A Lifetime Steeped In The Blues

A Lifetime Steeped In The Blues
October 26, 2010
By Tom Clavin

If you looked up the phrase “legendary bluesman” in any encyclopedia, it should have a photograph of B.B. King or Buddy Guy or, preferably, both.

As Mr. Guy pointed out in an interview last week, “There is only B.B. and me left. And we’re going to keep carrying on. As my mother used to say, ‘I’m too old to do anything else now.’”

And that is very good news indeed, as anyone attending Mr. Guy’s show at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center this Saturday at 8 p.m. will attest. The 74-year-old will be playing songs from his new CD, “Living Proof,” which was released this past Tuesday. He will also draw from the decades of songs he has either written or made his own thanks to his gruff Southern voice and guitar playing that has few rivals.

His legions of fans include notorious guitar-slingers like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and others who have cited Mr. Guy as a powerful influence. Rolling Stone ranked him in the top 30 of its “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.”

Though he has long been associated with the blues scene in Chicago—where in his spare time he runs a restaurant—George “Buddy” Guy was born in Louisiana, to a sharecropper and his wife, who worked on a plantation northwest of New Orleans. It was not the most tolerant of places in 1936.

“I used to play with a boy, ride horses, down close to where I was born,” Mr. Guy recalled. “Then when we were 13, his parents made us stop. They used to say you had black blood or white blood, but we’d get a flashlight and hold it up to our skin and just see red blood. That’s what I mean by ‘skin deep,’” he said, referring to the title song of his previous CD.

When he was 7, he built a guitar with two strings attached to a piece of wood and secured with his mother’s hairpins. He taught himself to play on that contraption and didn’t own a real guitar until 10 years later, a Harmony acoustic that is now on display in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. Mr. Guy was inducted in 2005.

He listened to nothing but blues music on the radio, much of it emanating from Chicago. At 19, he quit his $28-a-week job as a custodian and hopped a train north. He picked up piecemeal work as a guitarist, but not enough to eat or pay rent. Life changed for the broke and hungry Mr. Guy one night after he played a brief set following Otis Rush at the 708 Club: Muddy Waters arrived in his red Chevrolet and gave the awestruck musician salami sandwiches. Thus fortified, he rededicated himself to playing guitar. He began to be noticed.

“We used to have guitar battles every Sunday and Monday with guys like Otis Rush and Magic Sam,” Mr. Guy said. “It was like two tennis players or two boxers; we’d go at each other. One time, I came in with a 150-foot cord, walked in the door playing, and they just put their guitars down.”

He found session work at Chess Records, the company that helped to introduce to a wider audience such emerging talents from the South as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, and Sonny Boy Williamson. (The label’s story is told in the 2008 movie “Cadillac Records,” which features Beyonce as Etta James.)

Mr. Guy began making his own albums for Chess and other companies. His club appearances and other concerts featured a stinging, attacking electric guitar style to accompany his impassioned vocals. When Eric Clapton inducted Mr. Guy into the Hall of Fame, he told the audience, “He was for me what Elvis was probably like for other people. My course was set, and he was my pilot.”

Mr. Guy set a course for making solo records—20 were released in the 1970s and ’80s, some featuring the harp master Junior Wells—and playing with other blues greats like B.B. King and Albert Collins. He won three straight Grammy Awards for albums released from 1991 to ’94: “Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues,” “Feels Like Rain,” and “Slippin’ In.” He has earned a total of five Grammy Awards to go with 28 Blues Music Awards.

He is now at the age where the young blues guns want to play with him, and on recent CDs he has been accompanied by Derek Trucks, John Mayer, Susan Tedeschi, and pedal-steel player Robert Randolph.

“You know they’re looking to learn something, and challenge me a bit too,” Mr. Guy said, laughing. “That’s fine. It keeps me young. That and the blues. The blues is a lot older than I am.”

Incredibly, while Mr. Guy and B.B. King have shared many stages, “Living Proof” is the first disc by the younger Mr. Guy that features playing by Mr. King. They collaborate on the track “Stay Around a Little Longer,” a sentiment they direct at each other.

“Having someone like that in the room with you makes chill bumps come up on your skin,” Mr Guy said. “I still take 95 percent of my playing from B.B.” Also playing on the new CD is Carlos Santana, whose song “Vera Cruz” was covered by Mr. Guy and Junior Wells 30 years ago.

He has no intention of slowing down and is looking forward to performing in Westhampton Beach as much as anywhere else on the North American tour. In response to the suggestion that he has already achieved legendary blues status and has nothing else to prove, Mr. Guy had this to say: “Just the other day, I heard B.B. say, ‘I can’t slow down because I still think there’s somebody out there who doesn’t know who I am yet.’

“I feel the same way. Who knows on what night I’ll reach somebody with the blues and that will really mean something to him? The blues has meant everything to me my whole life, so it’s not going anywhere without me.”

Buddy Guy will perform at 8 p.m. on Saturday, October 30, at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center. Tickets are $75, $100, or $125, available at the Arts Center box office at 76 Main Street, by calling 288-1500, or online at whbpac.org.
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