In a universe dominated by B.B. King, Muddy Waters and a host of younger guitar slingers, Buddy Guy has always been recognized as a major inspiration. Despite his importance and all the awards and accomplishments he’s achieved through his 60-plus-year career, however, he’s managed to fly slightly under the radar as others received most of the attention and acclaim.
But that’s about to change.
In a few weeks, the national spotlight will shine on Buddy as he spends 82 minutes telling his own life story in a chapter of Public Broadcasting’s long-running series, American Masters. Entitled Buddy Guy: The Blues Chase the Blues Away and scheduled to air July 27 – three days prior to his 85th birthday and the first time in the show’s 35 years of up-close and personal portraits of national treasures that it’s chosen to do so with someone from the blues.
It’s been a lo-o-ong time coming. But after a sneak peek, this writer can say without hesitation that, for music lovers everywhere, it’s a treasure that almost makes up for the wait, displaying Buddy in a manner that few folks outside of his inner circle have seen before: Not the fiery performer who single-handedly revolutionized the way both blues and rock are played, but as the soft-spoken, thoughtful and somewhat shy person he truly is.
The show traces Guy’s life from his childhood on a cotton plantation in Lettsworth, La., to his ultimate success in Chicago and is chockful of the wry, downhome observations that have populated his songs through the years, including the show’s title. “The funny thing about the blues,” Buddy says, “is that you play ‘em because you got ‘em. But when you play ‘em, you lose ‘em. If you hear ‘em…if you let the music get into your soul, you’ll lose ‘em.”
As Blues Blast discovered via a somewhat problematic Zoom interview a short while ago, we found him as sharp as ever as he recounted for us – like he’ll do for you on the small screen – dates and incidents in his life as if they occurred yesterday despite transpiring a lifetime ago.
“But you’re foolin’ yourself if you think you’re gonna stay young forever,” he admits wistfully, noting that there was good reason his close and dear friend B.B. served as a spokesman for memory-boosting supplements and diabetes treatments in his final years.
B.B. achieved fame early, making a name for himself in Memphis as a young man before taking on the world. For Buddy, however, success was a long time coming — something that’s depicted at length in the show. Directors Devin Amar, Charles Todd, and Matt Mitchener seamlessly combine Guy’s narration together with current interviews and archival footage and artwork to tell their story. This one contains more detail gives about certain events gathered from our conversation as well as others theirs didn’t show.
The son of sharecroppers, Buddy grew up in a ramshackle wooden house with wood for window panes and no electricity. In fact, he says, the only “tools” they possessed were their horses, pigs and chickens. The action opens with a shot of cotton stretching as far as the eye can see as Guy reflects on his childhood, when the family labored to fill 100-lb. sacks with bolls for $2.50 a sack every day.
Fearful of lightning, snakes and the ghosts rumored to roam local graveyards, he walked miles to church school on gravel roads, trying as best he could to avoid the dust kicked up by school buses loaded with white kids as they whizzed past him. Still, he was luckier than many of his friends because he was surrounded by a complete, loving, multi-generational family.
“Back in the cotton fields, my grandmother, my grandfather, my daddy’s friends…if I acted like I was gonna do somethin’ wrong…my homework or whatever, I got hit all the way home,” Guy remembers. “My mother, she had a broomstick beside the bed. That wasn’t to sweep!”
Sure, his folks were firm, but he credits their strictness and love for instilling in him the ability to keep focusing on his goals – something that continues today.
The sound of birds chirping in the fields was “the first music that touched my heart,” he says. The blues came much later — at Christmas, when a family friend, Henry Smith – a/k/a “Coot,” played “Tomorrow Night” – a song by first generation superstar Tommy Johnson – on his two-string diddley bow and another visitor moaned the lyrics.
The other kids went out to play, but not Buddy. He remained glued to the performance, realizing intrinsically that it was something special. The grownups went to sleep that evening after a night of drinking, but he picked up Coot’s ax and tried to figure out what he’d been doing.
Sam Guy, Buddy’s father, took note and scraped together a couple of dollars to buy him a “guitar” of his own, and his son would still be gripping it tightly at night when he slept.
Guy’s true calling came at age 13 in 1949, when the family finally got electricity – and then an old phonograph shortly thereafter. The favorite disc in the household was John Lee Hooker’s “Boogie Chillen.” Issued a year earlier on Modern Records as the B-side to “Sally Mae,” it captivated Buddy to no end.
When Hooker sang “Mama told Papa, let the boy boogie woogie,” Guy says, “I was sure he was speaking about me. I said: ‘Man, whatever that is, one day, I sure wish I could learn it.’”
He walked through the fields for hours at a time trying to figure it out, playing the diddley bow so long and so hard that he broke the wire springs and had to splice them together with hairpins and any odd pieces of wire he could find. After Coot showed him how to play it, Guy eventually awoke one morning to discover that he was finally able to replicate the sounds that had been coursing constantly through his head.
He playing the song until his fingers were bleeding, believing that if he stopped, he’d never be able to do it again. Fortunately for blues lovers everywhere, it never left him.
At 15, Buddy moved to Baton Rouge to live with an older sister and attend McKinley High School. Eighty miles from Lettsworth, it was the closest school of its kind available for children of color. He worked part-time in a gas station, and his employer liked his playing so much that he encouraged him to do it during his downtime to attract more business.
Guy acquired his first real six-string – a blond Harmony – through the generosity of a stranger who happened to pass by and see him play one day. Months later, he learned that the man had been a childhood friend of his father.
Buddy’s first paying gig as a musician came when a local bandleader, Big Poppa, caught him in action, asked him how much he was being paid an hour and offered the same amount for Guy to join him on stage that night.
It did not go well.
The club was small, but Buddy was terrified to sing and play in front of the 15 or so people in attendance. When Big Poppa threw him the lead to sing “Boogie Chillen,” Guy turned his back to the audience and sang to the wall instead.
“I basically fired myself,” he told Blues Blast, admitting that he’s always been so shy that he’s far more comfortable working behind someone else than being in the spotlight himself. It was the first and only time in his career that he’s been fired.
Buddy’s stay in Baton Rouge was brief. Five months after he’d arrived, his mother, Isabell, suffered a debilitating stroke and he returned to Lettsworth to help out at home. But the entire family – Buddy included — relocated to the state capital soon after to provide her with better care.
It was there that Buddy discovered B.B., Lightnin’ Hopkins, T-Bone Walker and saw Guitar Slim for the first time in 1956 – a seemingly minor event, but one that changed the broad spectrum of modern music forever.
The flashiest performer of his generation, Slim was riding the crest of his biggest hit, “The Things That I Used to Do,” at the time. A real crowd pleaser, he was outrageously flashy dresser who wore expensive suits and shoes of many colors. In an era where everyone else was playing acoustic guitar and sitting in a chair, he was a high-energy performer who constantly crisscrossed the stage. And he was the first person Guy saw playing an amplified electric guitar.
Buddy always had wanted to be able to play the six-string like B.B. That night, he says, Slim showed him how to play the guitar in front of people, too. From that point on in his life, he decided to emulate the way Slim carried himself on stage, too.
Always a hard worker, he manned a conveyor belt at a beer factory for a while taking a job as a handyman at LSU, while starting to make a name for himself night at clubs across town. He relocated to Chicago on Sept. 25, 1957, after experiencing what he believed to be a prophetic dream in which his childhood home appeared to burn to the ground with his family inside. In his reverie, he glanced away for a second only to look again and see his mom urging him to keep on playing and everyone else clapping in encouragement.
“When I came to Chicago…Jimmy Reed, Howlin’ Wolf and all those others…I just wanted to see their homes,” he says today. “And when I saw where they was livin’ at, I said: ‘I might as well go back and pick some cotton’ because there wasn’t any money in playin’ blues.”
In those days, he notes, Windy City clubs didn’t charge a cover. The bar owners simply raised the price of a beer from 25 to 30 cents at show time with the extra nickel went to the band. No matter how big a record anybody had, everybody was working for chump change.
Buddy had recorded a pair of singles as a demo with a deejay in Louisiana, but had no intention of becoming a pro. He tried bringing the demo to the Chess brothers, but they wouldn’t even give it a listen. All he really wanted to do was work by day, send money home and soak up all the live music he could at night. But even that was an uphill battle.
Finding a job was virtually impossible. No one would hire him. He even tried filing for unemployment, but was rejected out of hand because he’d quit his position at LSU and wasn’t eligible. He’d gone three days without food and was on the verge of calling his father for train fare home when his life changed forever.
He was playing for tips on a street corner when a stranger saw him playing a Jimmy Reed song and insisted he come with him to the 708 Club, then a major blues bar on 47th Street, where Otis Rush was holding court.
Once inside, the stranger told Otis: “This boy can play,” and Rush brought him up to see for himself. Buddy launched into “The Things That I Used to Do” and B.B.’s early hit, “Sweet Little Angel,” and the bar owner, Ben Gold, was so impressed that he picked up the phone, called Muddy Waters and insisted that he to come see Guy for himself.
Living about a mile away, Muddy arrived a short while later and sat outside the club in the back seat of his brand new, red 1957 Chevrolet station wagon. Inside, Gold told Guy hastily: “The Mud wants you!”
The words shook Buddy to the core – and not for the reason you might expect.
“Before I came to Chicago, people warned me it was a dangerous place,” Buddy told Blues Blast. “They said: ‘Be careful or you might get mugged!’”
In his confused state, he says, he knew he had no money, and didn’t want to get murdered for something he didn’t have. Once assured he was safe, he approached the car and climbed in beside Waters after receiving an invitation.
Muddy had made the short trip after being awakened from a nap and told Buddy he’d come to watch him in action. But Guy was still hesitant. “I’m hungry,” he said.
Amazingly, Waters quickly produced some salami and bread and offered to make him a sandwich. Buddy chowed down and then got down, and Muddy liked what he heard – so much so, in fact, that he invited Guy to sit in with him later that night, beginning a friendship that endured until his death.
“When I first got to Chicago,” Buddy insists now, “I was like a lost ball in high weeds. But after that night, I began to find myself.”
Realizing he could never work the strings like B.B., in Chicago, he decided to do “somethin’ stupid” and always perform on his feet. Full of the Spirit after growing up in the church, he also found his voice by letting it out on stage. His recording career began after Magic Sam introduced him to the Cobra label, where he cut “Sit and Cry (the Blues)” and “You Sure Can’t Do It”/”This Is the End,” which featured Ike Turner on second guitar.
He’s released albums on about 20 different labels in the years since, but it’s never been easy. As Tom Hambridge, who’s produced three of Buddy’s eight Grammy-winning albums, says in the PBS show, there have been spells as long as eight or nine years in which Buddy wasn’t signed to a label.
Guy only mentions his disdain for Chess Records in passing in the TV show, but it’s something that left an indelible a bitter taste in his mouth. He signed with the label in 1959 and was under their control for about a decade. But the owners never allowed him the leeway to capture on vinyl the undeniably distinctive sounds he produced in his live act.
The Chess brothers released about a dozen of Guy singles, but their relationship was tenuous at best. He spent six months in 1964 rehearsing with Willie Dixon prior to recording an album. When the session finally took place, he started to cut Dixon’s future standard, “The Same Thing,” and Leonard Chess quickly told him: “That song’s not for you. It’s for Muddy Waters.”
That same day, Buddy played as Muddy cut the song for himself, and Chess released it as the A-side of a 45 backed by “You Can’t Lose What You Ain’t Never Had.” Chess tried to appease him by giving him the the Bob Geddins tune, “My Time After While.” Laid down the same week the Rolling Stones were at Chess to finish work on 2120 South Michigan, he recorded with Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and others leaning on the wall of the studio.
Guy’s first European tour came in England in 1965. All of the top British rockers turned out for his shows – The Yardbirds’ Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton among them – all of whom had – without Buddy’s knowledge – been copping all of his licks off of his records.
The British audiences allowed Buddy the space to stretch out on stage in ways he never could back home. And for the young guitarists, it was a life-altering moment because they witnessed for the first time the capabilities of Buddy’s solid-body Fender Stratocaster after achieving their stardom on more confining hollow-bodied Gibsons.
And as Buddy told Blues Blast, he was such an influence on Jimi Hendrix a couple of years later that Hendrix literally canceled one of his own gigs to see Guy perform when both were in New York.
After the U.S. invasion by the Stones, Cream, Yardbirds and other Brits rockers took hold, Chess was finally ready to allow Guy to turn up his amp in the studio and let loose. But in Buddy’s eye the damage already had been done. The money he was making was good enough to get from Chicago to his road gigs, but nothing like what was being earned by his friends from across The Pond. His true payment, he says, came from “all those good lookin’ watchin’ me while I played.”
Buddy never took the Chess up on his offer, choosing instead to make a name for himself by – as Carlos Santana says in the video – putting “turbo into the blues.” The word-of-mouth he received from Clapton and the others, he insists, remains far more important in his career than any record he’s ever made – which includes Hoodoo Man Blues, with harp player and longtime partner Junior Wells, which what experts consider to be the first great blues album of the modern era.
Throughout the ‘60s, Buddy spent his days as a tow truck driver with his guitar on the seat beside him in case somebody wanted him to play. He met Wells at the 708 and then started jamming with him at Theresa’s Lounge, the legendary South Side club where Junior led the house band for years.
A brilliant, but enigmatic entertainer, Junior “came with plenty of baggage,” Buddy says in the video, leaving it at that without going into detail. But anyone who knew him – this writer included – found him to be a small man and razor-sharp dresser with both a massive presence and hair-trigger temper, a hard drinker who could be your best friend one moment and your enemy the next. But somehow, you always found the space to love him no matter what he’d do.
“We made music that I could never have made alone,” Buddy admits today. “He inspired me.”
They recorded Hoodoo Man without rehearsal after a hasty phone call from Wells one more morning in 1965. Junior was going to Delmark Records that afternoon and wanted Guy at his side for what would be his first LP. With bassist Jack Myers and drummer Bill Warren providing rhythm, the end result was a major departure to anything that had come before it.
Produced by label owner Bob Koester in an era where virtually all songs were between two and three minutes in length for radio airplay, six of the 12 tracks ran far longer and demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that it was possible to replicate the sound of a band’s club performance in a recording studio.
Still under contract to Chess, Buddy’s billed as “Friendly Chap” in the liner notes, and the LP and subsequent CD remain the best-selling release the 63-year-old imprint has ever had. Despite its success, however, Wells and Guy didn’t start touring together for another five years.
Guy was still a tow driver in 1970 when Junior’s manager, Dick Waterman – one of three men who “rediscovered” Son House — approached Buddy one afternoon when he was underneath the truck and changing its oil. Waterman asked him how much he was making — $2.11 an hour, Buddy said – and then offered to write him a post-dated check for the amount of money he’d make in the next year if he’d go on the road with Wells.
Their first excursion began in Montreal, where they boarded a train along with Janis Joplin for gigs across Canada. Used to playing hole-in-the-wall clubs on Chicago’s South and West Sides, they played before crowds of up to 30,000 enthusiastic fans. Soon after, Buddy left his day job in the rear-view – but only after complying with his boss’ request: “Don’t leave here until you teach somebody how to drive the truck like you!”
The duo toured the world together for 16 years until Guy finally tired of Junior’s antics and called the partnership quits, something that’s illustrated in the PBS show by a brief clip showing Buddy in the middle of a solo and Wells messing with the strings on his guitar neck.
Never one to shy away from a challenge, Guy began his career as a club owner a couple of years after he and Junior hit the highway. So many blues bars in Chicago had shuttered their doors that he decided to go into partnership with L.C. Thurman and open the Checkerboard Lounge on 43rd Street, a relationship that endured until 1985, when he owned Buddy Guy’s Legends in the South Loop.
In addition to featuring all of the top talent in the city, the Checkerboard played host to Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Chuck Berry and others. But the most memorable night of all occurred in 1981, when the Rolling Stones joined Muddy, Buddy and Junior on stage – an event captured for posterity on video, clips from which appear in the PBS special.
You can’t help but see the emotion bubbling under the surface as Buddy describes that night on film today. As Guy told Blues Blast for this story, Muddy lived around the corner eight blocks away from the Checkerboard, but didn’t darken its door previously because he’d recently gotten married and wanted to avoid crossing paths with an ex-girlfriend who stopped in often.
Although Muddy didn’t pass for another two years, Buddy still tears up today at the loss of his friend and mentor as the memories stream before his eyes. And his emotions come to the fore when recounting the events of Stevie Ray’s death.
He’d played with Vaughan and Clapton at Alpine Valley Music Theater the night Stevie’s helicopter crashed, and Buddy went to bed that night looking forward to the next day, when Stevie and Eric were going to come to his house for some of his homemade gumbo. His grief over the loss of his friends remains palpable 30 years later.
The PBS narrative includes intimate interviews with Clapton, Gary Clark Jr., John Mayer, Santana, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram and Hambridge, an interlude from Buddy’s appearance at the White House at which President Obama sang “Sweet Home Chicago” and clips of Lightnin’ Hopkins, Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf. And be sure to catch Buddy as he reveals the reason why he plays his trademark polka dot guitars, another touching, sentimental moment.
While the TV show narrative ends in 1991, Guy definitely isn’t resting on his laurels. In recent years, he’s supported Kingfish’s Grammy-nominated debut CD as well as another for longtime protégé Quinn Sullivan.
When we spoke, he’d just finished supervising installation of a new sound system at Legends. When asked when he plans on reopening, he says: “The next month or so. With some folks vaccinated and some folks not, I’m not in any hurry. And, fortunately, I own the building, it’s like my mother used to say: ‘Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t!’
“But there’s one thing for certain, the city still wants my taxes. I got a bill just the other day.”
As this story was being written, he was also getting ready to head back to Nashville to hook up with Hambridge and lay down the vocals for the next CD after recording the guitar parts prior to COVID-19. Like the three that preceded it – Living Proof, Born to Play Guitar and The Blues Is Alive and Well, it certain to be a winner – even more so because it’ll include a guest appearance from Bobby Rush, too.
“Bobby – who’s two years older than I am — and I are gonna be on each other’s next album,” he says. “It’s gonna be special!”
Be sure to check out American Masters — Buddy Guy: The Blues Chase the Blues Away when it airs on PBS on July 27. Check your local listings for airtime. It contains far more treasures than this story could hold. And don’t forget to visit Buddy’s website – www.buddyguy.com. Not only will you be able to learn when the new album will be available and where he’ll be playing next, but you’ll also be able to check the upcoming lineup for Legends, too.