In April, legendary blues guitarist Buddy Guy was planning to make a bittersweet trip to Nevada to visit his old friend B.B. King, who was battling Father Time and the debilitating effects of diabetes before his death in May.
It would have been, no doubt, a chance to reminisce about the old days and to talk and think about where the music both men love is headed.
Buddy Guy thinks a lot about the Blues. It’s his lifeblood and his life’s work.
From the time when he was a little boy in Lettsworth, Louisiana (pop. 202 in 2005), within spitting distance of the Mississippi River and an old antebellum plantation house called the White Hall, Guy was always trying to make music.
He’d stretch old rubber bands over a piece of wood and pick away.
He has always been an innovator, stretching the limits of the blues guitar, even back in the 1940s.
“I used to try to make a guitar using a rubber band — anything that would make noise,” the 78-year-old said in a telephone interview. “I tell the young people today what Muddy Waters told me: You learn to play the music for the love of music, not for the love of money.
“You didn’t have young people playing guitar like you have today. When you would play a guitar, you would stand out like a sore thumb. I just wanted to do something different. I couldn’t plan anything — I just wanted to play guitar.”
Being an innovator made for some hard times for the man who is credited by so many with creating electric blues rock and carrying the banner for the Chicago-style of blues to players like Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page.
“I didn’t get success overnight and that will follow me the rest of my life. In fact, if it wasn’t for Canada, I don’t know if you would be interviewing me now.”
In 1967, Guy was invited to play at the Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia, Ont.
“I had never seen that many people before, because we were playing small blues clubs then. I was driving a tow truck and I took a two-week vacation. A man came to me saying, ‘I guarantee you, you will make more money playing guitar than driving that tow truck.’ I said: ‘I got to have proof of that’ because I didn’t want to get out there and get stranded.” In the early days of Muddy Waters and B.B. King, there were a lot of promoters who didn’t pay the musicians, Guy said, and that had him wary.
“But when I went to Canada — we played Ann Arbor, Michigan, Canada, and then we went to Boston — when I came back to Chicago and went into work, my boss said to me, ‘Just don’t leave before you teach the others guys how to drive the tow truck.’ I guess he saw it in my eyes that I was going to go take a shot at it.
“It was nerve-racking because I didn’t know if I was going to make it or not. Music is like prize fighting. If you are good enough to make the right plays in front of the right audience, then you are on your way. If not, you don’t go anywhere. That’s just a part of life.
“I’ve got so many friends who have passed on who were told they had to bring some money and they just hung up their guitars. But I didn’t, because I didn’t have much sense.”
It all changed with the British invasion.
“Rod Stewart, The Stones, Eric Clapton, they all started playing the blues and that’s when a lot of white audiences in North America started listening to us. That’s when we started to go from $10 a night to a couple of hundred dollars a night. I was making $2.11 an hour when driving a tow truck.”
These days, Guy still has his club in Chicago called Legends and he is often there. He is also touring regularly and is mentoring a young guitar player named Quinn Sullivan, who is now 16, but whom Guy first met when he was seven years old.
It’s part of passing the torch for a musical form for which he cares deeply. “I worry a lot about the legacy of Muddy, Wolf, and all the guys who created this stuff,” he has said in the past. “I want people to remember them. It’s like the Ford car — Henry Ford invented the Ford car, and regardless how much technology they got on them now, you still have that little sign that says ‘Ford’ on the front.
“One of the last things Muddy Waters told me — when I found out how ill he was, I gave him a call and said, ‘I’m on my way to your house.’ And he said, ‘Don’t come out here, I’m doing all right. Just keep the damn blues alive.’ They all told me that if they left here before I did, then everything was going to be on my shoulders. So as long as I’m here, I’m going to do whatever I can to keep it alive.”
Guy is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and has six Grammys, 28 Blues Music Awards and is in the Top 25 of Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.
In 1957, he arrived in Chicago where he started playing in sessions for Chess Records with Howlin’ Wolf, Waters and other members of the label’s roster, and then on recordings of his own.
“He was for me what Elvis was probably like for other people,” Clapton said at Guy’s Hall of Fame induction in 2005. “My course was set, and he was my pilot.”