Buddy Guy doesn't think he's much of a guitarist. But then, that's Buddy Guy for you. The man whose incendiary live performances have simply got to be heard to be believed, the man whom Eric Clapton routinely calls "the greatest living blues guitarist in the world," the man who, after a lifetime of toil, hustle and rejection is finally receiving the recognition -- if not the commercial airplay -- he so richly deserves, also happens to be one of the humblest people you'll ever meet.
"I'm not a great singer, and I don't think I'm a really great guitar player," says Guy on the phone from his adopted home in Chicago. "But those things are two halves and when you put them together, I guess maybe they make a pretty good whole."
Forty years and four Grammy Awards (all won this decade) into his career, Guy -- who turns sixty-two in July -- is about to release Heavy Love (Silvertone), an album of sometimes snarling, sometimes soulfully burnished blues that will undoubtedly put him in the running for a fifth trophy.
Last spring, Guy opened for the Rolling Stones on the closing date of their U.S. tour in Chicago, and in July, he'll kick off a tour of his own (with teenage blues prodigy Jonny Lang) that should serve as a reminder of where disciples from Jimi Hendrix to Stevie Ray Vaughan got their ideas about hotwiring a blues-stoked guitar to amped rock and wrapping it up in a package of fiery showmanship.
"When I pick up my guitar, man, I get excited," Guy says, and you can practically *hear* the smile spread across his face on the other end of the line. "When I first came to Chicago, guys like B.B. (King) used to look at me and say, 'he's gotta be on drugs.' But I didn't even know what drugs were when I come here from Louisiana, man."
Guy didn't become "the greatest living blues guitarist in the world" overnight. When he made the pilgrimage from his hometown of Baton Rouge, La. to check out the post-war electric blues explosion in the late Fifties, his goals were modest.
"I came to Chicago to hear people like Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters, not to meet 'em, because to me that would have been *unreal,*" he says. "And when I wound up shaking hands with those people I thought I had my Grammy and my gold record. And here I am now, talking with you this morning and they're no longer with us. Hopefully, they're looking down on me and smiling because they know I'm trying to carry on."
For many of those years between the time Guy began recording his own dynamic brand of blues for the Chess label and success consented to meet him halfway, carrying on hasn't come easy. The story, of course, is a familiar one, rooted mostly in the racism of a white mainstream's refusal to play authentic blues on the radio even as it embraced pale imitations of the form.
For Guy, it meant going more than a decade without a recording contract and surviving through barn-storming, year-round tours with harpist Junior Wells, his great friend and longtime collaborator who died earlier this year at age sixty-three. Before Wells' death, there had been speculation in blues circles as to why the two stopped touring together by the mid-Nineties. Guy says rumors of a falling-out couldn't be farther from the truth.
"I was with him until the last breath left his body," Guy says of Wells. "When we broke up, the media made it seem as if it was something between us, and that wasn't the case, man. What happened was that we were playing small joints and every time we'd play, [the club owner] would turn the house over twice or three times. To play forty minutes for someone who paid a few bucks to see both of us wasn't fair to the fans. We tried to make it work and just couldn't do it." But the fruitful Guy/Wells partnership, which had begun in 1965 and produced several seminal albums, made the pair a favorite international touring draw during the Seventies and Eighties -- even if Guy couldn't find a home for his music.
"All the while when I was without a contract, guitar players like Eric [Clapton], Jeff Beck, and Stevie Ray Vaughan kept saying, 'I got this from Buddy and I got that from Buddy, and the record companies were saying, 'Well, who is he? Is he white? How old is he?,'" Guy says. "I got reports back about ten years ago of people saying I was too old to play."
When Clapton invited Guy to perform as a guest at his annual Royal Albert Hall concert series, however, his appearance made one thing abundantly clear: if Guy was too old to play guitar, he was certainly fooling everyone with the blazing fretwork and those blizzard-fast runs. Within months, Guy was signed to Silvertone and began what is essentially his second career. His first album for Silvertone, 1991's Damn Right, I've Got The Blues, featured appearances by several of the artists who had championed him, and won Guy his first Grammy.
Still, some things never change. It's still a painful memory for Guy as he recalls the time several years ago when a young disc jockey in his hometown of Baton Rouge approached him at the table where he was autographing copies of Damn Right -- his first gold record -- and told him that he loved the album but wasn't allowed to play it on the air because of Guy's skin color. But through the bad times and the worse, Guy's never been a man to hold grudges. He just keeps pressing on.
"Being black and a blues player, man, you just hope you can get something out there that radio stations will play," Guy says of Heavy Love. "The biggest challenge for me is making a record that they can't refuse to play. Because I got a job to do, man. It's a burden that's been put on my shoulders by Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Lightnin' Hopkins, Jimmy Reed ... all those guys. I'm trying to carry the torch for them."