A guitar icon continues his five-decade mission to keep the blues alive

By Jeff Tamarkin

When blues guitar legend Buddy Guy performed at the White House last year, the significance of the event didn’t escape him. “I told President Obama that where I grew up, I didn’t even know what running water was until I was nearly 17,” Guy remembers. “I said, ‘Mr. President, picking a guitar in the White House is a long way from picking cotton in Louisiana.’”

Indeed, Guy has come a long way in his 77 years. Migrating from the Deep South to Chicago at age 20, he built a reputation as one of the most exciting and versatile artists on the blues scene. As a member of Muddy Waters’ band, house guitarist at storied Chess Records, and ultimately as a solo artist, his influence on then up-and-comers like Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones is incalculable.

Even as his acolytes heaped praise on him, widespread success eluded Guy until a couple of decades ago. Since then, he’s picked up armloads of honors, among them a National Medal of the Arts, the Kennedy Center Honors, six Grammys and induction into both the Rock and Roll and Blues Halls of Fame. Today, Guy is one of the last surviving links to the classic era of Chicago blues. “When all the greats were still living—I’m talking about Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy, Junior Wells—we used to sit and have a drink and say, ‘If I go before you, I want you to keep that goddamn blues alive,’” he says. “Then one day you wake up and they’re all gone.”

With that in mind, Guy has released Rhythm & Blues, a collection of all-new recordings on two discs—one titled Rhythm, the other Blues. Featuring guest contributions from Gary Clark Jr., Kid Rock, Beth Hart, Keith Urban, and Aerosmith mainstays Steven Tyler, Joe Perry and Brad Whitford, it’s as solid an album as he’s made in years. “I’m so excited about it,” says Guy. “All I want to do is keep playing the blues.”

Why release a two-disc set?

For that I have to thank my drummer and producer, Tom Hambridge. We went into the studio looking for a dozen songs, and we were getting a pretty good groove, everybody was smiling—and suddenly we had 18 songs, then 22. The guys at the label called me in and I thought, “Let me get ready for the pink slip.” But they had smiles on their faces and said, “We want you to do a double album.”

What’s behind the title Rhythm & Blues?

I’ve been in Chicago 57 years, and when I first came, everything was R&B. It was a fast boogie-woogie beat that black people were dancing to. Then in the ’60s they started branding it. First it was Chicago blues, then it became West and South Side blues. But when I came to Chicago, Muddy Waters and I were playing all over the city. There was no such thing as South and West Side, Memphis or Motown. Everything was R&B.

What drew you to the guitar?

Growing up, my parents didn’t have electricity. We had no radio. But every Christmas, a guy would come through with an acoustic guitar playing Lonnie Johnson songs. And of course you had Lightnin’ Hopkins and Arthur Crudup. A friend had an old phonograph where you used to crank the spring to play the 78s. Man, I heard that and I was walking around stretching rubber bands against my ear. My mother got a piece of screen wire to keep those Louisiana mosquitoes from lifting you off the bed. I would strip all that screen wire to try to make a guitar string. I would drive two nails in the wall and stretch it to pick at. That was the beginning of me.

When did you first hear the blues?

I heard it before I left Louisiana. Little Walter was from Marksville, La., near where I was born. He had already recorded “Juke,” and Muddy Waters had made “Louisiana Blues,” and Howlin’ Wolf had made hit records. And there was Guitar Slim and B.B. King, too. I had thought about driving a tractor or pickin’ cotton, but when B.B. came out with “Three O’Clock Blues,” I had to buy a guitar, and did it on time. I tell him that every time I see him. I say, “B., you’re the cause of me having to pay monthly payments for a guitar.”

What’s behind your trademark playing while walking beyond the stage? 

When I started, all the blues guitar players were sitting in chairs—even Muddy. But I had seen Guitar Slim stand up, and I thought, “Hey, I’m going to jump off the bar and run off through the crowd!” Somebody said, “He’s a nut, he’s wild,” but I got attention. We used to have guitar battles, trying to get that dollar a night.

Didn’t Chess Records change your style?

Leonard Chess would hear me and say, “That ain’t nothing but noise.” I was playing with distortion, and they said, “If you’re going to play like that, get out of here.” So I had to play the type of blues they got rich off of, which was Muddy Waters and

Robert Lockwood Jr. They weren’t ready for the screaming and distortion I was doing. Around 1967, Leonard sent for me. I had never even been in his office. He said, “I want you to kick me in my butt.” I said, “For what?” He put on a record by Cream and said, “This is the stuff you brought here and we were too dumb to listen.”

What else did Chess want to change?

In the beginning they wanted me to play like B.B. King, and I must say nobody’s ever going to fill those shoes. They even wanted me to change my name from Buddy Guy to Buddy King. When I finally met B.B. and told him, he said that his real name was Riley. So I told Leonard Chess that if I put out a 45 as Buddy King, my mama’s going to have a stroke. So I stuck with Buddy Guy, and they finally accepted me.

What are your thoughts on the British blues-rock bands of the ’60s?

I remember when the Stones came to Chicago in the middle of one of my sessions. I had never seen a white man with hair that long. Then Clapton and Beck and all of them came along. To be honest, they did more for us than those who were ripping us off. They let the world know who we were. I’ve got to give them credit for that. When the Stones started getting big, there was a TV show called Shindig!. Mick agreed to do the show only if they’d let him bring on Howlin’ Wolf. Even now, sometimes a kid will come up and say, “I didn’t know who you were, but I read what Clapton said about you.” Even at 77, I still have to prove I can play.


Because there’s always someone who hasn’t heard of me. I didn’t sell a lot of records back in the day. Jimi Hendrix and the British guys got their exposure long before me. People didn’t start talking about me until after those guys were selling millions of records and telling people, “I got this from Buddy Guy.” And everybody said, “Who the hell is that?”

How has the blues evolved?

There’s been a change, but not that much. Electronics have changed more than the blues. You can hit a note on a guitar now that was the same note Lightnin’ Hopkins hit, but you press a button and the guitar almost plays by itself.

Why was 1991’s Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues your most successful album?

They told me I could play any way I wanted, so you heard more guitar. My previous albums were OK, but they had it turned down and said that blues should be slow, quiet stuff. The other blues guys had invented that and they were doing well. Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters and Little Walter were selling tons of records, so I couldn’t go to Chess and say, “I can beat that.” I probably could have but I didn’t know then. If I did, I would have made a hit record every time!

Any thoughts of retirement?

You can’t name me one musician who retires. We all drop onstage.

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