Man on a mission
Buddy Guy has done a lot for the blues over 50 years, and he’s not done
Buddy Guy is fighting the good fight—and against all odds. The blues aren’t the same as they were when the 78-year-old guitarist shot onto the scene six decades ago. Sure, there are some fine guitarists shredding to keep it alive, but in many cases it’s more about style than substance. And, as with jazz, blues has been relegated to satellite and public radio, often only finding its way to aging, mostly white ears.
For younger generations reared on indie rock and hip-hop, the blues is a foreign concept. That fact hits close to home for Guy.
“Even my children didn’t know who I was until they were 21 years old and came in a blues club,” Guy said. “I had guitars in the house all the time. And on the Fourth of July and the holidays, every time they put my record on, my son would take it off. Now he’s got a guitar and he’s playing well. And he looks at me and cries sometimes and says, ‘Dad, I didn’t know you could do that.’”
Guy and fellow bluesman B.B. King are two of the last survivors from the old guard—names from a long-ago time. And with King performing less because of health issues (the 89-year-old bluesman canceled a slew of dates at the end of last year due to dehydration and exhaustion), Guy is the guy. But he’s no stranger to being the odd man out.
Born and raised in Lettsworth, La., Guy’s musical career took off in Chicago in the late-1950s, influenced by the likes of Guitar Slim, Muddy Waters and even King himself. Guy made a name for himself for his bold and electrifying style.
“I was playing at a lot of the blues clubs, and a lot of blues players were sittin’ down in chairs and playin’, and had their music stands,” he recalled. “But I went on the stage and kicked them stands out the way and jumped off the stage, and they said, ‘Y’all better watch him.’”
That included labels. But it wasn’t for the reasons he’d hoped. He signed a deal with Chess Records, whose co-founder Leonard Chess wanted Guy to record a standard R&B record. Guy refused to change his flamboyant style of guitar playing, and was used solely as a studio musician for Chess.
“When you blast that amplifier and turn it up it has a different effect than an acoustic guitar,” he said. “In other words, you had the feedback and all that. And I was doin’ it and people was lovin’ it, but was nobody paying attention at no record company. But it didn’t discourage me.”
But while he was being shunned by some of his peers, up-and-coming guitar heroes like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck took notice. Guy hit his stride in the late-1960s and early 1970s with albums like A Man and the Blues and Buddy and the Juniors, mixing blues with the frenetic style of rock ’n’ roll. His 1980s output was spotty, but Guy came back strong with 1991’s Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues, which featured some of the artists he influenced, like Clapton and Beck.
Even in his leanest years Guy kept at it, playing the blues through countless shifts in pop music.
“[Calling it quits] crosses your mind,” Guy said. “But it’s like a prizefighter, man—if you get knocked down and lay down, you ain’t got a chance to win. But if you stand up and keep swingin’, you might get a lucky punch.”
These days, Guy seems even more determined to stay in the ring. He does it for the younger generations. He does it for his kids. But mostly he does it for the bluesmen who helped shape him into the man and the guitarist he is today.
“They all used to tell me, ‘Keep it going, Buddy, keep the blues alive.’ And it’s like I went to sleep and woke up, and they all gone. I think me and B.B. are about the last two from that era still out there,” Guy said with a hint of lament in his voice. “I gotta do what I gotta do to keep this music alive.”