Damn Right, He's Buddy Guy - Rolling Stone
×
Home Music Music News

Damn Right, He’s Buddy Guy

The greatest living blues guitarist is still stone crazy after all these years

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.”

Popular on Rolling Stone

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.”

Newswire

Powered by
Arrow Created with Sketch. Calendar Created with Sketch. Path Created with Sketch. Shape Created with Sketch. Plus Created with Sketch. minus Created with Sketch.