'I will do anything possible to keep the blues alive," declares legendary singer/guitarist Buddy Guy. It's the last thing he says during a 25-minute phone interview, in which he good-naturedly rambles between telling old stories and fretting over the future of the blues.
Radio has turned a deaf ear to the music, he says; blues is only delivered by word of mouth. "A blues record got to make it on its own," he says. "Chess Records [the fabled Chicago blues label] used to call me and say, 'We gonna break this record' — see to it that [radio] played the hell out of it. Kids now go into a record store and ask for something different, no one's gonna point 'em to Buddy Guy."
The flamboyant performer — the living bridge between such past greats as Muddy Waters, Lightnin' Hopkins, Howlin' Wolf et al, and today's Strat stranglers — is 67, fit, vibrant and looking to carry the blues torch for at least the near future. But what happens after he dies, or becomes too infirm to perform?
"It worries me," he says. "'Til my kids got 21, they didn't know who I was. They didn't know shit about me until they walked into my club [Buddy Guy's Legends in Chicago]. They cried. Black kids ain't into it. They hear Ludacris, Jay Z. Young girls and young boys don't wanna play no blues."
That's why blues fans should genuflect to Buddy Guy.
He grew up a country boy near Baton Rouge, La. The family's sharecropper home didn't have electricity. At age 15, he had a battery radio ("when it started raining you couldn't hear shit no way"), and would postpone sandlot baseball games whenever blues came on his transistor box. He soaked up Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker, B.B King, Son House, John Lee Hooker and others. "I was about 16 the first time I ever saw electric guitar," he says. "Up to that point it was acoustic stuff at Saturday night fish fries. Lightnin' Slim came with his electric and I thought it was a joke. It blew my mind."
Like so many other Southern blacks after World War II, Guy migrated to Chicago, not to land factory work like most, but to break into the music biz. In 1957, the Windy City was a hoppin' blues town, tough for a young newcomer to gain a rep. He looked around and saw a lot of the city's elite musicians sitting down during their sets. "These guys could outplay me, but they couldn't outdo me," Guy says with a chuckle.
Guy's guitar battle at the Blue Flame club in 1958, where he bested hotshots Otis Rush and Magic Sam, is the stuff of blues lore. "I remember seein' Guitar Slim in New Orleans and he was wild and crazy," Guy recounts. "So I get to the battle and it was 2 feet of snow outside, and I had this 100-foot cord. I brought the guitar outside in the snow, came back with snow up to my knees. I was doing the wildest type of playin'."
Most accounts have Guy playing the slow blues "Sweet Little Angel" in the second slot, where he threw his guitar on the floor and stomped on it, and played it after he hung it from the rafters.
He was declared the winner, his first step toward becoming a legend.
Forty-five years later, Guy released his current album, Blues Singer (Silvertone), an all-acoustic rendering of blues standards like "Hard Time Killing Floor," "I Love the Life I Live," "Crawlin' Kingsnake" and others. The performances place emphasis on Guy's still formidable singing, whether it's his ghostly falsetto, lusty belt or measured moan.
The artistic model for Blues Singer was a 1963 Muddy Waters album called Folk Singer. Leonard Chess wanted to capitalize on the folk boom of the time and directed Waters to gather a bunch of his old Mississippi mates and cut some down-home country blues. Instead, Waters called in Guy, then known for his burgeoning guitar pyrotechnics. Chess was apoplectic. "Motherfucker, I told you I wanted somebody who could play this old shit," Chess bellowed at Waters. After 45 minutes, the label head was dumbstruck at Guy's facility with vintage acoustic style.
Guy and Chess maintained a prickly relationship. The guitarist was beginning to use effects and feedback, and fill up space with a lot of notes that landed outside standard blues practice. "I'd come in for a session and be tunin' up and [Chess] would say 'cut that shit out' when I'd turn up my amp," Guy says. "Before he died, he told [bassist/ songwriter] Willie Dixon, 'Bring that motherfucker down here.' I showed up and Chess says, 'I want you to kick me in my ass.' He put on some Cream and Hendrix. 'We're the dumbest motherfuckers. You been trying to tell us this shit works and now these motherfuckers making millions. He said, 'From now on you got freedom at Chess.'"