Until recently, George "Buddy" Guy might easily have been called "the greatest unknown guitarist in the world," but on the heels of one of the smokin'-est blues albums in memory and nearly forty years of live and studio work... well, it seems that Buddy Guy is finally an overnight success!
Born in Louisiana in 1936, he was already gigging in local blues bars at the tender age of 17. A few years later, he relocated to Chicago in order to better showcase his talents and "take on all comers." Quickly befriended by Muddy Waters, he soon made his mark as the most in-demand guitarist in Chicago, recording with the likes of Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson and nearly every bluesman of the era whose name has been elevated to legendary status. "Whenever somebody would make an album, they'd always say 'just get me Buddy,'" he recalls."They knew when they called me that I would come in and do what they wanted, which was to play good but not get in their way."
The experience of playing with such a wide variety of talent helped define his own creativity by not locking him into any one style. As one might expect, Guy became anxious to make a name as something more than a session guitarist. "I was thinking all the time I was in the studio that I'd someday have to get a style of my own, and all of a sudden all these super rock friends of mine were saying 'Buddy, I wanna play like you!' Shit, it took me forty years for someone to tell me I did have a style!"
Like every legend before him, he hit the road. In his most renowned incarnation as half of the Buddy Guy/Junior Wells duo, Guy made a fair living but was never really able to expand beyond small halls and nightclubs. He remembers, "That's hard 'cause you've got to play the house twice and we were getting cut short on the sets. I finally started feeling it 'cause people started saying, 'Oh, they're getting old, now they're not gonna play long.' People would say, 'Buddy, why won't you play?' I'd say that I wanted to play, but the owners were saying we had to cut it at forty or forty-five minutes between me and Junior.
"Now, that's not enough for the fans who think enough of you to come out and spend a couple of bucks. You're supposed to give them their money's worth. That's part of what's wrong with our society now. Nobody's getting what they pay for. We had to go our separate ways because I wanna play two hours, three hours a night, even four hours if necessary. And that's working fine for me now."
Since becoming a solo artist, Guy has played every major blues festival on four continents, opened a very successful club in Chicago, earned praise from peers, fans and critics alike... and yet somehow managed to remain criminally under-recorded. The few sessions caught for posterity were more often than not of poor quality, mainly due to a lack of empathy from the people responsible for the recordings. "I never got a chance to play my own ideas," elaborates the guitarist. "Throughout my career, I was in the studio doing the playing, but the producers in charge of making the records pretty much controlled everything. I lost a lot by not saying, 'Forget you. I'm playing Buddy or nothing at all.' I never did do that. Some guy would tell me to sound just like any of the other people playing, and I knew that just wasn't gonna make it, but I never did anything about it."
Finally, after years of lamenting the fact that he never had the chance to do the record that was inside him, longtime admirers Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck came to the rescue. "I went to Europe to get noticed again and got with some friends who were pulling for me. They put me in a room and told me not to play anything but Buddy and nothing else. Well... I got a few good licks out of it!"
Talk about understatement! The sessions resulted in Damn Right I've Got The Blues, an album Buddy Guy says he literally waited for twenty years to make. Beck, Clapton and Mark Knopfler are among the luminaries who lend a hand, with Beck making perhaps the most memorable contribution on a sizzling rendition of the classic "Mustang Sally." For the most part, though, it's the stuff that blues history is made of - a supremely talented guitarist just letting it fly. Barely stifling his pride, Buddy notes, "I keep hearing good things about my album, which has never happened before. I don't know... if I keep hearing all this, I think I'm gonna start getting excited." Is the end result everything he had hoped for? "To be honest, I know it's good but now I've gone and gotten superstitious. I refuse to listen to it for a while because I don't want to put a jinx on it. You can't go counting your chickens before they hatch. Tell you what, though... I figure in about ten more days, I'm gonna get a six-pack, grab my wife, head to the basement and, well, I'll get my enjoyment out of that record then!"
One might think that after such a long struggle for recognition (it's been over twelve years since his last album), Guy might become disillusioned with the music, but it simply isn't so. "I just don't want to let the blues die," he declares proudly, "and if I can have some hand in that, I'll be damned happy. Of course, after twelve years I was getting a little shaky. I was getting kind of nervous, but I wasn't gonna quit playing. I still had my fans inviting me to New York or Europe or Japan or Australia, and I was thinking that I could help keep it all alive by that means, by playing for a lot of people. I'm not afraid to tell anyone, 'If you don't want to like me, don't come see me,' because I intend to make you like me. That's what I've always tried to do in person. I try to blow you outta there if you come to see me. After Eric made the quote in one of the magazines that he thought I was the best guitar player alive - which I don't accept - then I felt a little pressure on me whenever I went out to play. But I've had kids come up to me after I play and tell me, 'You know, Eric didn't lie.' That feels good, and it's just people like that that keep you playing no matter what."
It seems a sure bet, then, that as long as there's a stage, a guitar, a few fans and people like Buddy Guy, the blues will never die. Characteristically, he's quick to point out that he's not the only one to think like that. "I think that we've got to thank people like the late Stevie Ray Vaughn and Bonnie Raitt, Robert Cray, Eric and Jeff, because you know whatever they do is gonna be good and gonna get listened to. That helps everyone. That keeps the blues alive." So in a field seemingly filled to bursting with talent, what does a young practitioner of the blues need to know to succeed?
"Just like anything else, you gotta work hard at it. Don't ever think you're so good that you don't have to play! People want to see what you can do. I still compare the music scene to an athlete. You can have a superstar, but some other guy can be tearing it up while everybody's waiting around on this superstar. You can't stand around, because some other cat's gonna come along who will win a lot of games, you know? I think you gotta get out there and show 110% of yourself. If you believe in yourself and can reach down for something extra to make the downs you're bound to hit into ups, you'll be just as hot as you wanna be."
Buddy was an easy man to interview. He was personable, fun, and very very humble, and also had a ton of great stories about the myriad of blues people he had worked with. As I recall, my interview with him went on for well over an hour, and I sincerely wished that I had been given more column inches to fill. I also wish I remembered at least some of the stories he told so I could share them here. Upon hanging up, I had an immediate sense of being grateful for having spoken to a man who was a living, walking history book and was genuinely pleased to share that history.
Of course, I had to ask him about Eric Clapton's quote ("Buddy Guy is by far and without a doubt the best guitar player alive... If you see him in person, the way he plays is beyond anyone. Total freedom of spirit.") and it really, truly seemed to embarrass him. He asked as a favor that I not dote on that in the article (understanding that it needed to be mentioned). He said more than once that Clapton was a genuinely nice person and was too generous with his praise in that quote.
The photo is from the back cover of the CD booklet for Damn Right I've Got The Blues. It's the photo that was used to accompany the article when it was published. It was unusual to use a photo from a CD booklet, but we had two reasons for it - first, of course, it's a great photo... and second, the promotional photo we got from the record company was so badly damaged in the mail it was unusable! Thank the stars for good scanning skills...