A bit late on the draw, but one of the great blues man of all time has been named a recipient in the next round of Kennedy Center Honors, a prestigious national award in the field of the arts. Sonny Rollins is a recent recipient.
Buddy Guy is one of the finest -- Mount Rushmore finest -- of any who ever played the blues, the root music for jazz and rock. He’s been at the pinnacle for many, many years, despite jazz critics automatically penciling in B.B. King’s name when they choose a name for the Blues category in annual polls. He played the most outlandish, meanest, dirtiest, down-home-bluesiest guitar there was. No disrespect for B.B., whose stature is unquestioned (also Mount Rushmore), but he lost his fastball a long time ago.
Those who genuflect to Guy as a guitar slinger include drawing admiration from just about all corners of the rock and blues world, from Jimi Hendrix to Eric Clapton to Stevie Ray Vaughan and beyond. He can scorch the ground and play whispers. Sweet licks and wild shit. All packed with emotion.
He will never say he was better than other blues monsters. He holds them in high esteem. “I wish I could shake my wrist like B.B. King,” he said in a conversation we had nearly a decade ago, I think. He was referring to the sweet vibrato King would get playing one strong note on Lucille.
One striking night, however, was watching him play a set of acoustic blues after his Buddy Guy, Blues Singer album came out, an acoustic take on blues tunes, some dating waaaaaay back. His voice was wrought with emotion and the sounds that came from that guitar were sharp, piercing. Don’t know what gauge strings he had but he pulled them sometimes like Robin Hood about to fell a deer. And the sound! Geezus.
The idea came from his record company, who approached him and asked if he remembered the Muddy Waters album, made 1963, that he played on, called Muddy Waters, Folk Singer on the renowned blues label Chess. He was 27 at the time. Chess) featuring a 27-year-old Buddy Guy, which inspired Guy’s latest CD.
“And I said, ‘Man, I don’t think I forgot anything that I did with Muddy.’ They suggested that I go down and take a chance with some of those Son House tunes and a few older ones,” he recounted in our conversation.
It was in those days at Chess that he was already developing his signature electric sound that went in wild, gut-wrenching directions as he preached on his instrument. Before so many other, including Hendrix. (Not that Hendrix didn’t take things even farther in his own individual direction, and wonderfully so. He did). But he knows his stature ion the blues world, even though he’s humbled. And he respects and admires many of the jazz musicians from back in the day, in awe of what they can do as instrumentalists.
He also points out plainly that he was playing shit like no one else, but the people at Chess didn’t get it. Until they saw other people, including some from the British Invasion, making money at it.
Here’s the tale Buddy related the day of our conversation:
“Actually I was doing it when I did sessions with Muddy, Howlin’ Wolf and Little Walter and them. Before the session would start, I would turn my guitar up and let them hear that, and they would kick me out. About six months before (Chess executive Leonard Chess) died, he had heard about Hendrix had left New York and went into London, and Cream had come out and I think it was the Yardbirds and who else was playing it. He called me and said, ‘Motherfucker, that shit you’ve been trying to show us is hot as hell and selling records and we was too fucking dumb to know. Now, we’re going to let you record.’ I was kind of pissed at him. I never did get a chance to do it (with Chess). He died shortly after that.”
His guitar style, though, comes from “a Louisiana gumbo” cooked with ingredients of cats he loved to hear.
“The first Strat I saw was the late Guitar Slim who made a famous record, ‘Things I Used to Do.‘ And I got to see B.B. King, and those were the two guys coming out then with the hot sound on what they call the chitlin circuit. And I saw Guitar Slim. He was such a wild man on the stage. I said to myself, if I ever learn how to play guitar, I want to act like him. Then I started picking up from Muddy (Waters) and T-Bone (Walker) and everybody. I didn’t get hooked on one of them. I just loved them all so well I wanted to get a little piece of everything.”
Well, he’s a little longer in the tooth, but still wailing as he did at the White House recently when President Obama held a blues tribute that included the next (already) great blues slinger, Derek Trucks.
Long Live Buddy Guy.
And just one more quote from that day’s exchange, because it’s cool and says something about the man. “The world is mad.” (Editorial note: It still the fuck is) “So when I go to the stage and see my guitar playing or whatever I do makes somebody smile, I feel like I’m the richest guy in the world because if you got any kind of problem or difficulty, I made you forget them for a minute, because I saw you smiling.”