It was February 21, 2012. As part of the White House’s music series, “Red, White & Blues” featured a cavalcade of blues and blues-influenced greats including B.B. King, Jeff Beck, Mick Jagger, Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, Keb’ Mo’, and guitar legend Buddy Guy. President Obama thanked the performers as they wrapped up the evening with a rousing shuffle. The Robert Johnson tune shared its title with the city President Obama called home – “Sweet Home Chicago.”
With the audience on its feet, as the president began to make his exit, Buddy Guy took the mic and urged, “We were trying to get you to help us sing that.” President Obama’s smile was a mixture of joy and suspicion. “I heard you sing that Al Green,” Guy said, referring to Obama’s spontaneous snippet of Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” at a campaign stop at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. “You done started something,” Guy prodded. “You gotta keep it up now. You can do it. Come on.”
To the delight of the attendees and band, President Obama sang one verse (not bad at all) that immediately went viral.
Looking back, Guy admits, “I might have gone out of my way. Everybody looked at me like, ‘Do you know what you did?’ But I didn’t just volunteer, ‘Mr. President, you’re gonna sing “Sweet Home Chicago.”’ I was kind of briefed before – that if we did ‘Sweet Home Chicago,’ he might come up.”
Ten months later, Guy was at the Eisenhower Theater for the Performing Arts, sitting in the same box as President Obama and the First Lady, along with Led Zeppelin, actor Dustin Hoffman, ballerina Natalia Makarova, and TV host David Letterman – all recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors for lifelong achievement in the performing arts. Guy and B.B. King are the only blues artists to be so honored since the awards were instituted in 1978.
Guy’s first trip to the White House was in 2003, when he received the National Medal of Arts from George W. Bush. The six-time Grammy winner, cited as a major influence by Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, Ron Wood, and Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005.
In 1964, Guy recorded one of his classic singles for Chess Records, “My Time After Awhile.” But at 76, at the peak of his powers, this is clearly Buddy Guy’s time.
Guy’s autobiography, When I Left Home, co-written by David Ritz and published in 2012, tells the story of how the native of Lettsworth, Louisiana (born July 30, 1936) would imitate a guitar by plucking wires he’d ripped out of his family’s screen door and attached to a can. The son of a sharecropper, the music bug kicked into high gear after he heard “Boogie Chillen” by John Lee Hooker on the radio. His family moved to Baton Rouge, where he pumped gas and worked in a beer factory or as a maintenance man at Louisiana State University.
He saw Eddie “Guitar Slim” Jones, who would become his biggest influence, as guitarist and wild man onstage.
In 1957, Guy moved to Chicago to look for better-paying work, but not before cutting a demo at a local radio station. He packed the reel-to-reel tape along with the upgrade from his Harmony acoustic – a Gibson Les Paul. One night, the shy country boy got to sit in with Otis Rush, playing Guitar Slim’s “Things That I Used To Do,” when, he writes, “The spirit of Guitar Slim entered my soul.”
When people recall Buddy Guy hanging from the rafters, it’s not just a figure of speech. He’d play behind his back, behind his head, jump into the audience, wade through drinks as he walked the bar, and, if the ceiling was low enough, literally hang by his right hand from a pipe or rafter in the ceiling, while playing the guitar with his left hand.
Guy earned his way into Chess Records sessions with Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Muddy Waters, and Sonny Boy Williamson, and he eventually backed Hooker and King on record. He cut some singles for Chess, and because he was under contract to the label, appeared as “Friendly Chap” on Delmark Record’s Hoodoo Man Blues by his longtime partner, harmonica player Junior Wells – regarded as one of the greatest albums in blues history.
Guy’s first solo album, A Man and the Blues, was released by Vanguard in ’68. Its follow-up, This Is Buddy Guy, presented the type of no-holds-barred live shows for which he was famous. But there were years when, in order to pay the bills for his Checkerboard Lounge (which he opened so he could stay at home), he had to tour constantly with no recording contract.
The self-described “senior citizen” may not indulge in onstage acrobatics these days, but the solo he takes sitting in with the Rolling Stones in the documentary Lightning In A Bottle is but one example of why his playing style has been described as “feral.”
Guy’s recording career began an upward turn with 1991’s Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, which included “Rememberin’ Stevie,” dedicated to the Texas guitarslinger whose last performance a year earlier was a jam with brother Jimmie, Guy, Clapton, and Robert Cray. Bonnie Raitt joined him on 1993’s Feels Like Rain, and 2001’s stripped-down Sweet Tea took Guy back to his Delta roots.
For Skin Deep (2008) and Living Proof (2010), drummer/songwriter/producer Tom Hambridge says, “I wanted to capture Buddy in the studio like I saw him on stage. When we record, he is right there, and we are all on the floor, tracking live. I have him set up right next to my drum set, so we are looking at each other. His amps are bleeding through my overheads. Buddy, bass, guitar, drums, and keyboards are going down live. It’s awesome. Buddy is spontaneous and aggressive in this environment, and he obviously is playing his ass off these days. Sometimes I may ask him to give me another solo, but most of the songs on these albums are first takes.”
Of the songs he wrote about Guy or co-wrote with him, Hambridge says, “I wanted to hear him sing songs about where he came from, who he was, what he was feeling, how he looked at the world. We traveled on his bus, and he told me about his life. The more he spoke, the more songs I wrote.”
Playing rhythm guitar on the aforementioned CDs is David Grissom, known for his work with Joe Ely, the Dixie Chicks, and John Mellencamp. “The first time I heard Buddy was on the PBS show ‘Soundstage,’” he states. “He was playing a Guild Starfire, and his tone and energy floored me. Then I got A Man and the Blues, and I was hooked. Buddy usually plays fills and solos while we are tracking, to key off the energy of the band. It is amazing to hear him do take after take and just set it on fire every single time. It’s a thrill and an honor to be part of a rhythm section that supports and hopefully inspires him.”
Guy’s latest CD, the Hambridge-produced Live At Legends, was cut at his current club, Buddy Guy’s Legends, just prior to it moving to its new address on South Wabash in Chicago. In addition to recent originals, Waters and Hooker tunes, and covers of Clapton and Hendrix material, the album contains bonus tracks cut during the Skin Deep sessions.
As Hambridge notes, “Most players, singers, athletes start to lose it with age. He seems to get better and better with age. Buddy Guy is a freak of nature.”
Before you heard “Boogie Chillen” on the radio, what else were you listening to?
Well, by the time “Boogie Chillen” came out, that was about the time my dad was able to get a radio. Before that, it was no instruments. On the weekends, people would go to church and just sing with voices. We used to go up on the levees in Louisiana and get three or four guys to try to sound like the Original Five Blind Boys, the Pilgrim Travelers with Lou Rawls, and the Soul Stirrers. There was a lot of great gospel people, so that’s what we were listening to.
Then along with B.B. and Les Paul, when they amplified that guitar, that made the guitar real popular, and it’s been hanging on for a little while. But still, when I’m in Chicago, I listen to the gospel station. But most of your gospel music has a lot of instruments now.
How old were you when your family got that first radio?
I had to be about between 15 and 17. First of all, we didn’t have electricity. Our first radio, you put a battery on it and hooked up an antenna, running from the front to the back of this shotgun house. If it was cloudy or raining, you couldn’t get anything but static all day. Of course, it didn’t pick up any stations that were any distance from where we were, way out in the country. There wasn’t no radio station out there. At night, it would come in a little better – a little country and western, like in the movies with Gene Autry picking an acoustic guitar and riding a horse.
Then my dad had a guy named Coot who played guitar – Henry Smith. They’d go get him every Christmas day, and they’d have a gallon of wine and a case of beer and go from house to house.
Can you describe what it was like to suddenly hear music like “Boogie Chillen” on the radio?
Well, it’s like you going and buying a new car now. I didn’t know what a car was. My first car was a little pony. Like Muddy Waters made a record called “You Can’t Lose What You Ain’t Never Had.” Radio came in, so there was news, and Joe Louis was a big thing. My dad was a sharecropper, and the owner of the share would put a little stick outside so you could hear Joe Louis fight. But music wasn’t popularly available like it became. You finally had Lonnie Johnson and Robert Johnson, and then you had Louis Jordan and Arthur Crudup – who Elvis copied a lot of his stuff – and when that all came out on 78s, you would crank it up on the gramophone.
Finally, when I was 16 or 17, we got electricity to the house. That’s when you could pick up Randy’s Record Shop, one of the biggest disc-jockey’s in the country, coming out of Tennessee at night. That’s when I heard “Boogie Chillen,” Muddy Waters, Smokey Hogg. I would pick cotton, and when I got older I would drive a tractor, and I’d save up and order a record. Sometimes they’d come already cracked, because you couldn’t even drop those 78s.
We had a little sandlot baseball team. On Sunday afternoon when it was nice and sunny, we’d have a baseball game. Then at 5:30 in the evening, a little half-an-hour program came on with blues. I’d tell the team it was a rain delay. They said, “It’s not raining.” I’d say, “I’ve got to go hear my blues program.”
Did you hear the type of rural acoustic blues growing up that’s on Blues Singer from local guys?
No, just the guy I mentioned who’d play at Christmas. But when we moved to Baton Rouge, about 60 miles from Lettsworth, I saw Lightnin’ Slim. He made some records on Excello, out of Crowley, Louisiana. I saw him play “Boogie Chillen” on an electric guitar with a little amplifier, and I thought that was a joke. That was the first electric guitar I ever saw. In Baton Rouge, they were bringing in people like Big Joe Turner, the Five Royales and a lot of doo-wop groups, and New Orleans had some pretty good stuff coming out of there. And Louis Jordan was playing rock and roll before anybody, with the black people wearing zoot suits, and you also had people like Gatemouth Brown with a guitar record called “Okie Dokie Stomp.” That was the beginning of turning my head around. Also B.B. King and Lightnin’ Hopkins.
I heard Lightnin’ before any of them. He was there before B.B. and all of them, but he wasn’t squeezing the strings. It was acoustic most of the time, but it was just real funky blues. He could play the boogie-woogie stuff, but it wasn’t squeezing the strings and having horns and all that stuff like B.B. King; it was just him by himself mainly. Arthur Crudup was making his records by himself too. They didn’t have bands with drums and stuff back then. But Lightnin’ – oh, man. He was the daddy of it – him and Lonnie Johnson and Robert Johnson. I got to meet Lonnie Johnson before he died, and I met Lightnin’, but of course I never did meet Robert.
Did you ever meet people who played with him?
Of course I did. I got to sit up and play with Fred McDowell and the great Son House. They knew him well. And Robert “Junior” Lockwood and Johnny Shines and a few more.
I had a lot of fun with Son before he passed away. We had the same manager, who was Bonnie Raitt’s boyfriend then, Dick Waterman. I was following Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Little Walter until they brought them up from the South and said, “These are the guys Muddy got it from.” Then Muddy told me about Son House and Sippie Wallace, because in Baton Rouge I didn’t know who they were. When I got to know Muddy, that’s when I got my education. I didn’t learn nothing from books; I got it straight from the horse’s mouth.
You talk about seeing Guitar Slim, but did you ever get to talk to him?
No. I guess I tried to copy a lot from the man, because he was kind of the first wild guitar player I ever saw. Instead of asking him questions, I just wanted to sit back, listen, and learn. I never thought I’d be good enough to try to answer your questions. One day I woke up, and now I’m a senior citizen, and I’m the only one who can answer these questions. But no, I didn’t meet none of them when I was down South except Lightnin’ Slim and Slim Harpo. Then I went to Chicago, 55 years ago last September, and Guitar Slim died not long after that [February, 1959]. So I didn’t get to talk to him, but I met B.B. King. Somebody told him I was a young fellow who came from Louisiana and could play a few licks like him. I was on the stage one night, and he was sitting there watching me, and I couldn’t play because I was too nervous.
Most people who moved north to Chicago, black and white, went there to get a better paying job.
That’s exactly why I went there. I was working at LSU in Baton Rouge, and someone told me I could go to Chicago, get a job at a college or university, make three times the money – which was true. And then you could go to the clubs at night, and there wasn’t any cover charge. Man – didn’t need nobody to tell me nothing else. And then I could send back money and help support my family, because both of my brothers were younger than me, so I had to become the man of the family. I thought, “Maybe I can work and make sure they can get educated, because there’s no way I can get it now; I’ve got to go to work.”
I knew Muddy and the others were there, but I didn’t think I was good enough to meet them. I was just going to sit there like any other music lover, and watch and see what can I learn, and then go back to my room and play just for myself. I thought they were doing better than what they were, because they were selling records, but it was almost like a day job. They weren’t making any money; they were playing a circuit of club to club to club in Chicago. Most of those guys were making five or seven dollars a day, top pay. I’m thinking, “Is it worth it?” But they were enjoying it, man. It was the love of music, not the love of money.
When the British guitar players started playing the blues and we started playing for bigger audiences, white and black, that’s when I stopped making five dollars a night and started making 15.
What was your first electric guitar?
You could buy a pickup and clamp it onto an acoustic guitar, and that’s what John Lee Hooker and all them did until Leo Fender and Gibson came out. Before, you couldn’t hear the guitar, so it was obsolete. It’s like when we used to go to the music store and ask how much a harmonica was, and they’d say, “Give me anything” – just to get them out of the way – before Little Walter made “Juke.” So with B.B. King and T-Bone squeezing them strings, I tease B.B. about it now. I said, “If it wasn’t for you, I could have afforded a guitar at an early age, but after you made ‘Three O’Clock Blues,’ I had to get a day job and buy the guitar like you do a car, on time.”
So I had an acoustic with a pickup clamped on it and one knob – nothing but a volume knob. Then when they started making the solidbody, I first saw Guitar Slim with a Fender. I thought it was a joke. But it was so loud, I said, “What’s next?”
I’d gotten introduced to the Fender, because a guy taught me the Jimmy Reed notes and “The Things That I Used To Do,” and he bought a Strat. As long as I played in his band, I could use his Strat. But when I left Baton Rouge, going to Chicago, I had a Gibson Les Paul. Somebody ripped me off of that not long after I got to town. In Baton Rouge, people didn’t rip you off like that, and I was still pretty green when I went to Chicago.
What did you get to replace it?
A Strat. I’d played a few clubs, and they let me borrow one. In 1958 I think you could get a Strat and a case for less than $200.
When you started playing clubs regularly, who did you think was the best guitar player in town?
Earl Hooker. He played the slide guitar better than anyone. Wasn’t that many slides – no Derek Trucks and all the slide players you find now. There was Earl Hooker, Robert Nighthawk, and then Elmore James just played Elmore James style. I went to a club one night, and Ray Charles had just come out with “What’d I Say,” and I heard Earl Hooker play the melody on that, and I thought it was somebody singing, but it was him with the slide. When I went to Chicago, I hoped I could learn a little something with the slide. When I saw him play, I gave him my slide. I said, “I’m not even gonna try to learn it.”
He didn’t get recorded enough, because back then if you did something for another label they’d blackball you. He made a couple of records behind Muddy, and then in the late ’60s he did a couple of albums for Arhoolie in Northern California. He had “Wah Wah Blues,” and he was the first time I ever saw a double-neck guitar. He was the best I ever seen. You can ask B.B. King; we both agree with that.
Even though you’ve used other models, the Stratocaster seems like the perfect guitar for you. Why is that?
Before that, when it was all acoustic guitars, they couldn’t stand any wear and tear. When I saw Guitar Slim with a Fender, that thing looked like it had been run over by a train – so many scratches on it – but still was in tune and being played as a guitar. I thought, “This fits me” – because I wanted to act like him, and if you drop it you couldn’t hurt it. It got so famous with the scratches and cigarette burns, Fender went to making them like that. The reason we had the scratches and dents was we couldn’t afford another one.
Why did you switch to the Guild Starfire in the late ’60s?
That was my first endorsement. The first time I got invited to Newport, in 1967 – which I never did think I would – the people from Guild came up and said, “We want you to play Guild. We’re going to give them to you.” Believe me, I couldn’t afford nothing else then. I had that Fender Strat, which I thought I would take to my grave, but somebody ripped it off. So I played the Guild for a while, but I never did lose the touch for that Strat.
Why did you decide to write your autobiography at this point?
I wanted somebody to talk to me while I’m still in my right mind – so you can get the real facts from straight life from the people I talked about earlier. I knew Muddy, Wolf, Walter, and Sonny Boy when those guys was in their prime, man. Nobody spent that time and knew them. My late friend Junior Wells, he’s gone. I thought, “Wow, I’d better speak up. Because if you don’t get it from me, can’t nobody give you that truth.”
Another blues great who passed away recently was Jack Myers, who played bass with you.
Jack was one of the first guys that started playing that Fender bass. Willie Dixon was on everything coming out of Chicago with an upright bass. Then Willie Dixon bought that [Fender] bass and pawned it. I went and got it out of pawn on 47th Street in Chicago, for Jack Myers to play. Before that, it was two or three guitars in a band, like with Little Walter.
I went up to Milwaukee to see him, and I had bought him a television after he had his legs amputated [due to diabetes]. The people in the nursery home would bring him out in a wheelchair to see me every time I’d play Milwaukee.
You can hear him on a couple of my records where it sounds like he was soloing. The horn players would say he was playing too much, but at the end of the bar he would come out on top, and they’d all bust out laughing.
When I first came to Chicago, see, you had as many jazz clubs as blues clubs. Before I went there, I didn’t listen to no jazz, being from Baton Rouge. People said, “You better learn how to play some of this stuff.” You’d play a little Muddy or Little Walter tune, then they’d want to hear “Moanin’” by Art Blakey. I said, “Okay, that don’t sound too bad.” And like when I play now, I look out there and see somebody who ain’t smiling, I think, “Buddy, you ain’t playin’ s***. You gotta make somebody clap their hands.” And back when the audience was 99 percent blacks, they liked to dance, so if you could hit something where they could swing out, you had the gig for a little while.
Off stage, you’re pretty soft-spoken, but onstage…
I take on another life. I always was shy. I don’t have a high school education. When I was in Baton Rouge, I was fired one time. I could play a little Jimmy Reed and Guitar Slim, and I found out I could make more money playing Friday and Saturday than I could pumping gas for a whole week. I would play for one or two people if they came to the gas station, but if you put me in a club, I had never experienced that. I said, “I can’t sing to those people.” I turned my back to the audience to sing, and the club owner fired me.
When I got to Chicago, I learned from Muddy and them to take a little shot of wine or cognac before I went on stage. Now, a little shot of cognac gives me the nerve to go out there and try to please somebody. When you’re dealing with the public, somebody’s always not going to be happy with what you play. You can’t please them all. I just try to go out there and figure you out by watching you. If I see a pleasant look on your face, I guess I must be hitting the right note.
With all the awards you’ve received and people you’ve played with, is there any one thing you’re most proud of?
There’s probably more than one, but up until last year, the thing that will carry me for the rest of my life was the B.B.s and the Muddys asking me to play with them. But in the beginning of 2012, I got invited to play in the White House for President Obama. I’ll tell everybody right now, that’s a long way from picking cotton to picking a guitar at the White House. That’s one of the proudest moments of my life.
Being Buddy Guy’s guitar tech, you’ve got your work cut out for you. Buddy Guy doesn’t play guitars – he punishes them.
It’s Gilbert Garza’s job to keep everything up and running. He has worked with Jimmie Vaughan, Jack Ingram, and Drowning Pool out of his home base of Dallas, but has been Guy’s tech for six years.
The familiar black-and-white polka dot Strat is a Mexican-made Fender, although Fender’s Custom Shop is readying a Buddy Guy Signature model based on the blond Strat that has been Guy’s main axe for years.
“The action is just a little higher than standard,” said Garza. “I change strings every other show, but I change the high E pretty much every night, and it’ll be trashed by the next day. I put a lot of winds on the posts, and they’re .011 to .048 Ernie Ball Slinkys. He doesn’t use the whammy bar, so we keep it off, but there are still all five springs in the back.”
Guy’s picks are medium-heavy triangular ones made by Dunlop. Not surprisingly, Garza says, “He shreds them. I think that’s why he likes it triangular – so he can go from one point to another before it’s completely rounded off. Three picks in one.”
Buddy’s signal chain is relatively simple. “From the guitar, it goes to a Shure wireless unit, into 35-foot, heavy-duty cables,” Garza explains. “His pedalboard is a link to the Buddy Guy signature wah pedal by Dunlop, and out to an Ibanez Tube Screamer. From there, it goes to a Jensen JD-7 Injector, which is a signal splitter you could hook up to as many as seven different amps. We’ve got two amps, both Chicago Blues Box, made by Dan Butler. They’ve got four 10″ Jensens with a lot of kick. They don’t break up too easily, so he can turn up and still have a cleaner tone, then use the Tube Screamer when he wants a little more gain and sustain.”
Amp settings are pretty much wide open: Presence and Treble on 10, Bass on 2 or 3, and Volume (on the Bright channel) 8 or 9.
Paul Waller, Master Builder at the Fender Custom Shop, explains how the upcoming Buddy Guy Strat began. “At the Crossroads Festival in 2010, I met Buddy and Gilbert. Originally, I spec’d out his ’57 sunburst Stratocaster, but later Buddy decided he would like his main axe to be the platform for his new model – the blond/maple-neck Stratocaster you see him play most nights. The blond guitar was built by Michael Stevens in the early Fender Custom Shop, in 1988. A very faint signature decal resides on the back of the headstock. As I took the guitar apart, I noticed it originally had an active circuit that had been eliminated. Buddy currently uses a set of Vintage Noiseless pickups, with a stock five-way wiring. Simple.”
The new Strat will be a two-piece ash body with ’50s contours, tastefully tricked out in Sapphire Blue with Vintage White polka dots. Its has a maple neck with a 3/8″-radius edge and soft V shape, vintage-style keys, 22 medium-jumbo frets, chrome hardware, vintage-style vibrato, and custom-wound Vintage Noiseless pickups.
“The last and most important element,” Waller explains, “Buddy has a unique volume swell he uses in his performance. I have been working closely with Gilbert to find the right value and taper to suit Buddy’s needs. Once we nail the potentiometer, it’ll be part of the Buddy Guy signature package.”
“Buddy uses his Volume knob the way some people would use a volume pedal,” Garza points out. “That is his volume pedal. So he likes to be able to turn it way down and still have it be sensitive.”
The acoustic that Guy sometimes features in concert is the JC Buddy Guy model built by Martin. “The guitar is as unusual as anything we’ve done,” said Dick Boak, the company’s Director of Museum, Archives and Special Projects.
“Buddy had a J-40 Jumbo Martin that he loved,” Boak recounts. “It provided the starting point for his edition. He requested a cutaway, which was easy. He wanted turquoise polka dots and matching trim. We thought it was over the top, but cool, and in keeping with his other polka-dot-themed guitars. There were no real structural concerns, as the model was based on guitars we were already making.
“Harkening to the D-28E Martin that had Volume and Tone controls on the face of the guitar, Buddy really wanted this feature, and so we had the electronics packs pre-wired, I believe by Fishman,” he added.
“Buddy used to use regular acoustic strings on it with a wound G,” Garza points out. “But he asked me to put the same strings as on the Strat, and it has worked out well.”
“To my knowledge, we have not made any guitars with a similar rosette or unusual side dots,” said Boak. “But we did make a Kenny Wayne Shepherd guitar that had a turquoise-colored inlay around the perimeter.” – Dan Forte
This article originally appeared in VG May 2013 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.