Buddy Guy: A Man and His Blues
Originally printed in Guitar World Magazine, October 2005
Jimi Hendrix learned at his feet. Eric Clapton calls him "the greatest living guitarist." On the eve of his new release, I Got Dreams, blues legend Buddy Guy reflects on his greatest recordings.
Buddy Guy’s Legends club sits on a windswept Chicago street corner. It’s not one of those Disney-fied, touristy blues places but a bona fide neighborhood joint with neon beer signs and walls that have been spray painted black. The club’s upstairs offices are equally down to earth: dinged-up metal desks, clutter everywhere and a battery-challenged smoke alarm that chirps constantly. No one seems to notice.
Seated at a desk that looks like it could once have belonged to an automotive repo man, Buddy is dressed in a light-blue windbreaker and matching Kangol hat. His hands cradle an old black-and- white photograph that shows Buddy with Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon at the historic Chess recording studio in Chicago. The years seem to melt away as Buddy gazes down at the image.
“Man, you can see the expression on my face,” he says, beaming. “To sit there and play behind Muddy Waters—I was in heaven.”
At 70, Buddy Guy is our greatest living link between the blues’ storied past and its vibrant present. He has traded licks with the founding fathers of electric blues, the Sixties rock gods and today’s finest young bloods. As blues guitarists go, they just don’t come any better than Buddy. His utterly unique sense of phrasing seems hardwired to the emotional logic of choked-back tears. Astoundingly agile, he can make a Fender Stratocaster sing the proud exuberance of human sorrow transmuted to pure beauty.
Buddy’s brand new album is titled I Got Dreams. A soul-flavored disc, it shows the blues titan putting his distinctive stamp on tracks by legends like Wilson Pickett, Eddie Floyd and Johnny Taylor, and his own new composition “What Kind of Woman Is This.” The album was recorded in part at Memphis’ historic Royal Studio. Royal owner and noted R&B producer Willie Mitchell contributed horn arrangements on several tracks. Frequent Keith Richards collaborator Steve Jordan produced the star-studded disc, which also features Robert Randolph and Anthony Hamilton joining in on a version of Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” that boasts the first ever Buddy Guy blues solo performed on electric sitar. “I never got a chance to do that before,” he says with a laugh.
Elsewhere on the album, Carlos Santana teams up with Buddy on a blazing rendition of the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins classic “I Put a Spell on You.” Recently, Santana has become a major Buddy Guy booster. The two are also collaborating on a duet album that should be out soon. And on a more youthful note, John Mayer makes a guest appearance on I Got Dreams, trading lines with Buddy on “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember.”
“It’s an Otis Redding song that John actually picked for me to do,” says Buddy. “He told me, ‘This song fits you. You can do something with this.’ At first I said, ‘Wait a minute, John, that’s not my type of stuff.’ Then I got in the studio and said, ‘Hey, this feels good!’ John and I have been jammin’ a while now. He’s a great young man, selling a lot of records. I feel so proud of him. Every once in a while the blues needs an Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan or Johnny Lang to come along and give it a lift. ’Cause the blues has been fightin’ for life ever since I’ve been knowing it. But the way I love the blues, I’ll just go down with it.”
Mayer is the latest in a long line of noted guitarists who have paid homage to Buddy Guy. Jimi Hendrix literally knelt at Guy’s feet to study his astounding technique. Eric Clapton, another major acolyte, has repeatedly called Buddy “the greatest living guitarist.” Stevie Ray Vaughan never would have picked up a Stratocaster without Buddy’s inspiration. So it’s more than fitting that Buddy was admitted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year, the latest in a parade of honors that time has brought in its wake.
“It’s like sitting on top of the world,” says Buddy of his induction. “But every award I ever received in my life, I accept it in honor of the people who should have got it long before me, like Son House, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Lightnin’ Hopkins and T-Bone Walker. All those guys should have had the awards that a lot of us are gettin’ now. So their name is on mine.”
In matters of blues history, Buddy possesses a ready and vivid memory. He seems to feel the bitterness of each rip-off and the glory of each musical triumph as if they happened yesterday. As he reflects on some of his greatest recordings, from the late Fifties to the present day, the recollections come flooding back, infusing the hallowed grooves with the living truth they call “the blues.”