From Howlin' Wolf to Hendrix: The Life and Times of Buddy Guy - Rolling Stone
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From Howlin’ Wolf to Hendrix: The Life and Times of Buddy Guy

“He’s the top honcho now,” says Keith Richards of 79-year-old guitar great

Buddy GuyBuddy Guy

Danny Clinch

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.” 

Buddy Guy

Guy’s real career began not far from here at the South Side’s 708 Club, where he developed his unhinged live show — playing overdriven licks behind his back, or with his teeth. His first night there, Waters stopped by, inviting Guy into his car for a salami sandwich and convincing him not to return home to Louisiana. Two decades younger than players like Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, Guy would become the heir apparent to the greatest generation of blues and R&B players. “He was a younger blues musician in a field totally dominated by much older guys,” said Clapton. “He was standing with the masters, holding his own.”

“He just blew my head off,” says Jeff Beck, who saw Guy on his first English tour in the mid-Sixties. “He came off the stage at the end of his act and walked through the crowd, playing one-handed, the guitar above his head. I’d never seen anything like it. He walked through the crowd, and it was like a bunch of disciples following him out of the building. Then he came back and finished his act. This was pre-Hendrix, pre-everybody.” Jimi Hendrix would watch Guy from the crowd at the Newport Folk Festival and Manhattan clubs. And when Clapton saw Guy in 1965, he remembered, “I wanted to do what he was doing — a blues trio! I would be the slick frontman, a white Buddy Guy.”

At the age of 79, Guy still plays more than 150 shows a year — blues cruises, casinos, state fairs, even, ironically, a Hendrix tribute tour. But after the death of his friend B.B. King earlier this year, somebody has to keep doing it. “When B.B. passed away, I kind of woke up and said, ‘I’m the last one here,'” says Guy. “It’s a little scary.”

“He’s the top honcho now, you know?” says Keith Richards. “He’s the godfather now.”

This morning, like most mornings, Guy wakes up at 4:30 and is at the supermarket by seven. When I show up at his bungalow-style suburban home, he is simmering ribs in garlic, onions and bell peppers, as his mother’s sauce recipe cooks in a separate pot. “I cook for myself, so I just try to make enough for tomorrow,” he says. “It’s just a routine thing.

“I got all of this shipped to me from the South,” Guy continues as he opens a big cupboard of seasonings, containers with names like Memphis Mojo and Spice Supreme. “I got some shit you can’t even let it pass by your face. Everything here is spicy except my tomato sauce. I’m from Louisiana, man!” On the top shelf, there’s a jug of moonshine in a plastic container. He gets it from a fan from Tennessee. “You want some for breakfast?” Guy asks with a grin. (Richards approves of Guy’s corn liquor: “It’s very, very good,” he says. “And there’s a lot of it.”)

After cooking, he’ll go back to bed (friends know not to call between 1 and 6 p.m.) before driving to the club. “I get three and a half hours of sleep at night, three and a half in the afternoon,” he says. “It’s been like that for 50 years. I try to break it, and I can’t. As soon as I hear birds, it sounds like somebody calling me.”

Guy’s mother would also rise at 4:30 a.m. to cook on the wood stove of their shotgun-style one-story house in Lettsworth, Louisiana — on a good day, biscuits and fried eggs from their sharecropper farm, which she’d put in a bag for Guy and his four siblings to take to school. The kids would kill the chickens. “We’d live to eat, and eat to live,” he says. “When I got big enough to catch a fish, [my parents] were the happiest people in the world.”

Guy loves talking about farm life: milking cows in the morning, herding cattle, picking cotton with his siblings. Guy says that he didn’t know what electricity was until he was 12 or running water until 16; the family drank rainwater stored in barrels. “Wasn’t no such thing as acid rain back then,” he says. “You could be walking home from school after a rainy day, and you could just lay down on the ground and drink out of a horse’s track.” He smiles. “It had a sweet taste.”

Guy was born in 1936; Jim Crow was a fact of life. He remembers walking to school with his siblings while the white kids took the bus. “They would pass us on the gravel road,” he says. “The dust looked like fog coming, and we’d run off to the side of the road to avoid the dust. And they would be spitting and throwing stuff at us. We never let it bother us. Because that’s the way it was.” He tells the story of when his parents’ white landlord told his son he could no longer hang out with Guy. (Years later, the friend visited Guy: “He came to my house in Louisiana and cried, asking me, ‘Do you remember that?’ And I’d say, ‘It wasn’t you. It was them.'”)

“My parents were very religious,” says Guy. “My mama used to say, ‘If you get slapped, turn the other cheek, so they can slap the other side.’ They didn’t teach us no hate.”

That lesson may explain why, when Guy first moved to Orland Park more than a decade ago, he did not get angry when he woke up one snowy morning and discovered someone had egged his home. Instead, after cleaning it up, he got out his snowblower and cleaned every neighbor’s sidewalk. “They said, ‘A black man gets eggs thrown on his house, and he’s still plowing snow off everybody’s sidewalk, corner to corner?'” Guy says. “And we were the best of friends after that.”

In the Sixties, Guy did not echo the resentment of some of his peers toward the white rock bands that became rich playing the blues. “When those songs would come on, I heard a lot of guys say, ‘I do it better,'” says Guy, gesturing toward his indoor pool. “My answer to that is, if you swim 10 lengths of a pool and I swim two, you’re doing something I ain’t.

Buddy Guy

“The British did more for us than any record company,” he continues. He likes to tell the story about how the Rolling Stones only agreed to appear on the popular show Shindig! if Wolf came on the show with them. “That brought tears to my eyes,” Guy says. “They let white America know who we were.”

Every Christmas, Guy’s father would invite an acquaintance, Henry “Coot” Smith, to the house to entertain the family. “We had a case of beer and a jug of wine, and he’d drink it up and play, and then go to the next house,” says Guy.

Coot stomped and sang songs like John Lee Hooker’s hit “Boogie Chillen’,” a hypnotizing riff with no discernible melody that in 1949 became the first electric blues song to hit Number One on the R&B chart. Guy asked Coot to play the song seven times in a row. “I watched him pick the thing with his fingers and produce a sound that gave me goose bumps,” Guy later wrote in his autobiography, When I Left Home. Guy took wires off their screen door and tried to imitate the sound. “I’d also take a rubber band and put it up against my ear and bang away as long as I could hear something,” says Guy. “I just loved the sound.” Finally, when Guy was 13, his father bought Coot’s guitar for $4.35. The first song Guy learned to play was “Boogie Chillen’.”

Just after Guy finished eighth grade, his mother had a stroke, and “everything changed,” he wrote. “She could no longer smile … I’d be hungry for that smile for the rest of my life.” (Guy plays a polka-dot Strat as a tribute to his mother; before her death in 1968, he promised he would someday buy her a polka-dot Cadillac.) Guy dropped out of school, and the family moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where Guy worked on a conveyor belt at a beer factory, at a service station gassing up cars and as a janitor at LSU. He’d hear on the radio hits like Waters’ “Hoochie Coochie Man” and Elmore James’ “Dust My Broom,” playing them on his guitar during breaks. He eventually learned that all those acts were in one place. “I said, ‘If I ever get a chance, I’m going to Chicago, man,'” he says. “Just to see Muddy — that’s what it was all about.”

One night in Baton Rouge, Guy spent 50 cents to hear New Orleans electric bluesman Guitar Slim at the Masonic Temple. Guy remembers being the first one to the gig and being confused when he heard Slim’s guitar but couldn’t see him. After the band started playing, Slim entered the club from outside, his Strat hooked up to a 150-foot wire. “He was slick as grease and dressed to kill,” Guy wrote, “flaming red suit, flaming red shoes, red-dyed hair.” He says now, “Whatever these guys had, I wanted a piece of that.”

By then, Guy had started performing in juke joints and roadhouses. He bought a long cord and began doing Slim’s moves. “I wanted to play like B.B. King but act like Guitar Slim,” he says. The stunt is still part of Guy’s act; these days, he prowls clubs with his wireless guitar, usually stopping at the bar to throw back a shot of cognac.

Guy would grow into a dynamic, even confrontational, performer. (One night at Legends, I see him tell a loud customer to “shut the fuck up” from the stage.) “Buddy made it nasty and naughty,” says Carlos Santana. “B.B.’s nice, Buddy is not, and I mean that in a good way. He can take off people’s heads with a few notes. He comes from that generation like Albert King and Albert Collins — it was called the cut-and-shoot crowd.”

Guy arrived in Chicago on September 25th, 1957, the date he calls his “second birthday.” (“Buddy has a phenomenal memory,” says Richards. “He can tell you the time of day he arrived in Chicago and what train he was on.”) At first, Guy stayed with a family friend named Shorty, who’d also moved from Louisiana. He crashed on Shorty’s bed during the day while he was at work, and walked the streets at night, drinking coffee in diners, waiting for Shorty to wake up.

Six months after arriving, Guy was broke, ready to call his parents for a ticket home. But then, as he tells it, a stranger on the street noticed him with his guitar case and invited him to the 708 Club, where Otis Rush allowed him to sit in. The bar owner called Waters, who came to watch. “I was telling people how hungry I was,” says Guy. “And when he heard me play, he said, ‘Well, how can you play like that and be hungry?'”

Waters became a “father figure” to Guy. “Muddy taught me how to drink,” he says. “He gave me my first drink of whiskey and told me it would stop me from being shy. And still to this day, whenever I’ve got to play, I’ve got to have my shot before I go onstage.”

Waters’ friend Willie Dixon opened the door for Guy at Chess Records, where, as a session guitarist, Guy earned a reputation for being punctual and easygoing. “I was the student,” he says. He played on hits by Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson, classic records like Waters’ Folk Singer and Wolf’s “Killing Floor.” “They called about 7:00 in the morning, and had been trying to do it all night,” says Guy of the latter. “I did it in two takes, and Leonard Chess said, ‘See, you motherfuckers, I told you I could call a son of a bitch who would know how to play the fuckin’ shit in two seconds.'”

“You can find an old Chess recording and pick him out pretty quickly,” says Derek Trucks. “He just had a vibe — it reminds me a lot of the great funk rhythm players that came after. It’s not overdriven, but it’s blown out in the most beautiful way — stinging, clean and concise.”

Guy made $15 for his work on “Killing Floor.” He made more during those years driving a tow truck. “I’d drive that truck until it was time to play guitar,” he says. “I kept the guitar in the truck, and then I would just go into the dressing room, take a shower and go straight to the gig and play till four in the morning and lay down in the car.”

It wasn’t much better for the established names: Guy learned that King was only making enough “to get from one town to the next.” “Muddy was the only one who had a house,” he says. “Lightnin’ Hopkins didn’t have a house like that, or Little Walter.” Chess became notorious for getting artists to sign away publishing rights: “Every time I went to Chess and I had wrote a song that they thought was pretty good, they’d tell me to let Willie Dixon hear it,” says Guy. Dixon was Chess’ main A&R man, talent scout, producer and songwriter. “He’d say, ‘That’s a pretty good song, but you need a stronger line.’ And if he changed one word, it was his song.”

Chess was uninterested in Guy’s wilder, more adventurous playing or in him as a recording artist. “At the club, I’d be jumping off the stage, turning that amplifier up loud as I could get, dropping the guitar on the floor and letting it ring for five minutes,” says Guy. But if “I hit a note and let it ring in the studio, Leonard Chess would say, ‘Get out of here with that.'”

Guy found an outlet with longtime collaborator Junior Wells on groove-driven classics like 1965’s Hoodoo Man Blues, which Guy played on under a pseudonym for another label. Then around 1967, with blues disciples like Clapton and Hendrix on the rise, Guy finally left Chess. He got some small satisfaction when Leonard asked him in for a meeting. “The first thing he said was, ‘I want you to kick me in my ass,'” says Guy. “And I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Because you’ve been trying to show us this shit ever since you came here and we was too goddamn dumb to listen. So now this shit is selling and I want you to come in here — you can have your way in the studio.’ But by then I was gone.”

After leaving Chess, Guy found a home on the hippie circuit, playing the Fillmore and touring on the 1970 “Festival Express” tour with Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead and the Band. “I thought maybe I’d get rich and make that kind of money if I followed those [rock] guys,” he says. “I liked the women better than the reefer. I said, ‘Y’all go smoke, and I’ll watch these little gals.'” He sometimes wonders what would have happened if he had moved to the U.K. in the mid-Sixties, where Hendrix got his early buzz. “If I had went to England, I probably would have been bigger than bubblegum,” he says.

Guy tends to talk himself down. “I’ll tell you, man, those guys were naturals — B.B. King, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Big Joe Turner,” he says. “All those guys, man, had something that God gave them …. I don’t have that.” A few times, he refers to a local review of his performance with Clapton at the 2010 Crossroads Guitar Festival. “Eric called me out to play, and he said, ‘Take a solo.’ And this motherfucker wrote that I got in Eric’s way!”

Guy’s sensitivity might explain why Santana unfailingly tells him how special he is when they are together. “If he doesn’t wanna see that himself, that’s his own business,” Santana says. “But when he’s around me, I do nothing but validate that man all the time. I tell him, ‘Man, you’re just as important as Einstein. You’re just as important as fucking Nikola Tesla. You’re just as important as Coltrane and Billie Holiday. You’re a trailblazer with sound — and you’re still alive.'”

Guy’s driveway begins across the street from a golf course in Orland Park. It takes a quarter mile to reach a large barn that stores a ’55 T-Bird, a ’56 Ford Edsel and a Ferrari that Clapton encouraged him to buy. (“I don’t want it no more now, ’cause you can’t hardly get in there when you’re my age,” says Guy.) The large brown three-story home, which features wood-panel walls and ceramic countertops, was decorated by his ex-wife, Jennifer. He’s considering putting it on the market — it’s too big for him; he’s almost never swum in the pool — and buying an apartment in downtown Chicago.

This hot August morning, Guy is stirring oxtail stew, which he’ll drop off at the club later. “It’s for my ex-wife so she leaves me alone,” he jokes. Guy is friendly with both his former wives, who can sometimes be found hanging out at the bar or in the office at Legends. The entire family — wives, 10 kids, umpteen grandkids — celebrated his 79th birthday together here at the house and at the club. Guy’s grandson Keith has been crashing upstairs, and today is shooting hoops in the driveway.

Guy and his second wife, Jennifer, divorced after 11 years in 2002. His first marriage, to Joan, whom he met shortly after moving to Chicago, lasted from 1959 to 1975. “She told me, ‘It’s me or that guitar,'” he says. “A musician’s life is not easy on a family … The two [marriages] I had, I was never here. And they would come to me and say, ‘I’m tired of being by myself.’ And I said, ‘What the hell do you think I do when I’m on the road?’ I go to one little room. When you play at the club, you got a crowd. But otherwise, I’m by myself.”

He hasn’t stopped looking for someone. “I see a lot of good-looking women, and I have women call me and all that, man,” he says. “But I haven’t had any luck. In the last three years, I didn’t go to bed with ’em. I just had conversation and brought them out here and fixed them a good dinner.”

Guy heads into his living room and points out some of his favorite memorabilia collected over his 60 years in the business: a photo of him grinning onstage with Clapton at the Royal Albert Hall in 1990; a thank-you note from Mick Jagger for appearing in Shine a Light. There’s a photo of Guy with his family and the president and first lady from the first of four times Guy was invited to the Obama White House. “He’s from Chicago, so he knows,” Guy says of Obama. “As soon as he put his arm around me, I said, ‘Mr. President, it’s a long way from picking cotton to picking the guitar in the White House.’ And we laughed.”

Guy points out a painting of Hendrix, and tells the story of the day Hendrix brought a reel-to-reel recorder to tape Guy’s guitar workshop at Newport. “Everyone was saying, ‘Hendrix is here,'” Guy says. “I’m like, ‘Who?’ We went back to the hotel and played until the sun rose. He was so damn good, so creative.”

Next to that is a painting of Stevie Ray Vaughan, playing his guitar behind his back — a trick he learned from Guy. “That one’s priceless,” he says. Vaughan had been a fan ever since he heard Guy singing and playing alongside Wolf and Waters on the 1963 American Folk Festival of the Blues LP as a kid. Whenever Guy played Antone’s nightclub in Austin, he invited Vaughan and his older brother Jimmie onstage. “He became like a big brother to us,” says Jimmie. “It was such a trip.” Guy played with Stevie Ray at Wisconsin’s Alpine Valley in 1990 — Guy took a different helicopter back to Chicago; Vaughan’s helicopter crashed, killing him and four others.

Guy is still supporting younger blues players. He routinely lets kids onstage to show off, most notably Massachusetts teenage guitar prodigy Quinn Sullivan, who first played live with Guy at seven. “Parents will bring ’em around and ask, and if they can play, I’ll give them an opportunity,” Guy says. “Because when I went to Chicago, everybody looked at me and said, ‘Who are you?’ I don’t ask, ‘Do you have any experience?’ I just say, ‘Can you play this?’ If he says, ‘Yeah,’ I say, ‘Come on up!'”

In the corner of the room, there’s a jukebox stocked with records of the guys who did the same thing for Guy: Little Walter, Waters and King. “They made me who I am,” Guy says. He first heard King’s 1951 hit “3 O’Clock Blues” as a teenager in Baton Rouge, and it became an early song in his repertoire. In 1958, King stopped by Guy’s regular gig at the 708 Club, and offered words of encouragement, telling Guy to use straight picks, not finger picks. “I couldn’t believe he was talking to me,” Guy says. Later, when Guy was gigging at a Chicago nightclub that was in danger of going out of business in the Sixties, King played there for free.

Buddy Guy

Guy and King toured the world several times together until 2011, with Guy opening. “Him and I were the last ones still traveling around, taking the music around the world,” he says. Guy was impressed with King’s work ethic; he played 250 dates per year into his seventies. “The last time we was talking, I said, ‘B, you know all the money in the world ain’t no good if you can’t use it,'” Guy says.

What’d they talk about on tour? “Oh, it was mostly profane,” Guy says with a laugh. “With B.B., he’d play two chords and it was back to the women.” (Guy likes to tell a story about King giving advice on Viagra’s side effects: “Take the headache.”)

When he heard King’s health was failing, Guy traveled to visit him one last time at his home in Las Vegas, but some of King’s kids said he didn’t want to see anybody. “Families go crazy if they think you got $10, and they’re gonna fight about it,” says Guy. “He was the nicest person you would ever want to meet. And I know damn well he wouldn’t have told those people not to let me see him when I flew out there to see him.”

Guy said goodbye to King at his funeral in Mississippi in May. “They let me get a little bit closer to his casket than anybody else — special treatment,” he says. “But I had very little time to just sit there and remember the greatest things he had said to me and what we had done together. There were a lot of cameras. They showed a film of him playing, and I said, ‘Man, that’s what made me wanna keep playing.'”

Guy’s assistant Annie stops him; he needs to tape a few social-media videos thanking his Twitter followers and promoting an appearance at a Las Vegas blues festival. Guy has touring down to a science. “I just saw that we get to play my hometown of Baton Rouge,” he says at one point. He’ll have an overnight bus ride after the show, but he’s happy, because he’ll get to stay in the house he just bought there and cook for himself: “I get off work, they rush me to the house, I take a shower, take a bowl of soup, come downstairs with my bag and head to the next gig.

“B.B. King dedicated his life to the blues until he couldn’t go no more,” says Guy. “Muddy, Wolf, all of them did it. Because they loved it as much as I do. And now I’m gonna do it myself. I think I owe that to them.”

In This Article: blues, Buddy Guy


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