Just like his idols before him (B. B. King and Muddy Waters), Buddy Guy’s name is synonymous with the blues.
Self-described as shy, all the Louisiana native had to do was show up in Chicago in the late fifties and let his guitar loose for the blues elite, like King and Waters. They were quick to pluck him from the small stages and help kick-start a career that would be legendary.
The musical powerhouse is self-effacing in conversation and says he’ll never outshine a musician that he’s been hired to backup. But, give him his own gig and he will blow you away.
His performances are bombastic. His guitar prowess and high octane vocals have made topnotch axe men like Keith Richards and Eric Clapton lifelong fans.
Q: You have five Grammys, 23 W. C. Handy Blues Awards, a Billboard Magazine Century Award and the Presidential National Medal of Arts, among others. With all of these accolades and so many huge stars as fans. What could possibly give you the blues these days?
A: Well, when I started out they weren’t considered as just blues. This came along in the early 60s or late 50s when the British guys got to playing blues. Then it came back to America. Then they were branding people as blues. Before that, everything was R&B. Buddy Warren wasn’t a blues player. B. B. King wasn’t a blues player. You’d look on B. B. King’s 78 records and 45s and it said, “B. B. King and his orchestra.” I don’t know who did that, man. We all played it and then we got named in the 60s as a blues player. Actually, Eric Clapton was a blues player when he started. Now they don’t see him as a blues player. They see him as a rock star.
Q: That’s a good point. I’m currently reading a biography of Robert Johnson that says something similar to what you’re saying, that “the blues” is really a marketing label applied to the music after the fact. So, is that even a fair assessment—that the blues comes from sadness?
A: I think if you talk to anybody who is involved with music–now my youngest daughter’s into hip-hop, man, and she’s been out there for a while with Ludacris—she has more people that know her than they do me. She came to me for me to help out on her CD one time and I said, “I don’t know how to play it” and she said, “Yes, you do. That’s all we do is play your music. We’re just giving it to people in a different way now.”
Q: You’ve played with Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, B. B. King and Little Walter to name a few. Can you tell me some things that you learned from these legends, whether playing with them or even just hearing them?
A: Well, I taught myself how to play listening to their records. When I couldn’t afford the records, I would have to sit at the radio whenever I had a chance and try to figure out what in the world were they doing. I was listening to Lightnin’ Hopkins, Muddy, B. B. King, T-Bone Walker. I could go on and on. I migrated to Chicago 52 years ago and I got a chance to meet all these great people. When I got a chance to meet ’em, I could play a few licks. So that made me kind of get closer to ’em and I learned a lot from listening to them.
Q: What was it like to meet them? What was it like to actually be part of the historic Chicago scene?
A: Somebody finally let me play in some of the very small blues clubs and they heard about me. They came to me—including B. B. King. B. B. King came here [Chicago] in 1958 and I came here in 1957. He heard about me and I looked out in the audience and I didn’t have no record out. I’m up there playing [the B. B. King song] “Sweet Little Angel” and whatever else he had. I said, [to B. B. King in the audience] “I don’t know what to sing now,” ’cause he’s sitting there. He came to me and said, “Don’t worry. You are the only somebody that can take my place.” I was about 21. Then Muddy Waters came and Little Walter and all of ’em came in because I could play the rhythm that they had made. They would come and say, “Well, if you want it played right, go get Buddy. He don’t run over you. He don’t get in your way.” I was on top of the world when they asked me to come play with them.
Q: I read that you were one of the first, if not the first guitar player to use feedback. Is that true?
A: I found that feedback accidentally one day. We used to call it Blue Monday when we had all our steel mills open 24-7. All the people got off this time of morning. The joint was packed on Monday, and I forgot to turn my guitar off and we had jukeboxes. This woman was dancing with one of these wide skirts on and it hit my guitar. I heard it and just stood there, you know, along with the jukebox. I said, “Oh, I found something! You know? That’s where I got that idea from.
Q: In 1991 there was an explosion. You did the [Grammy-winning] album “Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues” and things really picked up from there. You’ve been on fire ever since.
A: Well, I think whoever you are, if you get one big one, a few people know you and the British guys have helped me a lot too. But I need another one, so I’m working on another one trying to get it now. But it’s hard enough, and it’s harder now then it was in 91 because they don’t play blues on the radio no more.
Q: Are you talking about another new studio album?
A: Yeah. I’m going to the studio in the next couple of months.
Q: What’s the record going to be like?
A: You know, I don’t know. I don’t go in there and say, “I got one.” If I knew that, I’d have more than one hit record. I’m going in there and use the best that I can and hope I can come up with something that people like. I’m hoping I can come up with something that will get some air play. We do get played on the satellite radio, but I used to drive down the street and I could hear Muddy Waters howling. Well, you can’t do that no more.
Q: If somebody buys a ticket to your show, what can they expect to see?
A: There’s nothing but Buddy Guy. I don’t know nothing else. I can’t give you nothing but what I already know. I ain’t coming in to try to change and make stuff different. I got to give you what I got. My mom and dad told me before they died, “Son, don’t be the best in town. Just be the best until the best come around.”