Mar 2, 2018
by Robert Feuer
Buddy Guy, born George Guy in 1936, had a Louisiana childhood with his sharecropper parents, receiving grade school learning in an old three-classroom Baptist church. The family couldn’t afford a radio. Not many people had access to a guitar. Guy’s only exposure to one occurred annually at Christmas, when a guitarist would come to his father’s house. Eventually, Guy constructed a two-stringed instrument from household objects, including his mother’s hairpins.
“I wanted to do something a country kid didn’t do,” he said in our 2013 phone interview, an honor for me. “I didn’t ever think I was gonna be successful. I didn’t learn nothin’ from the book, and nothin’ from school. I got it from someone else,” he said, talking about “copping licks” from the great guitar players of that era.
Moving to Chicago in 1957, he signed with Chess Records for a ten-year stint, backing up Muddy Waters, Koko Taylor, Little Walter, and Howlin’ Wolf.
During the 1960s heyday of blues/rock, Guy connected with popular players likeEric Clapton andJeff Beck. He said he doesn’t know why. “I was just makin’ records behind Muddy. I didn’t have no hit records.” People like Clapton and Beck, both of whom he got to know personally, were listening to Guy’s guitar behind the major blues artists of the time. “I was just havin’ fun in the studio with those guys and that blessing came to me from above somewhere.”
Jimi Hendrix followed him around with a reel to reel tape recorder and once canceled one of his own performances to see Guy play. “I didn’t know who the hell he was,” Guy said. Eventually, during Hendrix’ last years, they had conversations and jammed together on stage.
But, Guy said, he never let that go to his head. “People look at you like you’re supernatural, but I’m still the little boy who used to pick cotton from sunup to sundown and didn’t know who Muddy Waters was until I was 17.”
Guy’s accomplishments include six Grammys, 28 Blues Music Awards, induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the Kennedy Center Honors, and the Presidential National Medal of Arts. Rolling Stone magazine lists him at #23 among all-time great guitarists.
Sixty years past Louisiana, Guy isn’t done yet. Motivating much of what he does now is what he calls “keepin’ them blues alive.” He feels that the blues tradition is being lost, saying “It’s very scary.”
He disagrees with people who say the blues is too sad, claiming they don’t understand it. “Whenever we go play, there’s lots of smiling faces.”
Guy, honored in a performance at the White House for President Obama in 2012, said “Coming from pickin’ cotton in a cotton sack to pickin’ guitar in the White House. What else can you ask for?” Of all his honors, “The White House is the one I never dreamed of. This is gonna carry me the rest of my life.”
Buddy Guy appears Mar. 18 at theLuther Burbank Center for the Arts
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