If you check out Buddy Guy in concert, don't be surprised if he ends up standing in an aisle next to you, passionately wailing away on some elongated solo. His band, of course, will be busy keeping the beat somewhere on the other side of the concert hall, but Guy, in the spirit of the late Chicago blues master Eddie "Guitar Slim" Jones, likes to wander as far as his 150-foot extension cord will permit.
"Sometimes I don't think I'm as good a guitar player as some people say I am, so I have to go out there and touch you and wake you up," he said recently before a New York City performance.
Buddy has been waking up folks for decades, ever since he arrived in the Windy City from his native Louisiana in 1957. Unfortunately, it's his fellow musicians -- and not the masses --which best know of his fierce, burning guitar style. Eric Clapton once hailed him as the best axeman alive; Jimi Hendrix sought him out for jam sessions; Stevie Ray Vaughan considered him an idol. Past endorsements from members of rock's royalty have certainly cemented Guy's contemporary reputation as a modern-day electric master, but those accolades did little to help him find a suitable record deal in the 1980s; he went through virtually the entire decade without a domestic offering.
But the '90s have marked an American resurgence for Guy. He's enjoyed Grammy-winning albums, highlights of which are compiled on Buddy's Baddest: The Best of Buddy Guy. He's also achieved a level of commercial acceptance that he's never before known (although he remains outspoken about his disappointment at not achieving more airplay), and he's ascended to his rightful place as Chicago's pre-eminent blues figure.
The 63-year-old Guy's true element remains the stage, even with all the annoying aches and pains that have come with age. "I kinda feel it a little more now when I'm up there," he says. "You can just tell. These old legs just won't let me jump around as much as I did 30 years ago, but I still love it."
Guitar.com: Carlos Santana once said that if Buddy Guy had taken LSD, he would have been the first Jimi Hendrix. What do you think of that?
Guy: I don't think I would have needed anything other than the same brains and mind that I have now, you now. I just know more about the world now. I'm glad that I was brought up on a farm. My parents were very strict on me. And they was always straight about things. When I was learning how to swim, they used to tell me, "Son, if you get in water that's over your head, you're gonna drown." And I've watched a lot of great ones drown. I used to go to all the parties with all those people, just watching them falling out and fainting.
Guitar.com: But you've probably had your share or passing out from overindulgence, right?
Guy: Nope. My Dad made me drunk one Christmas when I was young and I knew after that I didn't want that feeling. I'm still out here trying to learn, and if I took all the things that they took, I'm not sure I would have learned anything at all. Janis [Joplin] used to tell me that I'd never be a superstar because I "wouldn't get on the train." I just told her that I didn't want to be on that train. Just give me a couple of beers and let me play my guitar.
Guitar.com: Do you think you've been misunderstood over the year by the press and public?
Guy: I've heard people say that my blues sounded just a little too black. I didn't think that music had a color on it, you know? But I'm not gonna give up that fight. Every time I see Eric or B.B., we always talk about it. If I went into the studio and tried to make a straight rock record, they're definitely not gonna play that. They'll criticize me then and say that Buddy Guy's playing white music. I've seen that printed about me as well. I'll do a show and maybe hit a few Stevie Ray Vaughan or Eric licks, and the story, if I do get a write-up, is something like, "I went to hear Buddy Guy, but he played white music."
Guitar.com: Having made it on the Chicago scene by the early '60s, was it important to you to branch out to other places?
Guy: As a blues musician living here in Chicago, I always heard that if you never played New York, you'd never make it. This was back when I first arrived. So finally, in 1967, I got invited to the Newport Jazz Festival. It was Junior Wells, myself, B.B. King, Count Basie and people like that. They had these guitar workshops in the early afternoon. You would go to a little corner and play. And by the time they was ready to call me and Junior, there was thousands of people there. And the guy who was the head man at Newport at that point, he asked, "Who the hell are these guys?" We put on a pretty good show there, and then I finally got a chance to go on to New York.
Guitar.com: About a year later, you were playing there on the day that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. What do you recall of that gig?
Guy: We were at a place called Generations. We played and we cried that night [April 4, 1968]. B.B. King and Jimi Hendrix was there. So was Janis Joplin. The city of New York closed up every place that was selling alcohol -- we only had a few bottles for ourselves. But since the club wasn't selling alcohol, it could stay open. A few other musicians showed up that night, because their gigs got canceled. We all knew when we got there what had happened with Dr. King. It was flashed everywhere. We were all so sad and shocked.
Guitar.com: Several young bluesman have emerged over the past few years, and many of the influential early figures of the genre have left us. Are the blues still in good hands?
Guy: We've got a few more of these young guys, like Jonny Lang, who are out here playing the blues and coming along. Actually, we need all the help in the world that we can get. We're lucky for guys like Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. They're helping to keep the blues alive. These guys help us keep it going, because a lot of big FM stations won't play blues anyway. And if you're black and playing it, I don't give a damn how good you play. They're not gonna play it.
Guitar.com: What's the greatest compliment you've gotten from another player?
Guy: Jimi Hendrix wasn't much of a talker, but he told me once that he'd kinda been pickin' some licks from me. Eric [Clapton] told me that too. But I really don't pay that any mind. I mean, B.B. King and I are good friends. And I've met people like T-Bone [Walker], Lightnin' Hopkins, and of course, I used to run around with Muddy Waters. All those great guitar players, they all used to tell me, "Don't think about that, because we all got something from somebody." And they're right. You know, I think we've all got a few B.B. King licks in us.