Buddy Guy keeps the blues alive
Editor’s note: As of the printing deadline for this issue, Buddy Guy’s Saturday concert at the House of Blues was schedule to proceed. But we encourage you to call ahead before traveling to the concert.
Once was the time Buddy Guy represented youth in the blues. The Louisiana native was 11 years younger than B.B. King and 19 years younger than John Lee Hooker. Compared to the masters he played with at the Chicago-based Chess label in the 1960s, he was 26 years younger than Howlin’ Wolf and 23 younger than Muddy Waters.
Since the blues has no real retirement age, these men performed until they were dead. And Guy, at 81, shows no sign of carrying his career any differently. But because he’s a shade younger than other masters of the form, he’s become the last man standing.
That’s not to say there aren’t old, venerable blues players still working weekends in Chicago, Memphis, Baton Rouge, St. Louis, New Orleans, all over Mississippi and Houston. But when B.B. King died in May 2015, Guy was left alone among players who could hold their own in a juke joint, on a cruise ship, at a European festival and at a large concert hall.
“He really, truly is the last man standing,” says Jimbo Mathus, musician and blues enthusiast, who played on two of Guy’s best recordings. “Nothing against anybody else, because plenty of great players are still out there working. But he’s the last one who has that heritage, that lineage from the old cotton-picking days who can get people out for a big show on a Saturday night. He’s a master of American art, and as far as the blues go, he’s the last one. And he seemed destined for it.
“He told me he had a dream when he was a small child. He was standing in front of a huge audience. This was before he ever had a guitar or knew anything about them. He just knew he was a guy everybody was watching and listening to. So he had this prophetic dream about his whole life at this young age. Buddy Guy is like a holy man to me.”
Guy’s relative youth, compared to the form’s other canonized masters, has caused some marginalization for a guitarist and performer whose influence on rock ‘n’ roll was vast. Calling a member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and a Kennedy Center honoree “underrated” is probably overselling Guy as an underdog. But a prominent music critic once referred to him as a “blues subpatriarch,” so his standing has been questioned.
If Guy wasn’t on the front end of the first and second wave of blues, his youth nevertheless positioned him to have enormous sway over an impressionable group of guitar-obsessed Brits in the 1960s. He served both as portal to the past and also living proof of a decades-spanning apprenticeship system.
Guy’s approach to guitar playing may have hindered his prospects as a recording artist in the ’60s. He was a dramatic player, emphasizing bright bursts of distortion by setting them up with coiled silences.
In inducting him into the Rock Hall, Eric Clapton recognized the age disparity between Guy and the other blues greats. But he still referred to his hero as “earth shattering … the hardcore reality of what the blues is supposed to sound and look like.”
That style is audible in the playing of all sorts of ’60s guitar gods: Clapton, Jimmy Page, Peter Green and particularly Jimi Hendrix, who increased the voltage of Guy’s live-wire approach. Guy could run 12-bar blues like any other seasoned player, but his playing also veered into frenzied territory associated with the avant garde.
“He just had a different agenda than other cats,” Mathus says, “as far as what he heard and what he wanted to do. He wanted to separate himself from the pack. Leonard Chess said his music was ‘noise.’ And he could get way out there even in that circle of players. But it’s why he stands out.”
Chess’ distaste for Guy’s more abrasive tone played some part in Guy’s more muted renown. He saw to it that Guy’s wings were clipped, preventing his freer inclinations from taking over. Which meant Guy didn’t get around to making his finest recording - one on which he sounded exhilarated in reclaiming his Southern roots - until he was 65 years old. But “Sweet Tea” resulted of decades of steeping blues.
Guy’s name is tightly associated with Chicago-based blues, though, like many of its other practitioners, he migrated to the city from farther south.
The Lettsworth, La., native fell under the spell of Eddie “Guitar Slim” Jones, 10 years Guy’s elder. Guy started working his fingers on a diddly bow and listening to music out of Shreveport and Baton Rouge before taking a shot on Chicago, where he fell in with Chess acts like Muddy Waters and also began a fruitful collaboration with Junior Wells, which is about the time Guy captured the attention of a generation of young blues-minded Englishmen.
Through the ’70s and ’80s, Guy never stopped performing and recording, though the recordings didn’t fully represent the work of a master. Guy rebooted in 1991 with “Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues,” which served as an introduction for some and a reintroduction to others. His playing was full of spit and fire, though his choices from the blues/R&B songbook were full of familiarity.
But producer Dennis Herring dragged Guy to Herring’s Mississippi studio, surrounded him with some young, hungry accompanists and threw some songs by Mississippi Hill Country blues great Junior Kimbrough at him.
“Sweet Tea” opened coyly, a quiet acoustic song with Guy’s whispered voice murmuring “Well I done got old, can’t do the things I used to do, because I’m an old man.”
When that song finished, Guy flips the script with an unnerving guitar tutorial: solos, bends, drones. If it was in the neck of his instrument, he twisted it out.
“It brought him back to where he needed to be,” says Mathus, who played rhythm guitar on the record. “Which is the cutting edge of his art form. That’s what I always loved about him. He always played with patience and calmness. But he was completely fearless, too. He knew how to find the edge of the cliff. He’s not a man who’d spin his wheels.”
Guy showed up a few years later in “Shine a Light,” a Rolling Stones concert film shot by Martin Scorsese. He dueted with Mick Jagger on the Waters tune “Champagne and Reefer.”
Scorsese brilliantly lingers on Guy’s face during a moment when the musician is neither singing nor playing his guitar. Even amid a loping song, Guy almost operates in the most comfortable slow motion. His awareness of time and tempo comes across as instinctual. He knows when to attack, and he knows when to sit back in the pocket. The moment exemplifies an innate oneness with music informed by more than six decades of playing it.
Guy, perhaps, put it best during his succinct comments on being inducted into the Rock Hall.
“I haven’t made a lot of records that make a lot of money,” he said. “But I make a lot of records that if you ever listen to it, something I say might fit you. Like, ‘You’re damn right I got the blues.’
“If you don’t think you got the blues, just keep living.”