Happy 85th Birthday Buddy Guy! An Interview with the great man, who was the first musician I ever profiled.
Buddy turns 85 today, and remains a tightly coiled, emotionally intense wonder. Let's celebrate this last man standing.
Buddy Guy turns 85 today. He has a special place in my heart. He was the first musician I ever interviewed, in 1985 for The Michigan Daily, my college newspaper. He mesmerized me with his tales, stories of growing up in Louisiana, moving to Chicago, struggling to develop his own voice on the guitar, and the crucial tutelage of blues icons like Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson and Howlin’ Wolf. He described his hesitancy to give up his day job working as a car mechanic to go on the road as a solo act. And he bemoaned his then-current career straits, which found him label-less and robbed of The Checkerboard, his Southside Chicago blues club, by unscrupulous partners.
The next night I saw him playing at Rick’s American Cafe, a cramped campus watering hole where I worked, and was completely hooked. His powerful charisma, demonic intensity and edgy psychedelic blues playing made me a true believer. I understood why the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck had for so long sung his praises and was baffled about why his career seemed so stalled. I was already a pretty serious blues fan - that’s why I did the interview in the first place - but this show hooked me truly and completely. Before that, I was covering a wide swath of arts and features, with a focus on literature that saw me interview Tom Wolfe, Allen Ginsberg, Bernard Malamud and Joseph Heller. After talking to Buddy, my path was re-set. I think I felt like I could be more myself interviewing musicians. I was always kind of faking it with the great men of letters.
I’m happy to say that many things have changed for Buddy since we first crossed paths. He’s still the blues’ most edgy, go-for-broke player, but his celebrity fans are no longer singing his praises in the dark. In 1991, he finally made his long-delayed splash with the star-studded album Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues, and he’s now a well-established entity, having played at the White House, been honored by the Kennedy Center and just this week featured on PBS’ American masters. His downtown Chicago club Buddy Guy’s Legends is a Windy City fixture, and he now plays sold-out theaters and festivals rather than small bars. Guy’s intensity still bils and both his singing and guitar playing are infused with a tense dynamics that keep you on the edge of your seat. Below is my 2018 Guitar World interview.
Buddy Guy is in many ways the last man standing: a link to the titanic Chicago bluesmen of the 50s and 60s who electrified the music and in the process birthed rock and roll. At 82, Guy is still a bundle of caged, coiled energy, emitting a feeling of tension, like a cobra ready to strike at any moment. He’s a master of dynamics who brings songs up and down, punctuating low volume, cleanly articulated Strat runs with bursts of overdriven clusters of notes, flurries of fury. And his voice is just as powerful of an instrument, displaying all the same subtleties and strength. His performances have you leaning forward in your chair to catch every note before blowing you onto your heels with a burst of muscular energy.
You can hear all of it on Guy’s new album, The Blues Is Alive And Well, which features guest appearances by Jeff Beck, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. “The love these guys have for him is readily apparent,” says Tom Hambridge, who produced, played drums and wrote or co-wrote 13 of the 15 songs on The Blues Is Alive And Well. “They all basically say they will drop anything they are doing to work with Buddy. It’s not fake.”
These blues-based rock stars and their peers spent decades singing Guy’s praises while the bluesman was scuffling without an American record deal, despite having been a prime influence on Beck, Richards, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and many others, as well as a direct link to Muddy Waters, Son House, Sonny Boy Williamson and other musical giants, all of whom he recorded with.
Guy finally got his shot again in 1991 with the release of his Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues album and he hasn’t looked back, assuming his rightful place as a guitar legend while touring and recording consistently and running his Chicago club Buddy Guy’s Legends.
“Buddy’s the hardest working guy,” says Hambridge, who has produced Guy’s last five albums. “He’ll always stay in the studio until we’ve got it nailed. He always plays a song all the way through and is old school in that way but he’s open to everything around him. Everything’s on the table, which is amazing for a guy his age – and he seems to be getting more and more open.”
“I don't want to be like a sewing machine and make the same stitch every time, man. I make mistakes and then I make you forget about it. “
AP: You were the first musician I ever interviewed, in 1985. You’ve come a long way since then sir!
BUDDY GUY: Hey, thank you, and that’s nice of you to say. But the blues still needs all the help they can get, man, because it's being ignored by radio. The AM stations used to play jazz, blues, gospel, whatever the disc jockey decided to play - now you don't hear that. I just love to hear Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters, or T-Bone and you can’t do that unless you got satellite radio.
Well that's true, but at least we have things like satellite. And your personal standing is a lot better. Back then, guys like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Clapton were talking about you as their favorite guitarist which kept your name out there, but you didn’t have a record deal and were playing little joints.
Yeah, that's true. I think they helped me more than anything else. So many people have said to me, “I didn't know who you were until I heard what Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton or Jeff Beck said.” I'm like, “Yeah, okay.” You know, I was playing blues before those guys got a famous name for themselves. That's a part of this business and I'm not angry about that but we all should have a chance to be heard. We owe a lot of thanks to the British guys who helped all of us, coming in and telling everyone who Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson were.
White Americans thought the British guys were doing something new. When I came to Chicago 61 years ago, if a white face walked into the club, we figured it was a policeman and weren’t happy to see them. They would take my 40 cent pint of wine and pour it out and we ain't got another 40 cents. Then I come to find out it's Michael Bloomfield or Paul Butterfield – those young white musicians started coming by, the first white fans we saw in there, listening to every note.
You just turned 82 and put out a great new album. Why is it important to you to still put out new music in this era instead of just touring?
I dedicated my life to this music. I went to sleep and woke up and a lot of the greats who I learned everything from was no longer here. When we were all in good health we sat around having a drink and said that whoever be here when the rest is gone, please try to keep the blues alive and well. You don't think much about that when you’re laughing about it, but all of a sudden there it is. We lost B.B. King three years ago and Muddy Waters been gone over 30 years. Like my mother told me once: "If you don't want to leave here, you better not come here.” So I understand that, but I made a pledge and I don't know nothing else to do but play music.
Most of us do it till we drop, but I feel like I'm cheating if I can't give you 100 percent. I'm 82, and I don't know what's gonna be there when I'm 83, 84, 85 so I’m going strong while I can! I did watch B.B. King very carefully. He was beginning to sing the same song three and four times a night, and everybody was afraid to tell him. I'm telling my people right now, “Don't do me that way. Just look at me and say ‘Buddy, you just sung ‘Damn Right I got the Blues’ three times tonight.’” My friend and old partner Junior Wells had the same problem.
That’s very sad, and a lot of people felt at the end, B.B. should have retired from touring. But I took my son when he was 13 because I wanted him to see B.B.. He was diminished but he sang great and played some sweet licks and it was wonderful to spend an evening in his company.
Well, it's an honor to watch him and it would have been okay with me even if he sang the same song all night long. Whatever he did was worth watching. B.B. King had all the special effects he needed in his left hand. He could vibrate that left hand better than anybody that ever did it. But when you get old, you don't have what you had when you was 24, 25 years old. I used to listen to a song one time and I had it in my head. Now I've got to study that God damn thing for three, four weeks before I can remember.
Buddy, no one is sitting in your audience thinking that's an old man up there. You have the energy, charisma, and power of a young man. Do you get that from the audience? From the music?
To be honest, I don't know. If I look out there and see somebody with a frown on their face I know I have work to do. There's so many angry people in the world today and when I see somebody smiling when I play a few good licks, I think, “You might a been angry, but I made you forget about it for those minutes that I played.” Music makes you forget about anger sometimes.
Your guitar playing is often pretty aggressive. Is that fueled in part by working out your own anger? Maybe you're not only making the audience feel better, but yourself as well.
Well I feel much better by making somebody else lose their anger. I'm not angry at anybody. I wake up everyday and wonder what's wrong with the world. Some people are angry and don't even know what the hell they angry about. I save it for the stage.
We have a lot of problems but you were born in a time and place where you weren’t even considered a full person!
Yeah! And I was down there in Louisiana recently 'cause they named part of a highway for me. Think of that! My daddy was a sharecropper. We didn't have machinery; we did it all by hand and they’d give us whatever they thought was just enough to eat to live, live to eat. Well, the parents of the people whose land we lived on came to my highway dedication and they started crying. Don’t forget where you came from.
Given all that, how big a deal was it for you and B.B. to be in the White House playing for President Obama in 2012?
That’s kind of hard to even explain. When I left Louisiana I was using an outhouse and to be in the White House playing for the President and First Lady, that was one of the unbelievable times of my life. Someone said that if we sing “Sweet Home Chicago,” we probably could get him to join in. B.B. and I looked at each other, but I thought that if I call him and he don't come, I'm gonna feel like crawling under a table and don't never come out. Sure enough, he made some speeches about us and we was hitting “Sweet Home Chicago,” I said, “Wait a minute Mr. President. Could you join us?” And he did. He called me back there to play a second time, looked at me and said, “I think I might have to put you on salary.” This was the President told me this!
Tom Hambridge said that you are open for anything. Have you always been so open in the studio, to trying different approaches?
Oh yeah. You never know. My eyes and ears are open to jazz and especially gospel, which was the big headliner down in the South before B.B. and T-Bone Walker showed us how to bend and shake the strings. People like Sam Cooke, Mahalia Jackson and the Soul Stirrers were it. Then B.B. come out with “Three O' Clock in the Morning” and changed guitar and I had to learn how to play a few notes and bend a string like he do. Les Paul and Leo Fender made those guitars be heard by electrifying them.
And you're somebody who really took advantage of the electrification, doing things like bending above pitch and using feedback.
I had played with Muddy and them and was happy just sitting in the corner playing rhythm for them cats but I wanted to do my own thing, too. When I was turning left getting that feedback, the guys at Chess went, “What the hell was that? Don't nobody want to hear that.” All of a sudden you put on a Cream or Jimi Hendrix record and hear what I had been doing all the time. Willie Dixon came to my house and said, “The British are coming, and you been trying to give us this ever since you been here. And we was too fucking dumb to hear what you had.” Excuse my language.
Did that make you feel satisfied that you were right, or angry that no one had let you do it earlier?
I was brought up to believe what's for you gonna come for you. What's not for you, you not gonna get it anyway. I know guitar players that can play way better than I can, no doubt about it. Some of the things I did back in the day with Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, Sonny Boy carry me today. They were like the Henry Fords. Henry Ford been dead how many years, but his name is still on the car.
Your early playing had a very distinct clean Strat sound.
The first time I went to California in 1967, I played the Avalon Ballroom with Jefferson Airplane and all of ‘em and everybody wanted to be the headliner and they said they had a problem so I said, “Man, I came to play. Call me out now.” Well, after that no one wanted to play after me. That’s the truth. I wasn't introduced to hippies, so I'm thinking, “What's this?” And I just went out and played and when I finished, everybody asked, "What you got in that amplifier?" Whatever Leo Fender put in there!
All I knew was I bought a Bassman that was about to fall to pieces; it was rusted and locked at the volume, treble, and bass. I didn't have nothing but an on and off switch. No one’s ever been able to quite replicate that sound. I was playing it wide open and the distortion and everything came out there. No pedals or special effects. Just play your amp, man, and they was giving you exactly what you wanted. My old Strat got stolen but I still have the amp.
How did you come up with the idea of playing “Mary Had a Little Lamb?” It was such an original idea to make a nursery rhyme into a funky blues.
I was playing Bill Graham’s place in New York [the Fillmore East] in 1968 and I just had the groove going and people were digging it but it wasn’t a song. I wanted to keep it going so I just decide to say “Mary had a little lamb whose fleece was white as snow” and the people start hollering and screaming. I said, “Shit, I better record this.”
So you were just winging it?
Yeah, that was just off the top of my head. Even now, every time I get on stage I tell my band, just keep your eyes and ears open 'cause I'm gonna try to please everybody who come out to see me tonight. That’s hard to do, but I tell you what, no one’s gonna be able to say I didn’t give them every damn thing I had. That's all I can give. Stevie Ray Vaughn did a good job with the song, too.
Every time I see you, I think about what an interesting gig it would be to be in your band because you go wherever you feel like, switch songs, change tempos, hold a chord to talk, bring it down, bring it up. Are you gust following your instincts?
Right. They just sit on that groove and know: Buddy gonna do that thing, just keep your eyes and ears open 'cause he gonna hit some licks. If I miss a lick and make a hole, they fill it up. I don't want to be like a sewing machine and make the same stitch every time, man. I make mistakes and then I make you forget about it. Sometimes I miss a string, especially if I'm walking around the audience and someone touches me or wants to have a conversation in the middle of a solo. Sometimes it works, sometime it doesn't.
On the song “Blue No More,” you played a Gibson hollow body. Do you like playing different guitars after playing the Strat for so long?
We were looking for different tones and I played a 355 that was in the studio. I came to Chicago with a Gibson Les Paul and they stole from that from me in Chicago 'cause I didn’t understand how pawnshops worked up here. You had to be quicker than down in Louisiana. I loved hollow body guitars too but what made me go and love with the Fender, I couldn't afford another guitar cracking up. I was on tour of Africa and my Strat blew off the top of a car, and it was scratched up, but played fine. So I stuck with that Strat!
Alan Paul’s last two books – Texas Flood: The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan and One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band – debuted in the New York Times Non Fiction Hardcover Best Seller’s List. His first book was Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues and Becoming a Star in Beijing, about his experiences raising a family in Beijing and touring China with a popular original blues band. It was optioned for a movie by Ivan Reitman’s Montecito Productions. He is also a guitarist and singer who fronts two bands, Big in China and Friends of the Brothers, the premier celebration of the Allman Brothers Band.