Buddy Guy’s Kennedy Center Honors blues

Let’s go ahead and get this over with — you damn right Buddy Guy’s got the blues. Man can’t win ’cause he ain’t got nothing to lose.

Okay. That feels better.

(SANDRO CAMPARDO/ASSOCIATED PRESS) - Buddy Guy performs on the stage of the Stravinski hall during the 42nd Montreux Jazz Festival in Montreux, Switzerland.

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“Damn Right,” his Grammy-winning anthem, is stapled to the man like “The Thrill Is Gone” is to B.B. King, like “I’m a Man” is to Muddy Waters.

Louisiana born, Chicago molded, the 76-year-old is that primal to the music — one of the icons of the age, a real-life John Henry striding across the American mid-century landscape.

He was born in a sharecropper’s shack near a little bit of nothing called Lettsworth in 1936. This is hard by the Atchafalaya River, a couple of miles from the Mississippi, the air thick with humidity, poverty and mosquitoes that could carry you off to Texas.

“Looking out of my front door,” he’ll tell you, “you’d be looking at vacant land.”

Dropped out of school, never learned to read music. Caught an armload of train heading to Chicago on the morning of Sept. 25, 1957,with nothing but a guitar on his back and a few bills tucked in a hip pocket. Got off the train knowing no one, a 21-year-old bumpkin in a city that ground bumpkins up like offal in the slaughterhouses.

Self-assessment, 55 years later: “I was out of my league.”

And somehow, he made it from that place to this one — the Kennedy Center, the Honors — with talent, tenacity and a feverish love of his distortion-drenched, guitar-based blues.

Also, timing: His was the age when Chicago was rewiring acoustic country blues as an electric, terrifying force that gave birth to rock.

The short list of his peers, and he played with them all: Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson and Junior Wells, his longtime playing partner. The short lists of his protegees: Jimi Hendrix (where do you think he got that distorted sound?), Eric Clapton (who considers him the world’s greatest living guitarist), Keith Richards (“When I first heard Buddy Guy, I got scared”) and Stevie Ray Vaughan and Carlos Santana and Jeff Beck and blah blah blah.

He’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, has been awarded the National Medal of Arts, and is ranked by Rolling Stone at No. 23 on the list of 100 Greatest Guitarists. Most of the top 10 learned at his feet, and No. 6, King, is his only living blues peer.

“Anything involved with guitar playing after Buddy has his influence on it,” says Brett Bonner, editor of Living Blues magazine, “and if he put his guitar down and sang, he could still peel the paint off the walls.”

Through all this, he is also a veteran club owner and businessman. Buddy Guy’s Legends, in the South Loop, is regarded as the best blues club in America.

“Chicago is cold, but it’s also coldblooded and competitive,” says David Ritz, the veteran celebrity ghostwriter who helped Guy pen “When I Left Home,” his autobiography, published earlier this year. “To wind up with his career and owning the major blues club in the country a couple of blocks off the lake . . . imagine having the intelligence and the savvy to have accomplished that.”

Commotion in Aisle 7

Let’s go to the man’s house.

This takes the better part of an hour, driving from downtown Chicago. You wind up in a little suburb and you take a residential road, then turn on another narrow drive, leading to a cove of houses, and there it is: two buildings, set in the woods, on 14 acres.

You go past the garage, which houses the Rolls-Royce, the Ferrari, the 1958 Edsel, the 1955 T-Bird. Walking inside a sliding door off a dining room, you go through the spacious kitchen, back to the left and into the entertainment room, with a pool table and a wet bar. The indoor swimming pool is on the other side of a glass wall.

On the bar stool, wearing a beret, is George “Buddy” Guy.

He’s slender, soft-spoken, about 5-foot-8. He still has a trace of country-boy-gone-to-the-city — he’ll say, ‘yes, sir,’ or ‘no, ma’am,’ tongue slightly in cheek — and tell gently wide-eyed stories about how he got to know Muddy Waters, the man sitting around his house in curlers, watching baseball.

“I was just never as good as they were,” he says of the slightly older generation of blues musicians who preceded him to town. “I was just so lucky to be able to play with them.”

Then he’s on to stories about cooking, how much he still loves his native red beans and rice, shopping for good chicken at the grocery store.

“People see me in there, they say, ‘What are you doing in here?’ I say I got to eat like everybody else.”

He digresses into his worry about chemicals injected into foods, comparing them with the fresh-out-of-the-dirt vegetables of his youth . . . and it’s this sort of down-home focus that, off-stage, has dominated most of his life. He has been married (and divorced) twice, but has always been close to his eight children. Pictures of his parents, Sam and Isabella, are in frames on a nearby table.

He learned to play guitar on a two-string thing in his parents’ house, and his dad bought his first real guitar from a man named Coot. (Every small Southern town has a man named Coot.)

Then, the life-changing revelation: As a teen, he went to the Masonic Temple in Baton Rouge and saw Guitar Slim. Slim always had a few hundred feet of cord running to his amp so he could start his set while standing in the street out front. From his autobiography: “He played his guitar between his legs, played it behind his back, played it on his back, played it jumping off the stage, played it hanging from the rafters.”

That would be Guy’s stage presence for the rest of his life — after conquering his nerves. At his first gig, in the early ’50s, played in front of maybe 15 patrons, he was so nervous he turned his back and faced the rear of the stage, playing “Work With Me Annie.” He just couldn’t play with people looking at him.

When he first got to Chicago, playing clubs like the 708 and Squeeze, he learned to take a shot of whiskey or wine, releasing his “wild man” stage persona. His new family was fellow guitar slingers and blues musicians. He was a session man at Chess Records — “a plain-looking building that sat between a supply company and a rundown rooming house,” he recalls in his autobiography. The label was world famous, but it paid about like it looked.

His compatriots were hard-living, hard-drinking, often uneducated men who were brilliant musicians. John Lee Hooker, who lived in Detroit, was so profoundly illiterate that he could barely write his own name. “It looked like a little kid’s writing,” Guy says.

Guy’s loud, hard, distorted riffs resulted in seminal songs like “Stone Crazy,” “Hoodoo Man Blues” and producing Koko Taylor’s version of “Wang Dang Doodle.

Still, most of his life he made the better part of his money driving a tow truck.

The family’s economics were so basic, and his shy demeanor so reserved, that his children and their friends had no real idea of what he did for a living. They just knew he was some sort of musician who was a pretty fair hand with the guitar at a block party.

“He knew our teachers, he knew the principals,” remembers his younger daughter, Carlise Guy, who now helps manage the nightclub (on top of her day job). “He traveled a lot, but when he was home, he did the washing, the cooking, the cleaning. I was traumatized one time when he tried to do my hair, but I’m saying he was a very hands-on dad.”

When she was briefly hospitalized as a teenager, the nurse was so star-struck after recognizing her dad that she went home and confronted him: “Okay. So who are you?”

Mark Nunn dated and married his oldest daughter, Charlotte, in the same fog.

“I’d go by the house and he’d be cooking,” he says. “We went by opening night of [Guy’s nightclub] in 1989 and there were all these famous people walking around. I whispered to Charlotte, “Who’s your dad again?”

By the time his career took off, he was 55, and his kids were grown.

Those birthday blues

It’s long after dark now and Guy, after his afternoon nap (he’s up at dawn, and stays at the club most nights until 1 a.m.) is back at the bar. It’s a spacious club in shades of blue and white with exposed brick, the main decoration guitars given to him by famous friends. The place is right behind a couple of major hotels. It draws mostly tourists.

Upstairs, Guy is in his office, settled in a black leather easy chair, the walls light red, more guitars around, a liquor cabinet next to the flat-screen television.

He’s talking about how much the business has changed — namely, its remarkable switch from being an all-black medium to today, when audiences are often 90 percent white. This change started in the late 1960s, more or less alongside the explosion of folk music and rock (exemplified by the Rolling Stones taking their name and initial style from a Muddy Waters song) and has continued unabated.

Tonight, downstairs, about 95 percent of the 200 or so patrons are white. This isn’t universal, particularly in some spots in the Deep South, but there’s no doubt about the cultural shift.

“The blues is about hard times and bad times, and maybe black people just don’t want to hear that anymore,” he says, offering his best guess.“B.B. and I talk about it all the time.” (King, on tour, could not be reached by deadline.)

Charlotte pokes her head into the office.

“Daddy? We need to RSVP to the White House. I got the forms to fill out.”

He gets up, takes care of paperwork, then heads downstairs, taking a stool at a corner of the club, making happy talk and posing for pictures with the customers who recognize him.

Carl Weathersby is up on stage. He grew up in Meadville, Miss., — not far from Guy’s Louisiana home town — he has worked as a prison guard, cop and steelworker. He plays 100 to 200 nights a year on the road, seeing the landscape of American blues firsthand.

He comes offstage during a break, takes a seat near Guy.

“Blues clubs like this one?”

He’s repeating the question, eyebrows arching.

“None,” he says. “From Maine to Mexico. From Key West to Seattle. You won’t find another club like this.”

Plus, playing at Guy’s place, with the distinct possibility that the proprietor will sit in with you, offers “instant credibility.” 

A young woman has asked Guy to sing her boyfriend something for his birthday, and he says fine. He sidles off the stool, taps Weathersby on the shoulder.

“Play me a little blues something for a minute,” he says.

“In what?”

Guy thinks, says, “G Minor. Make it G Minor.”

Then he’s up onstage. The crowd sees him, wakes up, the energy in the club rejuvenated. Weathersby and the band tuck into a nice little 12-bar blues, something for Guy to riff on.

The man himself calls a waitress for a shot of cognac.

“I get [expletive] nervous when I come up here,” he tells the crowd. There are shouts and applause when he drains it. And then he’s into it, the place suddenly gone magic with his voice.

I want you to love me

Love me with your own free will

You know if you don’t love me

(pause)

I believe your little sister will

The crowd erupts, laughter, applause, whoop-whoops.

The band picks up the pace now, working it up. Guy takes control of the stage, his voice coming up harder now.

There’s a line about a leg to the east and a leg to the west, that Louisiana tenor floating through the club, it’s a shout and now — now he brings it down to a whisper. He has the place so hushed you could hear silk slide off a shoulder, stockings rustle on a fine pair of gams.

It’s so quiet you can hear the winter descending, like a chill on your soul. It’s 1 in the morning and there’s the taste of gin on the tongue and the smell of bourbon coming from the next table and now he’s bringing the music up, up, UP, his voice a shout and the women at the next table are laughing, calling, shouting his name, a cymbal crashes, and the world rights on its axis.

Buddy Guy got the blues? You damn right, baby. You damn right.

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