Few have a musical resume as impressive as that of Buddy Guy, one of the last great living Chicago blues guitarists. He’s influenced the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. He’s played on recordings by Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Little Walter. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005. And on May 8th, the 75-year-old’s autobiography, When I Left Home: My Story, will be published by Da Capo Press. Co-written with David Ritz, the book is a must-read account of Guy’s life and career.
Guy recently talked to Rolling Stone about penning his life story, the important advice he received from Muddy Waters and the current state of blues music.
What made you decide to write a book now?
It always crosses your mind. Fifty-five years ago this September 25th, I arrived here in Chicago [from Louisiana] and the greatest blues players in the world were all alive and well and playing here. You go to sleep, wake up and 55 years have passed. After me and B.B. King, all the rest of them are gone. Every time I get interviewed, I say, “They’re no longer here. I’m looking up at that band in heaven. That’s the best blues band.” It seems like yesterday that I was called a little young punk, when Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Little Walter were all living. I went to sleep, woke up and now I’m the senior citizen! So the information and the street sense I learned from them, I guess I’m the only one left that can tell you about it. That’s what made [co-writer David Ritz] come in and say, “OK, let me get it while you’re still in your right mind and can remember a lot of that stuff.”
It must have brought back some memories, too.
It was some crazy stuff that went on, man. Let me say this: when I arrived here 55 years ago, I didn’t know blues and jazz musicians were so fucking crazy, man! They were doing everything in the book. At Chess Records, everybody was a “motherfucker.” I’d been there like six months, and they’d be talking to me in the studio – “Hey motherfucker, you’re too loud.” I wouldn’t look up. They’d come and punch me on the shoulder and say, “Hey, I’m talking to you, motherfucker!” I’d say, “I thought my name was Buddy?” After about six months, they’d say, “Hey motherfucker,” and I’d just answer like everybody else. Muddy, Wolf, Walter – everyone was answering to that name. Some of the great jazz cats were answering to that. “Good morning, motherfucker.” That was just the way it was.
The book is hard to put down. It really paints an authentic picture of what the Chicago blues scene was like back in the day.
I’m on the book like I’m on my records. If I make a record in the studio, I could say it’s good, but it’s not going to be good until the public lets me know it’s good. So this is what I was waiting for with the book – for someone like you to tell me about it. Because I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, man. I just told the truth. Somebody told me, “If you lie, lie like politicians and lawyers and you’ll sell a lot of books.” But I wanted [Ritz] to get the facts, some things that people don’t know about now.
Ask me and I’ll tell you the truth. The late, great Willie Dixon wrote a book once, and somebody outlined that remark he made, that he used to take me to – it used to be called “Jewtown” then, but it’s Maxwell Street, where they would play on Sunday. It’s where Chess Records discovered Muddy and them at. He said he used to take me over and show me how to put on a show with the guitar. He don’t even play guitar. He was playing upright bass. As right as I’m talking to you this morning, I’ve still never been to Maxwell Street on Sunday to hear anybody play.
You talk about crossing paths with Jimi Hendrix in the book.
That was my first time ever playing in New York. I had just played Newport Jazz Fest, in 1967. I had never met him before. I was putting on my show, and I think I had the guitar behind my head – I had more energy than that I’ve got now. And somebody kept whispering, “There’s Jimi Hendrix.” I saw this kid down on the floor, and they didn’t have the little [recorders] like we’ve got now, where you can just press it. He had a reel-to-reel, and somebody was taping him with some kind of video. But when they said “Jimi Hendrix,” I said, “Who in the hell is that?” He walked up to me and said, “I cancelled a concert to catch you, because I’ve been trying to catch you all my life. Can I tape what you’re doing?” And I said, “I don’t give a damn what you do.”
You also mention that Chess Records prevented you from using distortion and playing the style of guitar you wanted to on record.
They told me I was just making noise. Until the British guys got it. Then [Leonard Chess] came back and said, “We fucked up. We should have cut you loose, because people are eating it up.” I said, “I kept trying to tell you that.” I wanted that amplifier wide open before the British got it. I went to England in February of 1965, and Eric [Clapton] wasn’t famous and Jeff [Beck] wasn’t famous. But every time they’d see me, they’d say they slept in a van to come see me play, because most of my stuff had come from playing behind Sonny Boy [Williamson], Muddy, and Junior [Wells].
They hadn’t given me a lead role on a good 45 or a good album back then. [Clapton and Beck] were picking out those little notes I was playing with Muddy and all the rest of them. They said when they saw me play the Strat, they didn’t know a Strat played blues. I said, “What the hell do you mean?” They said, “We thought a Strat was for country and western music.” And that’s when they turned that big Marshall up and let it ring like I was doing in person, but the Chess people wouldn’t let me come in the studio and do that.
Who are some modern day blues musicians you admire?
John Mayer, Derek Trucks – if you’ve got your computer, turn it on when you’re done talking to me and remember the name Quinn Sullivan. When I saw this kid, he was seven years old. He turned 13 last month. Go on your computer, look up “Quinn Sullivan,” watch him play. Because he can match me, Eric Clapton and whoever can play that guitar, man. And he was doing that at seven. He opened a show for me this past week, and he’s got a CD out. It’s called Cyclone.
You mention in the book that Muddy Waters once said about the blues, “The world might wanna forget about ’em, but we can’t. We owe ’em our lives.” Do you still agree?
Yes I do. That statement came from…he didn’t let nobody know that he was very ill, and he was on his way out [Waters died in 1983 of heart failure]. Somebody called me and said, “Muddy’s not doing well.” I said, “What do you mean Muddy’s not doing well?” I called him, and he sounded like he was in the best health in the world, man. He cursed us out: “I’m doing fine. Just keep them blues alive.” And I’ll be damned if it wasn’t two days later the international press called and said, “What do you think about Muddy passing?” And I said, “What do you mean? I just talked to him.” He was like a father, man. To all of us.
Is blues music alive and well in 2012, and do you see it thriving in the future?
That worries me some, because you turn on your radio and your big stations don’t play blues anymore. You might find one that plays it at three of four o’clock in the morning. That’s why I brought up this little kid, Quinn. He’s into it deep man, and he can play. It takes people like that. You go back to Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton, and Jeff Beck – they woke up America and let America know who B.B. King, Ike and Tina Turner, myself, Muddy and all of us [were]. There was a television show in the Sixties called Shindig!, and the Rolling Stones were getting bigger than bubblegum and they kept trying to get the Stones, and finally Mick Jagger agreed to come on if they let him bring Muddy Waters. And they said, “Who in the hell is that?” And he got offended, and said, “You mean to tell me you don’t know who Muddy Waters is? We named ourselves after one of his famous records – ‘Rollin’ Stone.'”
So that’s what we need now. We need some young people to come up and play so the young generation can know about it. It’s just like a good food. You’re not going to know how good it is until you taste it. At one point in life, I thought blues lyrics were a little strong and that they were trying to fade that out. But hip-hop came up and proved me wrong, because they were saying things much stronger than the blues. [Blues artists from Guy’s era] don’t bring it out. We beat around the bush; you have to figure it out.
So we need help from some young people with the blues. I don’t know what happened to big FM stations. I think it’s all money, that’s my belief. Our records are not making that kind of money. Hopefully, one day somebody will wake up and say, “At least play it once a week or twice a week.”
Your club Legends [in Chicago] is helping keep blues music alive.
When you first started talking to me and I was telling you about the early days and about the “motherfuckers” and stuff like that…we had so many clubs then, that you could play seven days a week and you wouldn’t play at the same club. If I close my club, you might have two left. And that’s not only in Chicago; we used to have great blues clubs in San Francisco, L.A., Michigan, Canada – everywhere. All those things are gone because of all of the new laws, the DUI’s, non-smoking, and you don’t have public transportation. When I came here, you could catch a bus every five minutes, 24/7 here in Chicago. And those damn things quit running now after rush hour. So if you can’t drive your car, how are you going to get to the club and get back if you have two or three drinks?
That hurt a lot of clubs, but I didn’t have sense enough to close mine. I’m kind of downtown around the hotels, and that keeps it afloat. It’s hard to keep it [open], man, because people are not drinking as much as they used to, 40-60 years ago we didn’t have as much drugs on the street as we’ve got now. The drugs moved in and moved [out] a lot of the profits you could make off of whiskey, beer, and wine. So that hurt the blues clubs. But that’s not going to discourage me. I’m not going to close mine. Mine is doing well compared to what other people have. I don’t know what it is. I guess I’m just blessed with that.