Art by Mark Runyon | ConcertTour.net
Will Hagle learned the blues from Michael Scott.
Buddy Guy is alive and well. As is the blues, according to the title of his forthcoming album. The Blues Is Alive And Well is a bold but true statement for the 81-year-old performer. Guy hasn’t lost his on-stage exuberance and has yet to let his aging, wrinkling hands change how he handles his guitar. The track list for the album features similarly aging artists who were influenced by Buddy, like Jeff Beck, Keith Richards, and Mick Jagger. The lone youngster featured on the album is James Bay, who might not be the best representative to keep the blues going, but still offers some semblance of hope.
Despite Buddy’s optimistic album title and steadfast charisma on stage and in interviews, he remains aware that both his time and the blues’s may be limited. “When B.B. [King] passed away, I kind of woke up and said, ‘I’m the last one here,’” Guy said to the Chicago Tribune. But Guy’s not just going to hang up his guitar and fade away any time soon. We shouldn’t wait until the cruel hand of time forces him to do so in order to celebrate his lifelong contributions to the blues, rock ‘n roll, and music in general.
Buddy Guy’s name is inextricably from the Windy City where he and so many other blues artists found their fame. During a brief appearance on the Tina Fey episode of David Letterman’s Netflix show My Next Guest, Guy answered a question he’d been asked “a million times”: how to characterize that legendary Chicago blues sound. His response was that the style of music he and his peers play should really be called the “Southern” blues, because that’s from where the majority of the musicians hail. Guy grew up the son of sharecroppers in rural Louisiana, the type of life that might give anyone the blues. “The Chess Brothers happened to record it here,” Buddy told Letterman as they ate at a Greek restaurant somewhere in Chicago, his body still in the North but his soul still stuck somewhere in the South.
Guy honed his craft in Louisiana while doubling as a custodian at LSU in Baton Rouge before migrating North to Chicago for more opportunity. The blues was booming in Chicago by the time Guy arrived. He’s recounted the story of his first few weeks living in the city, where he struggled to find a job or gigs and contemplated moving back home. Eventually, someone brought him to the 708 Club in the Bronzeville neighborhood on the South Side. He got some stage time, and a chance to showcase his unique skill with the guitar was all he needed.
After that performance he walked outside, still hungry and broke, and jumped when someone touched him because he thought he was being mugged. According to Guy, the person turned out to be Muddy Waters, impressed by his performance. “He said ‘I’m Muddy Waters,’ are you hungry? And I said, ‘Not if you’re Muddy,’ because I was so full from him saying ‘I’m Muddy Waters’ I didn’t know how to act,” Guy said.
Waters took Guy under his wing, introducing him to Phil and Leonard Chess, the Jewish, Polish immigrants who had bought the independent record label Aristocrat Records, renamed it Chess Records after themselves, and began pressing blues records by local artists essentially because that’s what made money at the time. Guy became a session guitarist for Chess Records, appearing in the background of classic records like Muddy Waters’ Folk Singer and Howlin’ Wolf’s Howlin Wolf.
He remained at odds with the Chess brothers throughout his tenure at the label, as they criticized his dynamic, at times flashy, style. The tension grew to such heights that Guy even had to sneakily perform under the credited moniker “Friendly Chap” on Junior Wells’ classic Hoodoo Man Blues, due to concerns over his contract at Chess. The only solo album he released on the label is I Left My Blues In San Francisco, a debut LP consisting of a collection of previously-recorded tracks that shows much more restraint and adheres more to the blues standard style than Guy’s later releases.
That loose, free style that the Chess brothers impeded upon is ultimately what makes Guy one of the greatest blues guitarists of all time. He plays with pure feeling, acting on impulse, messing with the audience’s expectations. He reels you in with the quietest tinkering, then explodes into searing solos, acutely aware of the effect the amplifiers and their distortion have on his playing. He augments his guitar playing and singing with an over-the-top, engaging performance style that’s yet to slow down even this late in his life and career. It’s flashy but with purpose, each note connected to the intense emotion brewing deep inside his soul.
Guy has had the opportunity to more freely explore that creative range since leaving Chess in 1967. His second album, A Man And The Blues, released on Vanguard Records, has amazing noodling guitar work on the opening track “A Man And The Blues.” The interplay between his playing and pianist Otis Spann is incredible. That album also includes a cover of “Mary Had A Little Lamb,” which could be seen as an example of taking that creative freedom too far, but is actually a decent track. Later on that album, “Just Playing My Axe” contains a rhythm suspiciously close to “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” over which Guy asserts the mantra that has guided his career for so many decades: “I Just Wanna Play My Axe.”
He’s played his axe on at least fifteen other studio albums since then, as well as various live LPs and collaborative records, including albums with Junior Wells, Memphis Slim, and his brother Phil Guy. He’s played all the blues classics, created some classics of his own, experimented and stuck to the standards. If he’s the last bluesman left, it’s because he was one of the only true ones there in the first place.
In my own household growing up, Guy was always considered a sort of deity. My blues-loving parents from Chicago made sure I knew who he was. Their dog was named Muddy, but it just as easily could have been Buddy. They took yearly trips to see Guy at his own Legends Club, bringing back photos and stories of how he walked through the crowd and put on a show despite his increasing age. One year they brought back a giant white guitar pick with Guy’s signature printed on it that I used until I lost it or it broke. It’s incredible to think that Guy has been influencing young generations of guitarists for at least sixty years now, and he shows few signs of slowing down.
Three years ago, in an interview with Guitar World, Buddy Guy referenced a prodigiously talented then-14-year-old blues player named Quinn Sullivan. “We don’t get much airplay on the blues anymore, for some strange reason, until some young kid comes along,” Guy said. “That’s what happened with the British guys, like the Stones and Clapton. They opened the door. And Stevie Ray and all of them. Youth is the one to keep the blues going. That’s what makes the world go ‘round, and that is what we need for the blues. I know it would put a big smile on Muddy’s face.”
We don’t need to wait until Buddy’s gone in order to put a smile on his face, too. That’s not such a hard feat, considering his face is pretty much always conveying varying degrees of wise old happiness when it’s not expressing the blues, but we can always aim to make his smile a bit wider. There’s no better time than now to celebrate his deep catalogue of expressive music, and to anticipate the next one on the way.