Is the legendary guitarist and singer the last of his kind?
It’s a winter night in Chicago. Buddy Guy is sitting at the bar of Legends, the spacious blues emporium on South Wabash Avenue. He hangs out at the bar because he owns the place and his presence is good for business. The tourists who want a “blues experience” as part of their trip to the city come to hear the music and to buy a T-shirt or a mug at the souvenir shop near the door. If they’re nervy, they sidle up to Guy and ask to take a picture. Night after night, he poses with customers—from Helsinki, Madrid, Tokyo—who inform him, not meaning to offend, that he is “an icon.”
“Thank you,” he says. “Now, let’s smile!”
Buddy Guy is eighty-two and a master of the blues. What weighs on him is the idea that he may be the last. Several years ago, after the funeral of B. B. King, he was overcome not only with grief for a friend but also with a suffocating sense of responsibility. Late into his eighties, King went on touring incessantly with his band. It was only at the end that his wandering mind led him to play the same song multiple times in a single set. With King gone, Guy says, he suddenly “felt all alone in this world.”
The way Guy sees it, he is like one of those aging souls who find themselves the last fluent speaker of an obscure regional language. In conversation, he has a habit of recalling the names of all the blues players who have died in recent years: Otis Rush, Koko Taylor, Etta James, James Cotton, Bobby Bland, and many others. “All of ’em gone.”
Guy admits that no matter how many Grammys he’s collected (eight) or invitations he’s had to the White House (four), no matter how many hours he has spent onstage and in recording studios (countless), he has always been burdened with insecurity. Before he steps onstage, he has a couple of shots of Cognac. The depth of the blues tradition makes him feel unworthy. “I’ve never made a record I liked,” he says. As far as his greater burden is concerned, he radiates no certainty that the blues will outlast him as anything other than a source of curatorial interest. Will the blues go the way of Dixieland or epic poetry, achievements firmly sealed in the past? “How can you ever know?” he says.
As he talks, he keeps his eyes fixed on the stage, where a young guitar player is strenuously performing an overstuffed solo on “Sweet Home Chicago.” In this club, you are as likely to hear that song as you are to hear “When the Saints Go Marching In” at Preservation Hall. The youngster is a reverent preservationist, playing the familiar licks and enacting the familiar exertions: the scrunched face, the eyes squeezed shut, the neck craned back, all the better to advertise emotional transport and the demands of technical virtuosity. It’s fair to say that Buddy Guy, having done much to invent these licks and these moves, is not impressed. The homage being paid seems only to embarrass him. He is generous to young musicians who earn his notice—he even brings them up onstage, giving them a chance to shine in his reflected prestige—but he does not grade on a curve. The tradition will not allow it. Guy turns away from the stage and takes another sip of his drink, Heineken diluted by a glass full of ice.
“The young man might consider another song,” he says.
Guy has always been a handsome presence: slick, fitted suits in the nineteen-sixties; Jheri curls in the eighties. These days, he is bald, twinkly, and preternaturally cool. He wears a powder-blue fedora and a long black leather jacket, a gift from Carlos Santana. He flashes two blocky rings, one with his initials and the other with the word “blues,” each spelled out in diamonds.
His influence over time has been as outsized as his current sense of responsibility. In the sixties, when Jimi Hendrix went to hear him play at a blues workshop, Hendrix brought along a reel-to-reel recorder and shyly asked Guy if he could tape him; anyone with ears could hear Buddy Guy’s influence in Hendrix’s playing—in the overdrive distortion, the frenetic riffs high up on the neck of the guitar.
Guy can mimic any of his forerunners and sometimes he will emulate B. B. King, interrupting a prolonged silence with a single heartbreaking note sustained with a vibrato as singular as a human voice. But more often he throws in as much as the listener can take: Guy is a putter-inner, not a taker-outer. His solos are a rich stew of everything-at-once-ness—all the groceries, all the spices thrown into the pot, notes and riffs smashing together and producing the combined effect of pain, endurance, ecstasy. All blues guitar players bend notes, altering the pitch by stretching the string across the fretboard; Guy will bend a note so far that he produces a feeling of uneasy disorientation, and then, when he has decided the moment is right, he’ll let the string settle into pitch and relieve the tension.
Even on a night when he is coasting through a routine set list, it is hard to leave his show without a sense of joy. He cuts an extravagant figure onstage, wearing polka-dot shirts to match his polka-dot Fender Stratocaster. He is a superb singer, too, with a falsetto scream as expressive as James Brown’s. Joking around between songs, he can be as bawdy as his favorite comedians, Moms Mabley and Richard Pryor. This is not Miles Davis; he does not turn his back to the audience. He is eager to entertain. The unschooled think of blues as sad music, but it is the opposite. “The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy, but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism.” That’s how Ralph Ellisondefined it. Guy puts it more simply: “Funny thing about the blues—you play ’em ’cause you got ’em. But, when you play ’em, you lose ’em.”
Three chords. The “one,” the “four,” and the “five.” Twelve bars, more or less. Guy’s devotion and sense of obligation to the blues form began long before the death of B. B. King. The story goes like this.
The son of sharecroppers, George (Buddy) Guy was born in 1936, in the town of Lettsworth, Louisiana, not far from the Mississippi River. On September 25, 1957, he boarded a train and arrived in Chicago, another addition to the Great Migration, the northward exodus of black Southerners that began four decades earlier. But Guy hadn’t come to Chicago to work in the slaughterhouses or the steel mills; he came to play guitar in the blues clubs on the South Side and the West Side. He was twenty-one. He had served his musical apprenticeship in juke joints and roadhouses in and around Baton Rouge and knew the real action was in Chicago, in smoke-choked bars so cramped that the stage was often not much bigger than a tabletop. If all went well, Guy hoped to get a contract at Chess Records, the hot independent label run by Leonard and Phil Chess, Jewish immigrants from Poland who were assembling an astonishing stable of artists, including Little Walter, Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf, Etta James, John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson, Bo Diddley, and Chuck Berry. Most important, for Guy, Chess was the record label of the king of the Chicago bluesmen, McKinley Morganfield, better known as Muddy Waters.
In his first months in town, Guy found a place to crash, but he was hungry much of the time and he missed his family. He played as often as he could at blues hangouts like Theresa’s and the Squeeze Club, but it wasn’t easy to make an impression when there were so many topflight musicians around. And some nights could be scary. Guy was playing at the Squeeze when a man in the audience buried an icepick in a fellow-patron’s neck. “When the cops saw the dead man, they couldn’t have cared less,” Guy recalled years later. “Didn’t even investigate. To them it meant only one more dead nigger. In those days cops came around for their bribes and nothing else.”