Well, that’s my worry right now. I got a new album coming out sometime later this year, and Bobby Rush, he sung one song on there. We were just talking; he said, “You know what, I think me and you are the last two old blues guys still trying to carry it on.” Because it’s not like when I came to Chicago 63 years ago. Everything was wide open then, but you had to prove yourself. You could go in a little small blues club, and somebody might pay attention to you. Word of mouth would get out, then the next day you might be in a bigger club. And Muddy Waters would say, “Who in the hell is that?” Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter would say, “Who is that?” Those little clubs don’t exist no more. So whenever I can see somebody I think got the talent, I’ll just give them a chance to come up and play with me. A young man out of Mississippi, Kingfish [Christone Ingram], I went and heard him, and I said, “Just bring him in the studio, and I’m going to pay for the album.” And he’s up for a Grammy now. Before him, I went and found a little kid in New Bedford, Massachusetts, named Quinn Sullivan.
Do you remember when somebody first heard you and gave you a shot?
When I came [to Chicago], I could play, but I didn’t think I was good enough because there was so many great guitar players. I was almost too shy to play. But a guy talked me into playing. And I said, “If I go up there, I better jump off the stage so somebody pays attention to me, because I can’t play as well as these other guitar players.” There was a great guitar player in New Orleans named Guitar Slim. He’d get attention because [while] he was playing, he was jumping off the stage and running. He had a 100-foot cord. When I first saw him, I said, “Oh my God, I would love to learn how to play like B.B. King, but I want to act like Guitar Slim.” So when they called me up — the late Otis Rush called me up — I jumped off the bar. And somebody said, “They got a little wild man just come up from Louisiana.”
You’ve had a lot of big moments. What was the most exciting?
When B.B. King asked me to come up and play while he sang, and Muddy Waters asked me to play while he sang. I’m saying, “You’re asking me to play with you?” Muddy Waters and those guys took me under their wing. I owe everything to those people.
When they found out I could play Muddy’s and them’s little rhythm and stuff, they asked me to come and make a record with them and play a rhythm behind them. So I go in the studio and they tell me, “All right, 1, 2, 3, take.” And then, “Cut, cut. Wait a minute. Cut!” I wasn’t playing loud enough. And they would call, “Hey, motherf—er,” from the engineering room. Well, I didn’t know everybody in the studio was a “motherf—er,” so I didn’t look, I didn’t say nothing. So they come out of the studio and punch me on my shoulder. Say, “I’m talking to you, motherf—er. Turn that guitar up. We want to hear you. That’s why we called you in.” I’m, like, “Oh, I thought my name was Buddy.” Within three months or less, when they’d say, “Hey, motherf—er,” I would say, “What?” [Laughs.]
My biggest break came when Eric Clapton invited me to Royal Albert Hall. And I think it was 1989. And that’s when I signed the record deal and got my first gold record. I wrote a song called “Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues.” That’s when I exploded and started going from driving around the country in a van — driving myself, my own manager — and playing the small blues clubs to being able to play the theaters and invited to play in some big outdoor places like the New Orleans Jazz Festival.
You’ve played the guitar for so many years. Is there an emotion, something you’ve tried to pull out of it or say with it that you haven’t been able to?
A lot. Because every time I hear somebody else play, even youngsters — these two kids I told you about earlier — Quinn Sullivan and Kingfish. I’m saying, I’ve been fooling with this guitar 60 years or more, and I didn’t find what you just played. [Laughs.]
So do you go then and try to figure it out?
I try to keep it. The older you get, the less you can memorize it, but I try to keep it. And you know, I’ll be trying to find a lick, and all of a sudden I hear something good. But that ain’t what I was trying to find. And I’m surprised, like: What did I do? If I was reading music, I probably wouldn’t be like that because I would probably know where to go by reading it. But playing by ear, you just say, “Now I wonder where he had that note?” And you just keep hitting and hitting and hitting. And all the sudden, you hit something and say, “Oh, this sound pretty good.” Like if you’re looking for a dime that you dropped, and you found a quarter. The Foo Fighters, [Dave Grohl] heard me say that and he wrote a song about that.
Do you have advice you give others?
Guitar players much better than I am right now will come up and ask me, “What do I need to do, Buddy?” And I say, “I don’t know.” I just didn’t give up. I was driving a tow truck and playing my guitar at night. Sometimes you get $2 and $3 a night. Both of my ex-wives told me, “It’s me or the guitar.” And I just got my guitar and left. And now we are the best friends. But I loved what I was doing, and I didn’t want nobody to stop me from doing it.
I really wanted a career out of my music, as I have. But you don’t know if that’s going to work. You can play your butt off, but if you ain’t at the right place at the right time and the right people see you, you never know. I remember one night, I was playing. I think it was about seven people in the place. And I didn’t feel like playing. I felt bad. I said, “Well, I don’t want you to pay me because I know you ain’t made no money.” Turns out one of the guys in there was Bonnie Raitt’s boyfriend, Dick Waterman, coming to look at me because he had heard about me. He came up the next day and said, “I was in the club last night. How much you make driving this tow truck? I’m going to write a postdated check and match what you make if you want to go out and play your guitar.” 1967.
You’ve said that you’ve never made an album that you liked. Is that a good thing or not?
I don’t know. I really can’t answer that. I got that from B.B. King. Because, if you sing or play or whatever you do, if you listen to yourself, very seldom are you happy with it. But if somebody else come and say, “Boy, she’s good,” then that makes you feel a little better about what you have done. Some nights, I go out there and play and say, “Man, I was killing them.” And a guy walks up to me and says, “You wasn’t feeling too good last night.” And it turns it around: I go out there and say, “Oh my God. I sounded like nothing last night.” And then a guy or a woman will come up and say, “Boy, you was on last night.” I’m like, “What?” I think that’s what keep me going. You never know when someone is going to say you’re on top. Because if you’re always right, what you got to look forward to?
This interview has been edited and condensed. KK Ottesen’s latest book, “Activist: Portraits of Courage,” was published last year.