Interview with Buddy Guy (1997)

Blues legend Buddy Guy wasn’t born with a guitar in his hands — but it didn’t take him long to rectify that unfortunate situation.

“I was trying to make a guitar before I knew what a guitar was”, Guy tells me by phone from Toronto. “I was stretching rubber bands, screen wire fences, taking wire off my mother’s window in Louisiana, trying to make a guitar out of this wire . . . then I’d pick it twice and it’d break. So when I finally got a chance to see a real guitar, man, that was it, I just went crazy on it, and I learned to play that guitar just for the love of the music.”

The love of the music now has Guy touring in support of his latest album, Live! The Real Deal; he’ll stop at the Starlite Music Theatre’s Blues Festival next Thursday, along with blues breathren John Mayall, Ernie Williams and Tammy Fletcher. The Real Deal was recorded with support from piano titan Johnnie Johnson and G.E. Smith’s Saturday Night Live Band, so I ask Guy if he’ll have these high profile sessioneers with him when he hits the Starlite next week.

“No”, Guy answers, “I got myself my own big band after working with G.E. and the Saturday Night Live band, ’cause playing with a band like that keeps me on track. When I’m just playing with my rhythm section I tend to go a little crazy . . . but when I play with a big band they put it all where it’s supposed to be and I don’t miss licks like when I’m playing with just a rhythm section and everyone has to stand their own ground. So far it’s all been pretty good; they’re all a bunch of young men and they’re having the fun of their lives . . . so hopefully they’ll get a break and someday you’ll be talking to one of them.”

Guy’s altruistic sense of artistic patronage stems from his own early experiences: “I just went out into the streets and I met Muddy [Waters] and [Howlin’] Wolf and them and they saw me play, and then first chance I got to play with them I got over in the corner and I said ‘You tell me what to do and I’ll do it!’ A lot of other guitar players much better than me got a chance to play with Muddy and them and they wanted to blow ’em off the stage. I just said ‘I don’t ever want to get in your way, I just want to step back and learn how I should play the guitar.'”

Learn he did. Guy followed his blues muses to Chicago where, through the ’60s, he became one of Chess Records’ most sought-after session men, heavily influencing a growing legion of (largely John Mayall-tutored) British blues guitarists: Peter Green, as an example, brought Fleetwood Mac to Chicago in 1969 to jam with Guy, Otis Spann and other Chess regulars. (Fleetwood Mac: Live in Chicago gets re-released every few years under slightly different titles; it’s a joyous, sloppy, wonderfully guitar-heavy record.) Guy never stopped playing and singing the blues — but as his one-time disciples and pupils grew in stature, Chess Records folded and the master faded from the record-buying public’s view.

“I missed so many years of recording cause no one thought I had anything to offer,” Guy reminisces. “Now, any chance I get to go into the studio and put something down, I can’t say no ’cause I lost almost fifteen years doing no recording at all . . . after Chess left there was no session work to be done. I’d go to wherever I was invited and just try to play my best to let people know that I was still in love with the music and that, regardless of what was happening to me, I wasn’t thinking about quitting.”

Fortunately, one of the disciples remembered to repay his debts. When Eric Clapton was assembling talent for his 24 Nights concert series at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 1990, he knew who he wanted bending strings for the blues session of the show.

“Eric Clapton’s one of the best friends I ever had,” effuses Guy. “He’s responsible for me getting my Grammy’s, ’cause he brought me into the Albert Hall and that’s when my record company [Silvertone] came up and signed me. And Silvertone has just been tremendous to me; I guess they had more confidence in me than anybody else.”

That confidence was adequately rewarded when each of Guy’s Silvertone studio records, Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues (1991), Feels Like Rain (1993) and Slippin’ In (1994), garnered commercial raves, high sales and Grammy honors. Silvertone had Guy step out of the studio for the new Real Deal, recording at New York City’s Irving Plaza and Guy’s own Chicago Blues club, Legends. As Real Deal marks Guy’s first real-time live record in over twenty years, I ask him to assess how blues performance has changed during that span.

“There’s more electronics in the instruments” he reflects, “but I don’t think the humans have changed that much. If you notice Aretha [Franklin]’s voice, B.B. [King]’s voice, Mick Jaggers’s voice — their voices change as they get older, but it’s still the same person. I don’t see a lot of change in my own playing either, except that I’ve experienced a lot more and I think I know a few more notes now than I did, cause I’m always trying to learn new stuff. It’s all still fun.”

That sense of fun is central to Guy’s continued hands-on involvement with Legends: “I wouldn’t give Legends up for nothing,” Guy declaims. “I didn’t buy that club to make a buck or anything; I bought that club because all big cities when I was little had blues clubs where young people got started. I owe that back to the young people — I’m trying to hold a place where they can just have somewhere to go and play.”

Has Guy seen any particularly wonderful wonder-kids pass through Legends’ portals of late? “Oh yeah, they’re popping up all over, man, like this little kid from Florida called Derek Trucks. You know, with my success coming very late in life, well, I just hope all these young people will look at me and see that they don’t have to jump overboard early — cause time will pay off if they’ve got the patience to wait for it.”

Time is indeed finally paying off for Buddy Guy by every generally-accepted commercial and critical measurement. Funny thing is, though, he still judges wealth by another metric: “I didn’t ever want to be rich or famous,” Guy notes, “but having played with Muddy, Wolf, Sonny Boy [Williamson] and all those great people — man, it always seemed like I was as rich as Eric or any of them others. Money didn’t have nothing to do with it; I was as rich as anybody in the world because Muddy Waters, when he was alive, said ‘I want you to make a record with me.'”

So what keeps him going now that Muddy’s gone and the money’s rolling in? “Every song I play now I just play for the people. I appreciate all the support the fans have given me, and I always want to thank the fans for waiting this long so that I can finally prove a little point: I can still play a few licks on the guitar. When I get to your town, I’ll show ’em through my playing how much I appreciate it. You tell them that.”