BUDDY GUY: BLUES IS BLOOD
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?
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 So, do you remember what originally made you want to treat music as a life pursuit?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?
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?
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?
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?
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.”
You helped inspire the British Blues Revival and the careers of Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Keith Richards. How did that affect the careers of American bluesmen, and what did you think of those guys?
They were letting Americans know who we were because everyone was calling it the British Invasion. I mean Rod Stewart was singing real blues. They were playing mostly Chicago blues. I was reading the papers the other day and they had an Anniversary piece on it. I was in the studio doing a record called My Time After Awhile, and they brought these guys up there right when I was in the middle of my session. I was like, “What is this with all of this long hair?” All these guys were coming in trying to sign with Chess [even] the Beatles.
Can you describe how American artists like Ray Charles, Otis Rush and Otis Redding were different from the British artists?
When [the British bands] first recorded they were doing the songs that Otis Redding and Little Richard wrote. That was the stuff they were recording. A matter of fact, when I went to England in February of 1965 I found Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck living in a van because they didn’t know that a Strat guitar could play blues. We were laughing about it because they couldn’t sell a single record because they thought a Strat was just for country and western.
I just graduated from college and the music professors there taught us that the difference between American Blues and British Blues was the British Blues didn’t have the tribal element that American Blues had. Would you consider this an accurate statement?
What the British guys did was they played blues just like I did. I copied T-Bone and B.B., and by trying to copy them I became Buddy Guy. It’s like baseball and football. Everybody can’t be Joe Montana. You could be a good quarterback but you are never going to be him. I don’t think anyone will be able to fill B.B. King’s or Muddy Waters’ shoes. Those British guys did like I did – they just picked up a guitar. I will tell you what they did do, though, which they wouldn’t let us do here. They turned that amplifier up. That’s what Eric and them will tell you about me when I was playing. I would blast that amp. The Chess people wouldn’t let me come in the studio and do that. Well, after they heard the British guys they said, “Wait a minute. Buddy plays like that!” They said, “Hey, you’ve been trying to sell us this shit ever since you’ve been here but we’ve been too fucking dumb to listen.” I was laughing about it because they were telling me that they would give me anything I wanted [if I’d] just to go in the studio and record my music. They ran me out of there with that feedback shit and now the British guys are selling the hell out of it.
How was Chess as a label?
Are there any artists that you feel are influential in the modern era?
John Mayer. He is selling so many pop records but he is a great blues guitar player. I play at my blues club here in the month of January, and I got to the club one night and they told me I had a guest. John Mayer was on his way to California and stopped in to jam with me before he kicked off his summer tour.
Looking back on your career, could describe how you feel the music industry has changed, comparing your generation to the current one?
The music itself, I don’t really want to criticize anything, but you would never catch a blues cat lip-syncing. When I get you in my corner, I might play a blues song different than how it was rehearsed. You could go out there and dance and not miss a beat like Michael Jackson and Madonna [but] they are not singing, man. I guess that was the change in generations. If you go see B.B. King you hear B.B. King. You are not going to hear some record being played and he is lip-syncing. And, if you come see me you’re going to see some perspiration coming off of me. If I miss a note you might hear me say, “Oh shit, I missed it,” because that is natural.
Would you attribute that concept to the word ‘integrity’?
Well Buddy, I know who you are and I love your music!
Well, thank you so much. I wish there was a million more like you.
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