Q & A: Buddy Guy Headlines the Playboy Jazz Festival

Buddy Guy’s Truth About Life and the Blues

By Devon Wendell

Recently I had the opportunity to have a candid conversation with the great blues artist Buddy Guy on the state of the blues today, the music business, guitars, influences and life in general. At 74 years young, Buddy continues to be one of the most popular, important, and influential guitarists of all time. He’s influenced and has been praised by everyone from The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix to Jeff Beck, Carlos Santana, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and generations of musicians all over the world.  This year, Buddy won his sixth Grammy for his latest album “Living Proof” (Jive), while winning five awards – including Album of the Year, Best Contemporary Blues album (for “Living Proof”), Best Contemporary Blues Artist and Song of the Year, as well as Entertainer of the Year — at the 2011 annual Blues Music Awards on May 5th.

Buddy still tours rigorously, putting on some of the most powerful and entertaining performances for audiences around the globe. He will be headlining the 33rd annual Playboy Jazz festival at The Hollywood Bowl on Sunday, June 12th, 2011.   

DW: Hello Buddy. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me this morning.

BG: Thank you, I feel pretty good this morning. I think I’ve got a temperature where I can finally leave my door open. I’m from Louisiana and I love to sleep with my doors open. I’ve got a house back in the woods and a couple of dogs who keep me safe and let me know if anyone’s coming. They work better than any alarm.

DW: Do you feel an artist has a disadvantage if he calls himself a blues musician as apposed to being a “Rocker” or pop performer?

BG: Well I learned from B.B. King when I was starting out that whatever you can do for the blues, please do it.  Because the blues has been put on the back burner from day one for some strange reason. I thought once in my early life that some of the lyrics we would sing were too strong. When it was all a.m. stations, everybody’s music was played. Now you can hardly flip on your radio and hear a blues record anymore by anybody.

DW: Yes it’s sad. Why do you think that is?

BG: I’m trying to find that out. I talk to B.B., everybody, the disc-jockeys, and the program directors will tell you “We just don’t play it anymore.”

DW: Would it make a difference if you called it “rock’n’roll” like many of the British bands of the 60’s did?

BG: I do remember one of the Chess brothers was burning up one of the British guy’s version of a Howlin’Wolf record and he took it up to the radio station along with the original and the program director threw the original record in the garbage and said “I can’t play that.” I don’t know why that is but I’m not going to quit playing it.  I’ve dedicated my life to it.

DW: I remember Muddy Waters once commented towards the end of his life that “So many people play the blues today without having any real problems” Do you agree with that?

BG: Some people go through life with no problems and when they see me play they ask “How do you do it?” And some people with problems come to see me for an hour or two hours and forget about their problems. You don’t have to have problems to play the blues though. You can look at someone else and I hate to see anybody with a problem. Wherever I go I can turn on the television and see problems. I don’t even have to know the people.  For instance, there’s a flood coming up and going towards Memphis. I’m from Baton Rouge, Louisiana and I talked to my brother in Memphis yesterday and they’re getting ready because they’re looking at that levee which is going to break. They’ve got a problem. When you hear a blues singer, sometimes he’s never experienced what he’s singing about. He heard it or thought about it by watching somebody else and you still say my God!

DW: Do you often sing about other people’s hardships?

BG: The late Eddie Boyd wrote a record that thousands have recorded “I worked five long years at the steel and they had the nerve to put me out.” I sing it sometimes and people ask “Well, how long did you work at the steel mill?”  And I tell them I never been to a steel mill. [Laughter]

DW: How do you feel about the blues world of today and do you think Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Little Walter would approve of it?

BG: I think they would but they’d be just like me.  And I don’t know if you call that worried, or complaining, or just speaking out about the way the blues is being treated. The lyrics we sing, we beat around the bush — if you know what I’m saying.  But when the hip-hoppers came out they didn’t even beat around the bush. The old blues singers like Tampa Red had a record called “A Dirty Mother For You” and they would beep that. The Isley Brothers made one saying that “there’s some bullshit going on” and they beeped that shit [Laughter]. These hip-hoppers say anything they want and they play it wide open. These kids four and five years old know more about that than me and you.

DW: Tell me how radio has changed since when you were starting out.

BG: With the AM stations, the disc-jockeys used to walk into the stations or you could walk in there with a demo and they could play it and the next thing you know you’re saying ‘Wow, I sound pretty good.” Then a record company would come and say “Who is that?” and then they’d record you.  I came to Chicago with a tape from a radio station in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1957.  But you come to these big FM stations now and your tape ain’t going get through the door. You’ve got to be led into the door by somebody you can consider as your producer who’s well known to get in there now. That door don’t open like it used to with the AM stations. I ask everybody I know, “What happened and why they don’t play our music no more?” and nobody can answer that.

DW: Don’t you feel it’s also harder to find as many blues clubs as there were in the past?

BG: Yes. A lot of the blues clubs are going under. I’ve got this blues club here in Chicago [Legends] and when I came here 54 years ago, there were so many clubs that I wouldn’t think about opening a new one.  And now with my club I think we’ve got five blues clubs left in Chicago, if that.  Every Monday I have open house at my place and a lot of kids come through to play. This time of year we go out and play concerts outside where kids 8 and 9 years old can come up. Every once in a while, I’ll have a young kid come up to me and say “I didn’t know who you were but I read what Eric Clapton, Hendrix, or Stevie Ray Vaughan said about you” and I say “Wow, it leaks out.”  But three or four years ago, I was in my club and a disc-jockey came up to me and said “You haven’t had a record out in two or three years” and I said ‘Man I got three albums out,” and when a disc-jockey don’t know what you’re doing, there’s something wrong [Laughter]

DW: What words of advice do you have for the young, struggling blues guitarists out there desperately trying to get a break?

BG:  If you just keep picking that guitar and singing man, who knows? Nothing is a guarantee now. I’m telling my grand kids this, just do what you love doing.  My mom and dad put it like this “ A po’ rat ain’t got but one hole left” If you’re playing and singing just keep an eye on if you ever have to drive a truck [Laughter]. Because I did but then the music popped.  But when the music don’t pop, you can always drive a truck and that’s the blues for you [Laughter].  I was being interviewed last night and as a matter of fact they’re writing a book on me, my first one and it’s all about that. Life is a mother man, I don’t want to put that F on it but it is.

DW: Oh go ahead [Laughter].

BG: Yeah, Life is a motherfucker man whether you’re playing guitar or anything else.  [Laughter] You know I’ve got friends who come out of college, they’re lawyers and doctors and they come to me and say “Man I don’t have nowhere to practice.”  Then you look back at your guitar and say, “Shit, it’s not bad at all.” I’ve got a son coming in here now from Nevada, he’s been out there eight years working in real-estate, he was making beats for my youngest daughter and Ludacris and that slowed off and he said “Daddy, I’m coming home. I don’t know what to do!” I said, “Well I want to help you.”  But I’ll say technology is killing us number one, but the music is everything else. I used to get a royalty check and could give the kids a car and now when the royalty check comes, I don’t even look at it [Laughter]. I think somebody told me Napster started it. People don’t buy your CD’s no more, they just get that one song off there and that’s all they want.

DW: Yeah, it’s hard to make a couple of bucks from an album that took thousands of dollars to make.

BG: Right. It’s tough man.

DW: You came up during a time when it was all about developing your own tone and phrasing and today you have so many Buddy Guy clones, myself included at times. How does this make you feel?

BG: Well I didn’t know I had a tone until somebody told me. I was copying T-Bone Walker, B.B. King, and Muddy Waters, whoever played a guitar. I even listened to the country western stuff coming out of Texas near where I was in Louisiana.  On my way trying to learn a lick B.B. King or T-Bone Walker had played, I found something else. It’s like you’re looking for a dime and find a quarter.   I didn’t know I had found it until the British guys, Hendrix, and Stevie Ray started writing and asking questions about my playing. I didn’t know I found anything.  If I’d known that I would’ve had, like John Lee Hooker said, “That big head” on me [Laughter]. I was just playing my guitar man, that’s all I did, that’s all I still do.

DW: Your live shows seem like they’re set out to educate your younger fans on the history of the blues. Do you do that intentionally?

BG: No, I’m just doing what I learned from those greats that are no longer with us.

DW: Your playing and performances were wild long before Hendrix. You were playing the guitar with your teeth, behind your back, and between your legs as you still do. Where did you learn that from?

BG: The first person I saw get wild with a guitar was the late Guitar Slim and T-Bone had it behind his head.  And I told myself “I can’t play that well but I can get some attention if I move and do something stupid [Laughter]. So I thought I was doing stupid things by throwing my guitar in the air and behind my back but some people said ‘Wow!”

When I came to Chicago, all the guitar players were sitting down and playing. And I said I can’t sit and play. My mom brought me up in the old Baptist church with everyone shouting, screaming, falling out, and kicking and I said that’s the way I want to play my guitar. I can’t fall out and kick like I used to but I can pretend [Laughter]

DW: What was the first blues album you ever owned?

BG: Well it was an LP. I don’t know if you remember it, but it was an LP had a lot of old blues records with one new one on it. It had to probably be B.B. King. If it wasn’t B.B. it was Muddy.

DW: Wow, same here. We have that in common.

BG: Well you couldn’t get them no better than that.

DW: What kind of music do you listen to on the road and at home?

BG: Mostly spirituals if I can find them. I got a spiritual station on in the other room that I keep on all day. Spirituals with all voices. That’s how it was when I was coming up. Now they got guitar players, drummers, and horn players but I listen to people like The Five Blind Boys Of Alabama and Mahalia Jackson, beautiful music with just voices, they didn’t have no instruments.

DW: So many guitarists consider you to be the father of the Fender Stratocaster. Who inspired you to get your first Strat and why?

BG: The first person I ever saw play a Strat was Guitar Slim.  I didn’t think it was a guitar and thought “What the hell is that?” I found out that when I’d played all crazy, the guitar would fall off me accidentally. People thought I was doing this on purpose and it wouldn’t break. So I couldn’t afford to buy another one and I found out it was a solid piece of wood with that rod in the neck. So I figured I could flip it, drop it, and it would get scratched but I could still play it. I never dreamed I’d ever make enough money to buy another one. They were like cars and I would make monthly payments on them.

DW: They are durable. You can throw them down a staircase without hurting them.

BG: Actually, I was in Africa once and we were in a van and they had it on top of the van.  The driver was going 90 and it flew off. We stopped, and I went back and got it and I think the E string was a little flat and that’s it. It was playable. I said “Man I will never play another guitar because if it went through that, it could take me through the rest of my life.”  But somebody stole it.

DW: You came up with that “out of phase” Strat tone between the neck and bridge pickups that changed the tone of everyone from Clapton and Hendrix, to Robert Cray, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. How did you come up with that?

BG: I got all that from Guitar Slim.

DW: Was there ever a time you considered quitting music?

BG: If I had my life to live over, I’d do the same thing. It’s like prize fighting, if you go into the ring and lay down you don’t have a chance of winning.

DW: Have you ever considered giving up playing the blues?

BG: No man, I don’t know anything else to do. I’ll be 75 years old this July 30th and what am I going to do, go back to school? I enjoy what I do, making people happy playing music. It’s taken me places I never would have went unless I was playing music: Africa, Europe, Australia, Japan; Oh man, every time I play it I see people smiling.

DW: Thank you so much for you time Buddy, it’s been a pleasure talking with you.

BG: Thank you, it was for me, too.

Photos by Tony Gieske.

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