•The Daniel Island Stage
Chicago music icon Buddy Guy has seen the blues go from an overlooked genre to a quintessential American art form now credited for birthing a rebellious baby called rock ‘n’ roll. Suffice it to say, he’s glad to still be around and able to tell about it.
Guy came to Chicago from Louisiana in 1957. Initially, like many upstart blues artists, he played a variety of watered-down styles that didn’t particularly suit his inner craving for gutbucket, seriously amped electric blues. By the time he landed on the definitive Windy City Chess label, Guy had begun to develop a stinging style of electric blues guitar that touched equally on those of predecessors like Muddy Waters and B.B. King.
“Oh yeah, how could I forget that,” says Guy of his time at Chess. “You had Little Walter, Sonny Boy, Howlin’ Wolf, and all the other blues players that had made that company. So, they was kinda stuck on that style of music. When I played I’d like to turn it up a little bit more and get that feedback and distortion coming through. One day, I got called into Leonard Chess’ office – had never been there before – and he just bent over when I walked in and just said, ‘Go ahead and kick me in my ass!’ He put on, I think it was a Cream album with Clapton playing them electric blues wide open. We had a two-hour conversation basically about, ‘All these guys is saying they got this stuff from listening to you.'”
After leaving Chess, Guy landed on Atlantic in the early 1970s and struck fire by teaming up with harp player Junior Wells for a string of albums including the energetic live Drinkin’ TNT and Smokin’ Dynamite. Though it looked like Guy was primed to inherit the reins previously guided by Chicago legends like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, his profile surprisingly declined during the ’80s. It wouldn’t be until the next decade that Guy would truly begin carving his niche and, in the process, would finally become a household name.
After the release of 1991’s Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues (Silvertone), Guy’s train began chugging along again at a rejuvenated pace. His name was repeatedly dropped as a primary influence in interviews with musicians both young and old. If you weren’t already in the know, it seemed as if Guy was an experienced newcomer when he’d actually been there all along. Such subsequent releases as 1994’s Slippin’ In and the sparse, unadulterated detour Sweet Tea brought the man with the polka-dotted guitar and cognac-cured pipes to the masses and paired him with acolytes from Eric Clapton to Jonny Lang.
“After Chess collapsed, I was really ignored a lot,” Guy points out. “The word was out that I never did have it and that was that. Clapton then invited me to go over and play Royal Albert Hall and, when I did, I just killed ’em. I cut Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues there in England, but later found out that my new record company was actually in New York, not England. That was all just shocking to me because that album was about the biggest thing I’d done to that point. It felt good to finally prove to ’em all that I wasn’t washed up.”
Many of Guy’s definitive sides can now be found on the soon-to-be-released, career-spanning box set Can’t Quit The Blues (Silvertone). From the machismo of Chess sides like “Let Me Love You Baby” to the more seasoned perspective of Sweet Tea‘s “Done Got Old,” the package puts Guy’s evolution as both bluesman and guitarist on display. His use of squealing feedback and sinister volume has long been a staple of his repertoire but it’s also a kind nod to the departed Hendrix. His adoption of songs like “Crawlin’ Kingsnake” and “In the Wee Hours” tips the dotted cap to the forerunners who came before – and came up alongside – him. However, Guy’s self-driven attitude and ultimate perseverance have earned him a special place in both the hearts of blues aficionados and the annals of the endearing, inherently badass genre. Damn right – these days, he’s the most recognizable face of the blues still willing to crack a smile.
“My mom, bless her soul, used to tell me, ‘Better late than never,'” exclaims Guy. “Who knows? If I’d have clicked back when I was in my 20s, I might’ve took the wrong route and ended up like so many other successful musicians did that didn’t know how to handle it. I don’t know how I got out of it, but that never did happen. So, really, that’s what’s important, is that I’m enjoying myself now.” –Michael Andrews