It’s no great secret why Buddy Guy has chosen to make this year’s touring cycle his last.
“My next birthday (July 30) I’m gonna be 87, man,” the blues icon tells Billboard from his home in Chicago, where he’s operated a club, Buddy Guy’s Legends, since 1989. “My late friends — Muddy (Waters), B.B. (King) — all of them were, like, 20 years older than me and they used to look at me and say, ‘Boy, wait’ll you get to be my age….’ And they’re no longer here for me to tell them that it’s true.
“You get in the 80s, man, and the little aches that didn’t used to ache, they come on and you don’t know where they’re coming from. I can play, but getting from Point A to Point B, the trips that take all day on the bus or the airport and all that…Anybody would say, ‘That’s enough.'”
But Guy is quick to add that an end to touring doesn’t mean a complete retirement.
“I’m still going to probably play some of the big festivals,” promises Guy, who began the Damn Right Farewell Tour on Feb. 12 at the Mahnidra Blues Festival in Mumbai, India and has dates booked through early October. “The New Orleans Jazz Festival wanted me to play there for the rest of my life, which is once a year, so that’s not too bad. But what’s coming up this year is a lot. We’re gonna make it to a lot of places we’ll probably never play again.”
The tour puts a cap on one aspect of what’s been a legendary career by any measure, one that’s stretched across more than 70 years and 19 studio albums and has included associations with forebears such as Waters, King and many more, as well as acolytes like Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, the late Jeff Beck and Steve Ray Vaughan, Bonnie Raitt, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Johnny Lang, John Mayer and Christone “Kingfish” Ingram. Clapton has called Guy “the best guitarist I’ve ever heard” on frequent occasions. Carlos Santana considers him “probably the most naked musician on the blues scene — just raw and intense in every note he plays.”
It’s not only peers who have sung Guy’s praises. He’s won eight Grammy Awards plus a Grammy lifetime achievement honor — performing during the afternoon premiere ceremony at this year’s event — as well as 23 Blues Music Awards. He’s received a Kennedy Center Honor, a National Medal of Arts, an American Academy of Achievement Award and a Billboard Century Award in 1993. He’s been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Musicians Hall of Fame and the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame. A portion of U.S. Highway 418 going through his hometown of Lettsworth, La., is named Buddy Guy Way, and there’s a marker that bears his name on the Louisiana side of the Mississippi Blues Trail.
“I did the best I could,” the characteristically humble Guy says. He considers those honors “as a dream come true for me, ’cause sometimes I had to pinch myself and say, ‘Did I really make it in there?’ — like the hall of fame and all that stuff. I didn’t start out thinking anything like that would happen — COULD happen, to be honest with you.”
Guy’s biography has the elements of a classic blues song. He grew up a child of poor sharecroppers. When not picking cotton, he learned to play on a two-string diddley bow made from a piece of wood and wires from a window screen. “My brothers and sisters used to tell my mama, ‘Get him outta here with that noise,’ ’cause I didn’t know how to play anything. I was just fooling around,” remembers Guy, who penned a memoir, When I Left Home: My Story, a decade ago. Eventually a stranger who saw him playing on his sister’s porch steps told him, “Son, you could probably learn to play if you had a real guitar” and bought the youngster a Harmony acoustic that Guy subsequently donated to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“Where I grew up, you’d have sandlot baseball teams to play games, and that’s about it,” Guy says. “I wanted to do something the rest of the other kids couldn’t do, and that was play guitar. And I heard Lightnin’ Hopkins and T-Bone Walker, all those great blues players and thought that’s something I wanted to try, too.
“The first thing I learned how to play was ‘Boogie Chillen” by John Lee Hooker. I was so excited when I figured it out that I walked a mile and found every distant relative I had and said, ‘Look! Listen!’ They’d say, ‘Yeah, that kind of sounds pretty good there.’ I finally had something — and I was afraid to quit so I held it so long my fingers started bleeding.”
By the mid-50s Guy was in Baton Rouge, working as a janitor at Louisiana State University and playing in bands around town. He recorded a pair of demos during 1957 for Ace Records, which were not released. Later that year he moved to Chicago, where he became the hot new arrival on the scene, learning at the feet legends such as Waters — who brought Guy a bologna sandwich when he first came to hear him — Willie Dixon, Junior Wells (whom Guy backed on several albums under the pseudonym Friendly Chap) Ike Turner and others. He played in competitions with Otis Rush and Magic Sam, signing an early deal with Cobra Records before joining the Chess label in 1959.
Chess gave him work, including sessions for Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Koko Taylor, Sonny Boy Williamson and more. But the Chess brothers were not fans of Guy’s raw, aggressive playing style and pushed him to record more polished fare. Guy, who had a day job driving a tow truck, wouldn’t release an album with Chess until I Left My Blues in San Francisco in 1967. Across the pond, however, British players had discovered Guy through his session work and began singing his praises and seeking him out when they came to Chicago.
“It got back to Leonard Chess that Jimi Hendrix wanted to know who I was,” Guy says. “When Leonard Chess found that out he sent Willie Dixon to my house, and Willie said, ‘Put a suit on. Leonard wants to see you.’ When I went there Leonard bent over and said, ‘I want you to kick me in my butt.’ I said, ‘For what?!’ And he pointed out what those British guys were saying about me and said, ‘You came here with this and we were too dumb to listen.'”
Guy continued to play shows and made records for Vanguard, Isabel and JSP during the ’70s and ’80s, some with his younger brother Phil Guy, who followed in his guitar-playing footsteps. He was part of the Festival Express train tour in Canada with the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, The Band and others before opening the Checkerboard Lounge on Chicago’s South Side in 1972 with L.C. Thurman. Guy gave up his stake 13 years later and set up Buddy Guy’s Legends — where he’s in residence throughout every January — in the city’s South Loop.
That came just in time for Guy’s own legend to finally gain momentum. First he was Eric Clapton’s invited guest for the 24 Nights concert series at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 1990 and 1991. Then Guy signed with Silvertone Records (still his label home) for 1991’s Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues, his first release in nine years. He’s released 12 albums since — including last year’s The Blues Don’t Lie — many featuring a who’s who of players vested in keeping Guy’s career alive and vital.
“Those guys are great,” he says. “They’ve always been good for me, and they never took anything except the music — and they’ve always told people where they got it. The Eric Claptons, the Rolling Stones, the Bonnie Raitts, they haven’t forgotten people like myself.”
Despite that eminence, Guy still considers himself a student of music. “I took things from the (younger) people, too,” he acknowledges. “You’re never too old to learn something.” A case in point was his Grammy-nominated 2001 album Sweet Tea, for which producer Dennis Herring took him to Mississippi Hill Country and introduced him to the music of Junior Kimbrough — whom he called “this kid” at the time — and R.L. Burnside. “I said, ‘What the hell is this?'” Guy recalls. “Y’know, I played with Muddy Waters, Son House, Fred McDowell…I thought I had found everything to come out of Mississippi…but I went back there and started digging in again.”
Throughout his resurgence, Guy has conducted himself with a kind of missionary exuberance, sworn to keep the blues alive as he saw a generation of elders, and even some contemporaries, pass away. (He played with Stevie Ray Vaughan in East Troy, Wisc., on Aug. 26, 1990, the day before Vaughan was killed in a helicopter crash. The two were supposed to have lunch together the following day in Chicago.) He’s still happy to help nurture new talent, whether on stage at Legends or by paying for the occasional recording session for an upstart. Guy has been particularly aggrieved at the lack of mainstream media support for the genre, especially at radio, where it’s consigned to specialty programs, NPR and satellite.
“Blues is like a stepchild now,” he says. “I’ve kept doing it so people don’t forget Muddy and Wolf, B.B., all the rest of ’em. But the big FM stations don’t play blues — if they do, I don’t hear it. And if people can’t hear it…It’s like they say about cooking; you don’t know how good the gumbo is in Louisiana until you go down there and taste it. Whether you like it or not is up to you, but at least you tasted it. And the blues is being treated like that. I don’t care how good a blues record you make — if nobody hears it, it’s just there. It bothers me because I’ve dedicated my life to the blues, and a lot of other people have, too. What did we do to be treated like that? I don’t know, man, but I’d like to see it get straightened out.”