From Howlin’ Wolf to Hendrix: The Life and Times of Buddy Guy
When Buddy Guy is in town, he leaves his house in Orland Park, Illinois, around 7:30 p.m. and makes the 26-mile drive up I-55 to downtown Chicago, listening to B.B. King’s Bluesville station on satellite radio on the way. He drops his big white Lexus in his usual prime parking-garage spot, then walks down the block on Buddy Guy Way to his club, Legends. Tonight is a little slow; just a few people from the Hilton across the street, eating at scattered tables on the checkerboard floor.
Wearing a white Legends baseball cap, a Hawaiian shirt and a bracelet engraved with “Nothing but Blues,” Guy stops and looks around for a minute, flashing a big grin, his gold-and-diamond-capped teeth sparkling. He takes a seat at his stool in the corner of the L-shaped bar. The waitress already has his Heineken with a glass of ice ready; it’s his regular drink, despite the fact the staff are wearing T-shirts advertising Buddy Brew (“The Damn Right Beer”). “When I go home tonight, I don’t wanna be caught drunk,” he says by way of explanation. “The Buddy Brew is a little stronger. That’s why a lot of people like it, man — you get your money’s worth.”
At this point in his life, Guy is the greatest living Chicago bluesman, and one of the most influential guitar players ever. But for more than 50 years, he’s also been a club manager. He started managing in 1961 at Club 99 in Joliet, Illinois, where he once booked Little Walter for a 90-cent bottle of Seagrams gin. The Rolling Stones and Muddy Waters came to play Guy’s tiny old club the Checkerboard Lounge in 1981 (although their entourage filled up 55 of the club’s 65 seats — “I didn’t hear my cash register ring once,” said Guy).
The walls of Legends are covered in guitars donated by visitors: Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan. “Eric don’t come around anymore,” Guy says of Clapton. “He can’t even look at whiskey.” The Stones will still visit, though — all four band members enjoyed a rare night out together at Legends in June. (“Keith hasn’t slowed down nothing,” says Guy. “He drank everything I was selling in the club — moonshine, gin, whiskey, everything. Son of a bitch is made of iron, man.”)
Sometimes Guy sticks his head in areas the staff thinks are below his pay grade — he gets testy when drink lines get too long, or when bartenders leave the cash register open. He proudly notes that merchandise sales increase 90 percent when he’s in the room. “Most clubs are not surviving because of DUI and non-smoking,” he says, “but they come see me sitting at the bar and take pictures.”
Legends is one of the few major Chicago blues clubs standing. “I think if I closed my club, there might be two left,” says Guy. When he first arrived here, in 1957, “there wasn’t even space to have another club, there were so many. You could work Chicago seven nights a week. They were small, 40 to 50 people. But Muddy was playing, Sonny Boy Williamson, all of ’em. No cover charge.”