delta blues. And even after Buddy signed with Silvertone, he was shy in the studio. He told me in 2007, “I don’t want nobody in the studio but me and the musicians.”
Dennis Herring produced Buddy’s Sweet Tea in 2001. It was recorded down south and made many lists of top CDs of the decade. Herring told me in 2009, “I really respect Buddy’s depth. That fire was exactly what I wanted to see happen. There’s a thing about Buddy, and I’ve seen it live, and I think it’s on Hoodoo Man and stuff like that. There’s a transcendence in his playing. He seems like he’s nearly possessed. It’s now left one part of his mind, and he’s now operating in another part, and I wanted that, that transcendence.”
Capturing that in the studio proved a real challenge. “Buddy explained to me that he was really wanting to do a record that had some singles on it,” explains Herring, “and I said, ‘Look, I gotta be honest with you. I’m not into it. That’s awesome if that’s what you want to do, but I’m not your guy, but I’d love to do this other record. I think it would just be more like a real record. It would be more of a quality thing. It wouldn’t be about hits or anything like that. I just think it could be kinda bad-ass like you’re bad-ass.’ And he said, ‘Well, you know, leave these songs with me, and I’ll see if I feel it.’ So, he calls me a few days later, and he goes, ‘I feel it. I feel how to do this. I go, ‘Okay, great.’ So, then it started turning into a real thing.”
Buddy has never been a prolific writer and whereas his guitar playing and antics on stage overcome any such shortcomings, this has been an issue in the studio. “I’m being a producer guy,” says Herring. “I’m tap dancing, and then he goes, ‘I’m done with this bullshit. I’ve learned enough songs that say baby and love and please and love and baby. I’ve learned enough of ’em, and I’m not learning this one.’
“And I go, ‘Okay.’ That was defined. That dude was letting me have it, and then I go, ‘Okay.’ And he goes, ‘You know, you could have taken these songs into Willie Dixon, and he’d have thrown this shit out the window. He’d have said, ‘Write me some real songs, mother fucker. This ain’t real songs.’ And I go, ‘I hear ya. You’re right.’ And he goes, ‘Well, that’s what I’m talking about. I’m not learning this song.’ I go, ‘Okay, let’s just learn this one, and we’ll play it tonight.’ And he goes, ‘Okay.’ That was cool, and he came to the studio that evening. I rehearsed the band up just on the one song, but I felt like I’d just seen the real Buddy Guy.
“So, then he came to the studio that night, and he took me, and he goes, ‘Can I talk to you for a minute?’ I go, ‘Sure.’ He took me aside and he goes, ‘Hey, I’ll do any song you want me to. You just let me know. If you wanna work up that song today (that) I wasn’t feeling, we can do it.’ And I go, ‘Okay, thanks, Buddy.’ But I go, ‘I think we’re gonna have enough. You just keep tellin’ me what you feel and what you don’t feel, and I respect that about you. So, we’ll be cool. I’ll try to keep things away from you that don’t feel right.'”
Herring sums up his strategy for capturing Buddy’s quicksilver by quoting John Irving who said you can’t will a home run. “It really is true. You can set the stage. You can get the lights right. You can get the cognac over there, but you can’t will a home run. So, it’s nice that (Sweat Tea) is a record I feel really proud of. So, it’s nice that it worked.”
Tom Hambridge has produced Buddy Guy’s more recent albums and has solved the issue of writing songs that capture Buddy’s character incredibly well. Hambridge told Buddy Guy, “If I’m gonna make a record for you, it’s got to be you, heart and soul. Your blood’s gotta be flowing through every groove on the record.”
Hambridge explained to me his rationale. “I am the producer and the songwriter guy, but I try to twist it when I’m sitting by myself thinking of the concept as the fan putting the next record on. What is that next record going to sound like? That excitement and that whole chill when you first hear the song, like the first song on the record.”
Buddy Guy calls Tom Hambridge the white Willie Dixon, and since Dixon was the single most prolific blues songwriter of the postwar Chicago blues era – and arguably of all time – that’s no small accolade. When Buddy first read the lyrics to “Skin Deep,” the title cut that Hambridge wrote for his first Buddy Guy production, he cried. The song reminds us to look beyond the color of a man’s skin to find his inner soul.
My goal in Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues was to capture the essence of a man whose performing was enervating enough to me as a college student to convince me that no rock artist could possibly match the excitement he generates. I wanted to capture the personality behind that energy in his own words for the book, but I struggled to understand where that passion that turned Jeff Beck into a Buddy Guy junkie came from.
Twenty-five years and thousands of interviews later with other artists, I realize that energy and performing expertise are a God given gifts. They say practice makes perfect, but some just have that burn in their DNA. And for Buddy that barely controlled mojo was his ticket out of a life in the cotton fields. Chicago beckoned with the promise of escape from the back-breaking labor that awaited him as one of five children born to black Louisiana sharecroppers.
Buddy nearly died of hunger on the streets of Chicago in 1958 until Otis Rush introduced him to a club owner who gave him his first job. And he probably will never reach a fraction of the financial success of Eric Clapton. His records may not please a Bill Wyman who had all the money he needed to take time in the studio with the Rolling Stones creating hits. But Buddy’s influence on mainstream popular music is measured less in sales and airplay than it is in his growing list of Grammys and the experiences like singing “Sweet Home Chicago” with President Obama.
Buddy Guy was one of the first “authentic” bluesmen to recognize that the rock giants who were inspired by his music were not “stealing” his culture, but rather opening a door to a much wider audience for his sound. He once told me, “They (British rockers) did so much for us, Don. They opened the door. They came back to America and said, ‘This is not a British invasion. You had this all the time.’ And they spoke of Buddy, of Wolf, Muddy, and all of that.”
“When they first started popping, they said, ‘Man, even the Beatles are no British invasion.’ They had a television show called Shindig (1965), and they was trying to get the Rolling Stones. (The Stones said) ‘We’ll do the show if you let us bring on Muddy Waters, and they said, ‘Who the hell is Muddy Waters?’ And they got offended. (The Stones) said, ‘You mean to tell me you don’t know who Muddy Waters is, and we named ourselves after one of his famous records, Rolling Stones.'”
Today at 81, Buddy thinks back to his childhood living in a shotgun shack in Lettsworth, Louisiana, and the sage advice his mother gave him. “I used to tell her when I was about 10 or 11, ‘I can’t wait till I’ll be a man,’ and she used to look at me and say, ‘Ok, when you get to be a man, you got to go where you don’t want to go,’ and I just realized she was telling me the truth. At that time, I couldn’t see that.”
To this day, Buddy often plays a polka dot guitar that reminds him of his mother. When he left her to seek his fortune in Chicago in 1958, he promised her he’d return in a polka dot Cadillac. “She passed away in ’68, and I still wasn’t able to get the polka dot Cadillac, and I never forgot it. So, I got a polka dot guitar just to remind me that that’s what I promised my mom and just to have that polka dot as long as I live. An that’s what I got.”
On January 4th Buddy Guy kicks off his annual month-long residency at his club Legends in Chicago. The first date is with Bobby Rush and is sponsored by Pca Blue (www.pcablue.org) Connecting Prostate Cancer & the blues. At ages 81 and 83 respectively, both Buddy and Bobby have first-hand experience with cancer. Buddy’s brother and fellow bluesman Phil Guy died in 2008 of prostate cancer and two of Bobby Rush’s sisters died of cancer.
“I don’t know. If it’s just African Americans,” says Buddy, “but black people hide a lot of things. With my brother I was the last one to know. His manager had to call and tell me. He did never tell people. ‘I don’t want to worry you.’ That was his last words to me before he passed away. He had given up. They couldn’t do anything for him, but if he had told me a little earlier, maybe I could coach him into going to one of these cancer center treatments and maybe he could have lasted another year or two, but each to his own.
“I never had nobody that I can remember in my family that had any kind of cancer. My mother had a stroke. My grandfather had a stroke, but no cancer. I see it happening so much now, not only prostate, but other types of cancer, too. I got (friends), for instance, passed away with different types. If you go get a tire that’s got a slow leak in it, you can get it fixed before it goes down.”
That last statement could be a mantra for Buddy’s long clawing ascendancy to stardom.
Bobby Rush: “I have two sisters that passed with cancer. Then, my brother had prostate cancer. It’s real personal to me. Now, some men don’t want to go to the doctor’s and thinking everything’s gonna be ok and breaks it off. So, we need to educate ourselves and educate the ones that don’ t know. I’m a believer in heart and mind that early detection will save lives. This early intervention will save lives. If you take this early. What you do now it will makeup different than where you were yesterday. I beg people to go out and just get checked up and save lives.”
Bobby Rush and Buddy Guy are two peas in a pod. Both were born in Louisiana and migrated to Chicago to pursue music. Both have struggled to overcome prejudice and break away from the stereotypes that threatened to turn blues into archival museum pieces. Both have a rabid fan base, with Bobby Rush this year finally joining Buddy as a Grammy winner. Their January 4th Legends concert will be a rare event with both men performing with their own bands.
Buddy Guy may be taking an opportunity to alert men about the value of early detection in saving lives, but he isn’t thinking about his own mortality. When I asked him about what was on his bucket list, he didn’t know what a bucket list was. When I told him, he said the only thing on his list was to keep the blues alive.” The morning we talked he’d been up since 3:30. He takes a nap later in the day, but he was doing that 25 years ago. At 81, he’s playing major festivals, large theaters and is booked on the winter Legendary Rhythm ‘n’ Blues Festival.
He’s finally captured the gold ring and he isn’t looking back or forward. “(The grandchildren and great grandchildren) keep coming. (It seems like) just yesterday my grandmother was saying, ‘I got a a grandson.’ I’m like running around in the mud and no shoes, man. Like I say, I wake up and now you wake up and you’ve got grandchildren.”
Buddy Guy doesn’t color outside the box. He denies the box exists. Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf went primal in their escape of the Delta curse of cotton picking servitude by plugging in and releasing their primal scream. Buddy Guy pushes those emotions into uncharted territory by squeezing out feedback in his music and pushing the dynamics of his guitar in diametrically opposed directions to accent a wider spectrum of emotions from so quiet “you can hear a rat pissing on cotton” to a staccato belch of electric energy that can lift an entire audience of tens of thousands off the floor by their collective throats.
It was this bursting through previous barriers in sound that inspired the British Invasion guitarists and subsequent hard rock thrashers to build a platform in rock that turned me and millions of others onto anthems that became a rallying cry for escaping the binding numbness of black and white Eisenhower era postwar angst. Buddy Guy was and still is at 81 functioning full color and 3D. And acts like The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton in The Yardbirds, Cream, and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers took Buddy’s lead for a new generation destined to “break on through to the other side.”
Buddy Guy is an important link in the chain of evolution from field hollers to spirituals to blues and on to rock and roll. That evolution is about breaking the bonds that hold civilization in their grip. It’s about freedom, a catharsis. His music is about letting our inner spirit free to run naked in the world and feel the wind against our body, the grass under our feet, and the thoughts in our mind unencumbered by the imposition of societal rules and regulations that become stop signs in the winding road to personal salvation.
Field hollers, spirituals, gospel, blues, rhythm ‘n’ blues and rock each promise a better life now and after death. Buddy Guy’s music is s critical link in a chain that pulls us all out of the primordial mud. They are a release. They elevate our spirits to the bliss of just being uniquely one’s own person. Buddy Guy moved the dial in the evolution of that very human emotion from its African roots to a universal group grope while creating a very intimate experience for everyone who comes under his spell.
Check out Buddy’s website at: www.buddyguy.com
Interviewer Don Wilcock has been writing about blues for nearly half a century. He wrote Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, the biography that helped Buddy Guy jumpstart his career in 1991. He’s interviewed more than 5000 Blues artists and edited several music magazines including King Biscuit Time.