The blues has always found its proponents with a healthy respect for experience and history, particularly with younger musicians paying homage to the elder statesman of the genre. Many of those who once studied at the side of masters have become icons themselves, be it Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, or the three Kings—Albert, B.B., and Freddie– and of course, Buddy Guy. Buddy Guy has endured as one of the last champions of a rich Chicago blues scene cornerstone’d by the storied Chess Records and honeycombed by an elite cache of clubs that instigated a sound and attitude deeply revered around the world.
To that end, last year PBS recognized Guy’s impact as he crossed the mid-point of his eighth decade on earth by releasing Buddy Guy: The Blues Chase The Blues Away as part of the American Masters series. The documentary arrived only months before the announcement that Guy would be embarking on his six-decades-on-the-road grand finale “Damn Right Farewell Tour” which reaches its final Macon, Georgia destination on Saturday, September 16th at the City Auditorium.
Final tour or not, one can count on Guy continuing to uplift the blues, which is one reason he was happy to participate in the PBS documentary.
“The way they treat the blues now, you don’t hear it on your big radio stations anymore,” Guy remarked in a recent phone interview. “Your big AM/FM stations don’t play blues hardly anymore. So whatever little I can do to help keep blues alive, I’m open for it. I’m ready to wake up in the midnight hours of the night to help keep it alive– because without satellite radio, I don’t think you hear much of B.B. King no more. Even the British blues guys aren’t being played much on radio anymore. You get a lot of hip-hop and superstars’ records, which don’t need to be played because they’re so well-known. Their records are going to go [big] anyway. I don’t need to hear Muddy Waters as much as I hear Madonna or somebody else. Just play me Muddy Waters once or twice a month.”
Throughout the hour and 23 minutes of his American Masters episode, Guy’s life proves to be a fascinating tale. In addition to original interviews with Guy and numerous acolytes including John Mayer, Carlos Santana, Gary Clark, Jr., and Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, viewers are treated to quite the travelogue. The filmmakers trace the guitarist from his origins working the Louisiana fields his sharecropping family plowed (and where a portion of highway was named after him in December 2018) to the thriving 1950s Chicago music scene he arrived in with nothing but a guitar in his hand and the suit on his back. It was here that he got his first break when Waters took the 21-year-old fret-bender under his wing.
“Sixty-five years ago last year I’d just gotten to Chicago and I wasn’t looking to be a professional musician,” Guy recalled. “I’d left Louisiana because they told me I could go to Chicago, get a day job, and wouldn’t have to pay to see Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, and all those guys. I was looking for a day job because I didn’t never think I was good enough to play with them. But I learned how to play Lightnin’ Hopkins, Jimmy Reed, and a few Muddy Waters licks. I hadn’t eaten in three days and a guy took me to the 708, a famous blues club on 47th Street in Chicago. I went up and played a number with the late Otis Rush and somebody called Muddy Waters, who was living about five blocks away. He got out of his van and because he heard I was telling people how hungry I was, he brought me a bologna sandwich.”
Word of Guy’s guitar prowess got around, and after a brief stint recording a few sides for Cobra Records, Guy landed at Chess courtesy of Waters, who favored the young musician. Soon, other artists in the label’s stable started using him on their records as well. While label founder Leonard Chess begrudgingly used Guy while denouncing what he did as “just making noise,” the Louisiana native’s combination of tasty playing and over-the-top showmanship made him a favorite of the British Invasion triumvirate of Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, and Eric Clapton, as well as stateside guitar god Jimi Hendrix. And while Guy is a humble man, he’s quick to acknowledge his abilities as well, particularly when asked what he thought about Hendrix the first time they met in 1968.
“You should ask what he thought of me because he told me he came from a gig to come see me play because he’d picked up some things from me,” Guy said with a chuckle. “As a matter of fact, I was playing in New York and he came in with a reel-to-reel tape recorder and I didn’t know who the hell he was. He asked if he could tape and I could hear somebody saying, ‘That’s Jimi Hendrix.’ I didn’t know much about him because I was following B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and T-Bone (Walker). I said, ‘So what. Who in the hell is Jimi Hendrix?’ He come up and asked if he could tape what I was doing because he just canceled a gig to come to New York to hear me play.”
While the blues may have fallen out of favor in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Guy experienced a comeback in the ‘90s, beginning with the release of his 1991 album Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues, his first recording in nearly a decade. Featuring cameos by Clapton, Beck, and Mark Knopfler, the album is credited with kickstarting a blues rebirth. Guy has released a steady stream of albums since then, won eight GRAMMY Awards, earned a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, and played for fellow Chicagoan, President Barack Obama (“I always say I went from the outhouse to the White House.”)
Having never stopped touring, even during the leaner times, Guy understandably had slowed his pace some in recent years, but his fire for playing guitar and spreading the blues gospel hasn’t waned. Following on the heels of the PBS film is The Torch, a documentary that examines the guitarist’s ongoing influence on the blues and includes interviews with a number of musicians including Carlos Santana and Susan Tedeschi.
As for what folks can expect from the blues maestro’s mighty last ride at the Macon City Auditorium, Guy promises prime rib in a world of SPAM.
“Folks can expect the best that I got,” he said. “My dad told me this and I’ll tell you the same thing he told me before I learned how to play when I was driving the tractor and plowing the fields in Louisiana. He said, ‘Son, don’t be the best in town. Just be the best until the best come around.’”