Bluesman Buddy Guy keeps the 'legend' alive

Brian Mackey

The word “legend” is tossed around so often that it’s long since become a cliché.

It’s the easy way out for lazy writers in need of an adjective to describe an accomplished person who’s been around a while.

Chicago blues guitarist George “Buddy” Guy, however, brought it on himself when he named his music club Buddy Guy’s Legends.

In one of the top clubs in a city known for its men and women singing of love and loss over a 12-bar vamp, who’s more legendary than the man with his name on the door?

“This so-called ‘being a legend,’ I don’t put that up on my shoulders,” Guy recently told Samuel G. Freedman for an article published in American Way magazine. (Through a publicist, Guy declined to be interviewed for this article.)

“I guess if you just hang around long enough and play, (you’re considered a legend),” Guy said. “I think of the blessings I achieved from the way I was brought up. My father was a sharecropper who probably never made more than $20,000 in his whole life, and there was a lady in England who paid me $100,000 to play an hour.”

Slim > Guy > Hendrix

At 74 years old, Guy is still making new music and working the road.

His most recent album of new material, “Skin Deep,” was released in 2008. In New York he opened for the Rolling Stones; in Chicago he shared a stage with Eric Clapton at the Crossroads Guitar Festival; everywhere else he holds center stage at his own shows.

The blues are a generational inheritance — the young flock to the masters to learn the art and craft of the guitar.

Guy made a name for himself in mid-century Chicago in part by replicating the showmanship he saw in Guitar Slim.

“They brought him to Baton Rouge,” Guy said in an excerpt of an interview on YouTube. “When they introduced Guitar Slim, I didn’t see anybody, but I heard this guitar. And I said, ‘Wait a minute. Am I being fooled? Who playing it?’”

Finally, a large man came in carrying Slim on his shoulders. Slim was wearing white shoes and a red suit with hair to match. The man set him down, with Slim playing all the while. Guy was impressed.

Guy said, “I want to sound like B.B. King, but I want to act like Guitar Slim.”

That he did.

Some of Guy’s wildest tricks — playing behind his head and with his teeth — influenced an even younger guitarist named Jimi Hendrix, who would become a legend in his own too-short right.

But few Guy shows are the same. He has a taste for improvisation, in his songs and in the set, captured in a review by Jon Pareles for The New York Times in 2005:

“Mr. Guy … mingles anarchy, virtuosity, deep blues and hammy shtick in ways that keep all eyes on him, including those of his band, which follows through on every whim. He likes to complain about concert-hall curfews, then stretch out his songs. He likes to bring on guests … and make them follow his cues. Most of all, he loves extremes: sudden drops from loud to soft, or a sweet, sustained guitar solo followed by a jolt of speed, or a high, imploring vocal cut off with a rasp.”

City life

“Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning,” the poet Carl Sandburg wrote of Chicago in 1916.

It’s no wonder then that the Delta Blues followed the Great Migration up the Mississippi and found a home among the relocated African-Americans of Chicago’s south and west sides.

Guy is too young to have been a part of that, but he too followed the path, arriving from Louisiana on an Illinois Central train late one night in September 1957.

The 21-year-old had little money but enough ambition and guitar-playing chops to sustain him through five decades and five Grammy Awards.

As a young man, Guy looked up to B.B. King. But now the one-time novice performs alongside the blues’ elder statesman.

When Guy and King were taping a television show together in 1996, a writer from The New Yorker was there. The conversation, reported in the Sept. 23, 1996 issue, included an exchange in which King asked Guy what he thought about musicians who broke and burned their guitars on stage.

“They do that ’cause the company give them whatever they want,” Guy said. “They don’t pay for them, and they don’t respect ’em.”

King said he felt bad about it, and remembered how hard it was to get a guitar in the first place.

“Yes!” Guy said. “I had days when I didn’t eat, when my stomach was growling and the only thing of value I had was my guitar.”

The anonymous writer for The New Yorker reported: “Guy’s eyes grew misty for a second.”

Guy continued: “But I wouldn’t hawk it. I went literally hungry, but I just wouldn’t give up my guitar. I have hawked my coat in the middle of a Chicago winter and froze half to death because I wouldn’t part with my axe.”

The instrument is sacred because it’s the vessel of Guy’s legendary status, earned one pluck, bend and strum at a time. In the New Yorker story, Guy said he once dropped his guitar and cried about it.

“My guitar is the only thing I can tell my wife is gonna sleep between her and me and she won’t get mad,” Guy said. “I tell her, ‘I found you with this and I want it by my side. Don’t move it.’ And she won’t.”

Brian Mackey can be reached at 217-747-9587.