"He was for me what Elvis was probably like for other people... My course was set, and he was my pilot."
- Eric Clapton
Any discussion of Buddy Guy invariably involves a recitation of his colossal musical resume and hard-earned accolades. He's a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, a chief guitar influence to rock titans like Hendrix, Clapton, Beck and Vaughan, a pioneer of Chicago's fabled West Side sound, and a living link to that city's halcyon days of electric blues.
But Guy's incredible story actually begins in Louisiana, not Chicago. Born in 1936 to a sharecropper's family and raised on a plantation near the small town of Lettsworth, located some 140 miles northwest of New Orleans, George "Buddy" Guy was one of five children born to Sam and Isabel Guy. His earliest years were marked by the all-too-familiar characteristics of the Jim Crow South: separate seating on public buses, whites-only drinking fountains, and restaurants where blacks-if even served at all-were sent around back. But the social order of the day notwithstanding, it was tolerance, not bitterness, instilled in the young Buddy Guy.
"There's a lot of stuff my parents kept from us kids," he says. "I know that my mom and dad-and also my grandparents-went through a lot worse than what I did. But they didn't want us knowing nothin' like that. They kept that hid from us because they figured that would just put pressure on us and worry us. They just tried to tell us the good things about life."
Guy's father used to point to examples like heavyweight champion Joe Louis and pioneering major leaguer Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball's long-standing color line in 1947 when Buddy was 11 years old. If you possess the talent, Sam Guy told his children, you couldn't be denied in this world, regardless of your skin color. "Before my parents passed away, they told me, 'Don't be the best in town. Just try to be the best until the best come around.'"
"Don't be the best in town. Just try to be the best until the best come around."
- Buddy's Parents
Buddy was all of seven years old, he recalls, when he fashioned his first makeshift "guitar"-a two-string contraption attached to a piece of wood and secured with his mother's hairpins. There was usually no work to be done on the plantation on Saturday afternoons and Sundays, and the precious free time helped Buddy to develop the very skills that would one day bring him fame. It would be nearly another, decade, however, before Buddy would own an actual guitar-a Harmony acoustic that now proudly sits on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
By late 1955, following a stint pumping gas, the 19-year-old Guy was working as a custodian at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, and earning the princely sum of $28 per week. ("Back then, you could go to the grocery store with just three dollars," Guy recalls with a laugh, "and you needed help to bring the groceries back!") His heart and mind were already firmly attached to the guitar and the blues sounds he heard emanating from the radio, but a future in Chicago, at least then, wasn't in the picture. At that point in his young life, Guy had never even been out of Louisiana.
"Back then, you could go to the grocery store with just three dollars, and you needed help to bring the groceries back!"
- Buddy Guy
But by the summer of 1957, the outlook had changed. "A friend of mine, a guy who was a cook in Chicago, he returned to Louisiana and said, 'Man, you could go to Chicago and do well playing the guitar! You could play at night and work in the daytime!'"
“All I thought about was that I could get the same work at a college in Chicago somewhere that I did at L.S.U.,” Guy remembers. “Instead of $28 per week, I’d be making $68 or $78 a week, and that’s what was really standing out in my head. I didn’t leave Louisiana to be a professional musician. That didn’t even cross my mind. I just wanted to go to work and come in a club at night and watch Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Little Walter and them play the blues like it’s supposed to be done. I thought maybe I could learn something and then go home and play it. I didn’t plan this. I still don’t think I’m good enough to do it.”
“I just wanted watch Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Little Walter and them play the blues like it’s supposed to be done.”
- Buddy Guy
It was September 25, 1957—a date Guy would cite countless times in interviews over the ensuing decades—when he boarded the 8:14 a.m. train in Hammond, Louisiana, arriving in Chicago just before midnight. In an instant, his world had changed. Gone was the rural landscape of Louisiana; in its place was the thriving urban sprawl of a metropolis. It may as well have been a foreign country. “I just got off the train at 63rd and Dorchester, looked up at the moon and said, ‘Which way should I go?’”
A Blues Apprenticeship
Within months, Guy had taken up residency in Chicago’s fabled 708 Club. His first appearance followed a set by Otis Rush and an oft-repeated story about a hungry Guy, broke and on the cusp of returning to Louisiana, getting salami sandwiches from none other than Waters himself, who’d arrived at the club in a red Chevrolet. It was the first time Guy had ever seen the blues giant, who happened to live nearby.
“He throwed down that loaf of bread and that salami—that was the lunch we used to have in the cotton fields. I never will forget that, man. People were sayin’, ‘That’s the Mud!’ Nobody called him Muddy Waters. When he asked me if I was hungry, and he said who he was, I said, ‘Well, if you’re Muddy Waters, I’m not hungry no more.’ Just meeting him filled me up.”
“‘Well, if you’re Muddy Waters, I’m not hungry no more.’ Just meeting him filled me up.”
The great Waters was 21 years Guy’s senior, but the younger man quickly earned the respect of the long-established star. By the early 1960s, Guy was a first-call session man at Chess Records. In addition, he began to cut a considerable catalog of sides under his own name. Many fans and critics have lauded Guy’s singles output from 1960 to 1967, but the artist has never given them the satisfaction.
“I was always coached,” Guy says. “I didn’t know any damn thing. When Willie Dixon and other people came in, if they thought I was something new that they could cash in on, I didn’t have no say-so. I was almost told how to play the guitar with the session going on. I didn’t have the freedom. I never was free on those recordings.”
That’s not to say there weren’t high points. As a session man, he backed the likes of Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson. One landmark recording backing Waters, Folk Singer, was cut in September of 1963 and released in the spring of 1964.
Wrote producer Ralph Bass in the album’s original liner notes of the “search” for a second guitarist to back Waters: “Buddy Guy, a young blues singer in his own right, was first choice and it is amazing for so young a musician as Buddy to be able to fit in with Muddy.”
The Legend Grows
By the decade’s end, Guy was staking out new creative territory, cutting albums like 1967′s I Left My Blues in San Francisco, his last effort for Chess, and 1968′s A Man and the Blues for Vanguard. In the process, Guy, the purveyor of a stinging, attacking electric guitar style and wild, impassioned vocals, was capturing the minds of a growing number of rock musicians. “He was for me what Elvis was probably like for other people,” Clapton remembered at Guy’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2005. “My course was set, and he was my pilot.”
The were no fewer than 20 releases under Guy’s name during the 1970s and ’80s, the best of them collaborations with the late harp master Junior Wells. But by the time the Eighties became the Nineties, Guy amazingly didn’t even have a domestic record deal.
But life, as Buddy has long since learned, is loaded with unpredictable twists and turns—and Guy’s life was about to enter a new stratosphere of commercial success. His first three albums for Silvertone—the 1991 comeback smash Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues (reissued in 2005), 1993′s Feels Like Rain and 1994′s Slippin’ In—all earned Grammy Awards. Suddenly, it was cool to like Buddy Guy. For Guy, it was like being a new artist.
“Who knows?” Guy asks of his resurgence. “In my earlier days, if I’d have been too wild, I might not be here talking to you now. I’m very religious, and I think God’s got his eyes on all of us, and he’s got a time for all of us. When it happens it happens, and if it don’t it don’t.
“I had got it in the back of my mind that I’d just keep playing, because I felt that I hadn’t had a chance to really express myself with my singing and my guitar. Nobody would listen to me, but I wasn’t gonna stop playin’. So they gave me a chance to do Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues, and when it came out, they told me it was on Billboard–and with a bullet. I didn’t even know what the hell that was, man!
But I guess somebody must have been listening to me.”
Guy’s legend has only grown throughout the Nineties and the early 21st century. Subsequent releases like the eminently satisfying Live: The Real Deal (1996), the daring Heavy Love (1998) and 2001′s Sweet Tea have demonstrated that Guy, while firmly ensconced in his blues roots, has always tried to keep his music looking forward—even at the risk of alienating lovers of traditional blues sounds. And now, the story continues with Bring ‘Em In, which finds the 71-year-old Guy trading licks with the likes of Carlos Santana (“I Put a Spell On You”) and John Mayer (on the Otis Redding-penned “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember”) and his first ever box set “Can’t Quit the Blues” which has an incredible collection of material, some of it never before released, spanning 50 years of Guy’s career over three CDs and one DVD.
Internationally acclaimed, a Grammy winner and now an inductee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Guy has firmly cemented a blues legacy that places him squarely in the company of his heroes who came before. “This all reminds me of something my mother used to tell me,” Guy says of his current-day status as a music icon. “She said, ‘If you got the flowers for me, son, give ‘em to me now so I can smell ‘em, ‘cause I’m not gonna smell ‘em when you put ‘em on the casket.’
"I’m gettin’ to smell a few now"
- Buddy Guy