Photograph by Derrick Santini
Modest innovator: Buddy guy played guitar with his teeth before Jimi and out in the audience before Dick Dale.
Buddy Guy, the man who taught Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton how to play the blues, headlines this year's Metro Fountain Blues Festival
By Mike Connor
Fifty years ago, Buddy Guy left his hometown of Baton Rouge, La., to go play the guitar in Chicago. Now, at 70 years old, Guy is without a doubt a blues legend—he was a protégé of Muddy Waters, and later a god to guitar heroes like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. In 2005, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and he's got his own blues club in Chicago called Buddy Guy's Legends.
When I talked to Guy on the morning of May 6, he was back in Baton Rouge spending time with family, but he'd also spent the previous week working with the actor Tommy Lee Jones on a film, and the previous day talking to the mayor of Baton Rouge, who's hoping Guy will consider opening up a blues club in his hometown.
"I gotta take a close look," says Guy, sounding skeptical. "When I went to Chicago 50 years ago, you walk in one block, you find 10 or 12 blues clubs on each side of the street going in one same direction. You can count 'em on one hand now."
Guy calls blues musicians "an endangered species" and points to factors like the lack of variety on the radio to the blues' impending demise, but mostly just seems disappointed that the blues got the shaft.
"I don't know what we did to be treated like this so far as the blues music goes," says Guy, "because blues music plays a part in all music we hear and play today including hip-hop."
Far from being a curmudgeon or blues purist, though, Guy listens to and plays all kinds of music. Asked how he relates to hip-hop, it turns out that his relationship with the genre goes deeper than one might expect.
"You know who Ludacris is, right?" Um, yes. "You know they got a girl, her name's Shawnna, been working with him, right?" Mmm hmm. "That's my daughter."
In fact, Shawnna's CD Block Music features Buddy on it.
"Actually she made me play on it," says Guy, clearly amused. "I said, 'Girl, I don't know how to play hip-hop!'" As it turns out, she just wanted to sample his blues riffs after she found out she had to pay to sample other people's music. "She said, 'If I use yours, dad, then I don't have to pay nobody.'"
Unlike other moments on Block Music, Shawnna keeps it relatively clean on "Can't Break Me" and "Chicago," the tracks to which her father contributed. While he has no plans to put out any hip-hop of his own, Guy is fair–minded about hip-hop's cultural dominance.
"They do so well selling that stuff, the young generation of people," says Guy. "That's what time it is right now and I looks at it as, you know, when Muddy Waters amplified the harmonica and guitar, that's what time it was then. I don't have anything against [hip-hop], that's what people want, that's what you give 'em. But like the car, you know—they got all kinda cars coming out, but you still got Ford and Chevrolet, too."
Guy just wants to hear Muddy Waters on the radio once or twice a week, but he would also like to see more vibrant nightlife, which he thinks is being legislated away with too many new laws.
"I think there should be smokin' bars and there should be nonsmokin' bars," says Guy, who owns a bar. "My parents smoked and chewed tobacco, did snuff and everything, and they didn't have no cancer. This lady, Christopher Reed's wife, died with lung cancer and never smoked a cigarette in her life. So we ain't gonna live always, I don't care what you do."
Mostly, though, he points his finger at the "lawmakers," many of whom are his age, so he's got no patience with 'em.
"You know when you watch a basketball game," says Guy, "most of the officials is old enough [to be] all the players' daddy, and they make two or three fast breaks down from one end of the court to the other one, he'll blow a whistle 'cause he's tired. He can't keep up with the guys, and our lawmakers who are passin' these laws now with the nonsmokin' and the DUIs is the ones who was partying in they time, in they heydays, and now they wanna make the new law sayin' I'm not gonna let you party like I did."
Not that he advocates heavy drinking and driving—back in the day in Chicago, there was a little something called public transportation, 24/7.
"We had 200,000 people at the steel mill, we had 250,000 at the stockyard 24/7, all that's gone, and that's when the public transportation was 24/7. I used to have to catch it with my guitar and amplifier after I got through playing at 4 o'clock in the morning, and I didn't have to stand more than 10 minutes to catch a bus. But they don't run like that no more."
They don't make 'em like Buddy no more, either, and this fall, he's got some studio time to go in and produce his own album—something he didn't get a chance to do back in the '60s.
"I had to play Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters," says Guy, "And when I come to play for you now, I'm not gonna stand and say, 'Where you at with Buddy Guy?' I'm gonna play some Muddy, some of Hendrix, some of Clapton, whatever the people want, that's what I'm gonna give ya. I'm from Louisiana, man, I like gumbo and they put everything in it."
Chances are he'll have some of that gumbo feel in his new album, but even if he's pulling music and artists from all over the world, the ideas will all be his.
"I just wanna go into the studio and just cut loose and be Buddy Guy, whether it be good or bad," says Guy. "I never had that opportunity to be free, and a lot of the British guys who are superstars now, when they went in the studio they said, 'I done picked up something from Buddy Guy, just let me play it,' they got away with it, but I never had a chance to do that. So I'm gonna try it."
Buddy Guy headlines the Metro Fountain Blues Festival, performing along with Sista Monica, Jimmy Thacker & the Drivers, Jason Ricci & New Blood, The JC Smith Band and The Lara Price Band on Saturday (May 12) at the San Jose State University. Tickets are free, but a $5 donation is requested. For more information, visit www.fountainbluesfestival.com.
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