Three days after Buddy Guy closed down the Blues Tent with a blistering set on the final day of the New Orleans Jazz Fest, he’s back home in his sweet Chicago.
“I just got in last night, but I’m feeling pretty good this morning,” the 78-year-old blues legend says by telephone. “I did have a couple days off in my hometown with my sister, and they fed me like hell down there in Louisiana, so I’m feeling all right. The old fella just keeps on rollin’.”
Renowned for his raw vocals and high-voltage guitar playing on his beloved Fender Stratocaster, this “old fella’s” incendiary style, which revolutionized the use of feedback, distortion and extreme string-bending, has left a lasting influence on everyone from Jimmy Page to John Mayer. Guy has won 34 Blues Music Awards – the most of any artist – and six Grammy Awards. He’s a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, was awarded the Presidential National Medal of Arts, and at a performance at the White House, even persuaded President Obama to join him on a chorus of “Sweet Home Chicago.” And he’s not done yet. Not even close.
“When I play my guitar and see people smiling and clapping their hands, I know that I made somebody forget a problem,” Guy says. “Music speaks in all languages, and I try to use my music as a happy moment because everybody who God put on this earth sooner or later has problems. Making people forget, even for a couple hours when I’m playing, that’s what keeps me going.”
A pioneer of Chicago’s fabled West Side sound, Guy will be forever associated with the Windy City blues scene, but his story actually begins in Louisiana. He is one of five children born in a sharecropper’s family near the small town of Lettsworth, 140 miles northwest of New Orleans. He was 7 years old when he created a makeshift guitar using two strings, a piece of wood and his mother’s hairpins.
“My parents were so poor I couldn’t get no instruments, so I just played anything that made noise,” Guy says. “I used to take a hair comb and a piece of paper and put my lips on it and got a noise there.”
When Guy did get a guitar, he was immediately influenced by blues musicians who were all uniquely expressive stylists and showmen.
“There was a guitar player called Guitar Slim (Eddie Jones) who was very wild and crazy with the guitar,” he says. “And B.B. King could play so smooth he didn’t have to put on a show. I wanted to play like B.B., but act like Guitar Slim. I got attention by acting wild.”
Guy spent a year and a half playing with John “Big Poppa” Tilley’s band in Baton Rouge, La., developing his own style, typified by a fierce staccato attack and tense single-note solos. In 1957, he headed to Chicago, where he would permanently alter the direction of the instrument.
He then landed at Chess Records, where from 1959-68 he played on sessions for Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Koko Taylor and others. Notably, he performed on Taylor’s “Wang Dang Doodle” and Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor.” Another highlight of his Chess tenure was “When My Left Eye Jumps,” a menacing slow blues penned by Willie Dixon. But Leonard Chess, the label’s founder, refused to record Guy’s own style.
“I would turn the amplifier up and use the feedback, and every time I did they’d run me out of the studio,” Guy says. “He would say nobody wants to hear that.”
The British Invasion, led by blues-influence bands such as The Beatles, Rolling Stones and others, proved Chess wrong. Guy left the label in 1968 for Vanguard Records, where he cut the classic albums A Man and His Blues and Hold That Plane.
“They call it the British Invasion, but the British would say there wasn’t no invasion, we had the music all the time and just didn’t know it,” Guy says. “We have to thank the British guys who came here and heard T-Bone Walker and Muddy and B.B. and started exploring. The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart – all of those kids were playing hard-core blues when they first came out. That’s when America woke up. “
Although he was revered in music circles for three decades, Guy’s mainstream breakthrough didn’t happen until 1991 when Eric Clapton invited him to be part of his “24 Nights” all-star guitar lineup at London’s Royal Albert Hall. The exposure led to a new recording contract with Silvertone Records and the release of Guy’s landmark album Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues.
“It meant the world to me, really,” Guy says. “I’m a student, just like them, and just like the young kids who come along now. I wanted to learn from Muddy, B.B. King, T-Bone Walker, I could go on and on. I still don’t think I’m as good a guitar player as some of the guys who didn’t take off as a leader, like Wayne Bennett, Matt Murphy and all of those guys.”
Still, in 2013, Guy released Rhythm & Blues, his 27th studio album. It is his fourth album to reach No. 1 on Billboard’s Blues Albums chart since 2001, led by heartfelt manifestos such as “I Go by Feel,” “I Came Up Hard” and “All That Makes Me Happy is the Blues.” Guy hints that he’s been playing a couple of those tunes in his live show, but cautions that when he hits the stage lately anything still goes.
“I give them two or three off my latest album, one or two off the old album and if you want to hear some Muddy Waters or a few Jimi Hendrix licks or some Eric Clapton licks, I’ll do that, too,” Guy says. “I might even take requests.”
Thinking back to his sister’s home cooking, he pauses before adding, “I’m just like the gumbo from Louisiana, I guess. I put everything in there that tastes good.”
A version of this article originally appeared in The Herald-Palladium newspaper of Saint Joseph, Mich.