Chicago blues king Buddy Guy has a National Medal of Arts, a Kennedy Center Honors award, a truckload of Grammy and Blues Music Awards and membership in the Rock ’n’ Roll, Louisiana Music and Musicians Halls of Fame. As of Sept. 14, you can add a Fifth Star Award from the City of Chicago to his list of accolades.
The Fifth Star Award recognizes contributions to the Windy City’s arts and culture scene, and it’s been given out for the past three years in ceremonies at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park.
Guy was one of five honorees at the city’s Fifth Star program. (Its name is a nod to the four stars on Chicago’s flag, with the recipient of the award acting as a ceremonial fifth.)
After all his honors, Guy has perfected the art of looking simultaneously pleased as punch and humbled as pie. But he looked downright beatific from his perch on the pavilion, beaming as blues queen Shemekia Copeland offered a brief biography. Various artists sang their praise on an overhead screen in a video tribute.
“Playing with Buddy Guy is like a shot of adrenaline. … This guy influenced everybody from [Jimi] Hendrix to [Eric Clapton], and inspired a kid like me, a 12-year-old kid in Austin, Texas, that this was possible,” guitar slinger Gary Clark Jr. said.
“He had the Checkerboard Blues Lounge and now of course Legends for over 20 years. He’s helping to keep the music going and alive,” Copeland declared.
“Buddy Guy is synonymous with the relationship between Chicago and the blues,” folk-bluesman Keb’ Mo’ said.
Israeli-born guitarist-vocalist Guy King, who cut his blues teeth at Legends and other Chicago clubs, led a 12-piece band in a musical tribute to the honoree.
King opened with “The Same Thing That Can Make You Laugh (Can Make You Cry),” a funky tune from his recent Delmark release, Truth. He then emulated Guy with snippets of Cream’s “Sunshine Of Your Love,” driven by a four-piece horn section, and later reveled in a Buddy-like arrangement of John Hiatt’s “Feels Like Rain,” a staple of Guy’s live sets. King turned in a tasteful, thumb-picked solo, but Guy would have outdone him three notes to one in six-string firepower.
The curtain-closing song was virtually preordained. It had to be “Sweet Home Chicago.” As King and company stretched out the intro to the ubiquitous blues anthem, Guy was led onstage with the four other honorees. They locked arms in a group bow, and Guy was embraced by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Guy must have whispered the best joke of all time into the mayor’s ear, because Emanuel practically tipped over in convulsive laughter.
At age 80, Guy wasn’t the oldest Fifth Star recipient on the program. The senior honoree was 87-year-old photographer Victor Skrebneski, whose fashion cred was affirmed by supermodel Cindy Crawford’s appearance as his presenter.
Jackie Taylor, who heads the Black Ensemble Theater Company, and Carlos Tortolero, founder of the National Museum of Mexican Art, also joined Guy as Fifth Star honorees, along with the Second City, Chicago’s iconic improvisational comedy troupe.
The Second City was established in 1959, making it the youngest of the night’s feted guests, although presenter Fred Willard turns 77 on Sept. 18. Willard put his Second City-honed improv chops to good use as the most spontaneous of the presenters.
The Q Brothers, a pair of rappers/actors from Chicago, added a touch of youthful exuberance to the proceedings with a rhyme for each recipient.
Guy’s new award harkened back to the July evening in 2008 at Millennium Park, when Guy became the first recipient of the Great Performers of Illinois Award. Several days before that ceremony, which featured a performance by fellow bluesman Jimmie Vaughan’s band, Guy admitted to knowing little about the award, but said, “That’s gotta be a great honor.”
With the Great Performers festival now apparently in mothballs, the city shows every intention of making Fifth Star a more permanent arts celebration