By: Martin Halo
Imagine yourself traveling by riverboat through a rising haze that hovers just above the surface of a flowing river in the Deep South. The sounds of T-Bone Walker and John Lee Hooker hauntingly echo from the captain's ailing record player. Just past the shoreline you catch the ghosts of hundreds of black slaves bending deep into the vegetation. It's now noon and the sun crackles in the heat drenched sky.
Raw, earthy, rhythmic songs rose from this dark soil, call-and-response dances with a swagger so seductive it puts a vice on the soul. These songs often depict lives in the grip of unspeakable oppression, the heartache and pain bled blue in lyrical prayers that form the backbone of American music, the Blues. What Skip James and Son House were to Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy was to the British Blues Revival in the late 1960s. He was also Jimi Hendrix's favorite guitarist, once causing the fabled Hendrix to cancel one of his own shows in London because Guy was playing the same night. Guy's always-active career stretches over 40 years and countless pickers he's influenced along the way. He still tours regularly and has been a staple on the festival circuit for decades.
We were lucky enough to snag a few minutes of this legend's time to discuss his roots, today's music, his arrival in Chicago, the Rolling Stones and more.
JamBase: Can I start by asking you where you are right now?
Buddy Guy: I am lying across my bed after we just got off a long flight from Singapore. It is a long flight when you get to be seventy years old.
JamBase: It is a long flight for anyone. So, do you remember what originally made you want to treat music as a life pursuit?
Buddy Guy: Not really. I had another interview just before you from a Singapore man and everybody is making me have these flashbacks [laughs]. As a kid, my parents were sharecroppers and we really didn't have running water, electric lights or nothing like that. I used to take rubber bands and stretch them to my ear. I would take anything that I could stretch and pluck to get a noise out of. I didn't know what a guitar was until my mother got a catalog when I was like 14 or 15 years old. My Daddy used to sing house-to-house during Christmas time and I think that's when I really feel in love with it.
You were just a guitar player in those days. I didn't pursue this [as a job] because you really couldn't sit down and learn guitar thinking you could make a decent living. There was no such thing back then because you had great people like Robert Johnson, Lonnie Johnson, T-Bone Walker and all of those great guys that I had a chance to play with. Fred McDowell and Son House taught Muddy and them. These guys would go to these Saturday Night Fish Fries and play with their hats in front of the guitar for nickels and dimes. Every time they would accumulate sixty or seventy cents they would sit down and get a pint of wine or a quart of beer to drink and that was it. They did that during the weekend and went back to picking cotton until the next weekend.
How was it that you were exposed to music growing up in Louisiana? Was it tradition, was it radio, or was it Juke Joints?
Well, [we] had old Juke Joints but you could only be at a Juke Joint for one-night when you're on a farm and that was Saturday night [laughs]. My dad got one of those old battery radios and – I'm sure you are too young to know - he had to make an antenna to put on top of the house. It was a long time before we got electric lights in the house, but when we did I must have been about 16 years old. That was a time when my daddy picked enough cotton to get an old phonograph, and the first song I learned how to play was "Boogie Chillen" by John Lee Hooker.
John Lee Hooker by Dick Waterman
Was John Lee a very influential person to you as a young man?
Yes. When he died I was in Canada, and they wouldn't even tell me until I finished my concert. I can remember going right to the airport to go right to the burial. We had talked about life and death before. He was a person who could keep you laughing night and day, and he always used to say that when he died he didn't want to be buried in the ground because it's too cold. That's what they had on the obituary when we went to the funeral.
Was Skip James an influence for you as well?
Skip James and all of those guys taught Muddy Waters. That's what Muddy was listening to. My thing was B.B. King, T-Bone Walker, Muddy Waters, and Howlin' Wolf. It wasn't until after I came to Chicago that I sort of went to school and found Skip James, Son House and all of those great players that Muddy had listened to.
I got a chance to meet them before they died in the '60s because this guy by the name of Dick Waterman went down to Mississippi and found all of them. They were still living when this thing called the British Invasion came. They were still in Mississippi doing the Saturday Night Fish Fries. Dick Waterman was in Cambridge, MA when he started bringing these guys up. They came and found me at a time when I was playing with Junior Wells and we'd just made a record. Junior was on the road when they came and found me. I was driving a tow truck. It was from there that I got a chance to go out and play with the late Son House. I did a couple of acoustic gigs with Skip James.
Beale Street in Memphis was a big cultural hub in the South. Did you end up going there as a young musician?
No, I caught the train on September 25, 1957 headed to Chicago to help out my mother because she had a stroke. I was working at LSU in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and somebody told me that I could get the same type of job in Chicago for three times the money. The wages were higher up North than they were in the South. The train stopped in Memphis but I had already made up my mind. The ticket was already bought. I didn't know anything about Beale Street or anything else. I knew nothing about 47th Street, which had all of the great blues clubs on the South and West side of Chicago.
They didn't care much about black people's music back then anyway. So, I didn't know anything about Beale Street where B.B. King and Howlin' Wolf were playing. They all came to Chicago eventually because Chess Records, at one point, was the only big label that made blues music what it was. So, these guys would come to Chicago to prove that their music was good enough to sell.
Were there any artists mentoring you when you came to Chicago?
Oh yeah! Muddy, all those guys did once they found out that I could play. I was catching hell though before they found out that I could play [laughs]. They didn't know who the hell I was. Finally, a stranger grabbed me by the arm one day. I was trying for three days to get a dime to call home because my mom had a stroke and she didn't know I got broke. So, this guy led me to this famous club called the 708 and got me up on stage with Otis Rush. I was too shy to even sing, I think I sang something by B.B. King.
They ended up tipping me that night and somebody called Muddy and told him that I was good so he got up out of bed. In the meantime, I was telling people how hungry I was and they were laughing at me, telling me, "No way could you be hungry if you could play." I was serious though. Back in Baton Rouge, they would tell me that Baton Rouge isn't like Chicago. [They'd say] in Chicago, "You'll get mugged, so be careful." So, I didn't know they called Muddy Waters "The Mud." I walked out of this club with a guitar in my hand and a pocket full of money and this guy tells me, "I'm The Mud. Get in the car!" I said to myself, "Oh shit, I'm gonna get mugged!" He had some bread and asked me if I was hungry. I said, "If you are Muddy Waters then I am not hungry."