He Can’t Quit the Blues

Charleston City Paper | September 30, 2006
Chicago music icon Buddy Guy has seen the blues go from an organic fringe music none-too-embraced by mainstream tastes to a quintessential American art form now credited for birthing a rebellious baby called rock ’n’ roll. Sufficed to say, he’s glad to still be around and able to tell about it.

Guy came to Chicago from Louisiana in 1957. Initially, like many upstart blues artists, he played a variety of watered-down styles that didn’t particularly suit his inner craving for gutbucket, seriously amped electric blues. By the time he landed on the definitive Windy City Chess label, Guy had begun to develop a stinging style of electric blues guitar that touched equally on those of predecessors like Muddy Waters and B.B. King.

“Oh yeah, how could I forget that,” says Guy of his time at Chess. “You had Little Walter, Sonny Boy, Howlin’ Wolf and all the other blues players that had made that company. So, they was kinda stuck on that style of music. When I played I’d like to turn it up a little bit more and get that feedback and distortion coming through. They [the Chess brothers] would look at me and say ‘Who the fuck are you? Are you crazy?’ Then, sometimes they’d come in and adjust the amplifiers themselves. It went on like that until that British Invasion started poppin’ out. One day, I got called into Leonard Chess’ office — had never been there before — and he just bent over when I walked in and just said ‘Go ahead and kick me in my ass!’ He put on, I think it was a Cream album with Clapton playing them electric blues wide open. We had a two-hour conversation basically about ‘All these guys saying is they got this stuff from listening to you.’”

After leaving Chess, Guy landed on Atlantic in the early 1970s and struck fire by teaming up with harp player Junior Wells for a string of albums including the energetic live Drinkin’ TNT and Smokin’ Dynamite. Though it looked like Guy was primed to inherit the reigns previously guided by Chicago legends like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, his profile surprisingly declined during the ’80s. It wouldn’t be until the next decade that Guy would truly begin carving his niche and, in the process, would finally become a household name.

After the release of 1991’s Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues, his first stateside release in a decade and his first for current label Silvertone, Guy’s train began chugging along again at a rejuvenated pace. His name was repeatedly dropped as a primary influence in interviews with musicians both young and old. If you weren’t already in the know, it seemed as if Guy was an experienced newcomer when he’d actually been there all along. Such subsequent releases (many of which, like Damn Right… earned him Grammys) as 1994’s Slippin’ In and the sparse, unadulterated detour Sweet Tea brought the man with the polka-dotted guitar and cognac-cured pipes to the masses and paired him with acolytes from Eric Clapton to Johnny Lang.

“After Chess collapsed and all that, I was really ignored a lot,” Guy points out.. “The word was out that I never did have it and that was that. Clapton then invited me to go over and play Royal Albert Hall and, when I did, I just killed ’em. This record company guy came up there wanting to sign me. I thought, damn, I should’ve already done this because that’s what Hendrix did, really. He went to England and they let him have his way with all the special effects while they was laughing at him in New York about it. I cut Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues there in England, but later found out that my new record company was actually in New York, not England. That was all just shocking to me because that album was about the biggest thing I’d done to that point. It felt good to finally prove to ‘em all that I wasn’t washed up.”

Many of Guy’s definitive sides can now be found on the soon-to-be-released, career-spanning box set Can’t Quit The Blues (Silvertone). From the machismo of Chess sides like “Let Me Love You Baby” to the more seasoned perspective of Sweet Tea’s “Done Got Old,” the package puts Guy’s evolution as both bluesman and guitarist on display. His use of squealing feedback and sinister volume has long been a staple of his repertoire but it’s also a kind nod to the departed Hendrix. His adoption of songs like “Crawlin’ Kingsnake” and “In the Wee Hours” tips the dotted cap to the forerunners who came before — and came up alongside — him. However, Guy’s self-driven attitude and ultimate perseverance have earned him a special place in both the hearts of blues aficionados and the annals of the endearing, inherently badass genre. Damn right — these days, he’s the most recognizable face of the blues still willing to crack a smile.

“My mom, bless her soul, used to tell me before she passed away, ‘Better late than never,’” exclaims Guy. “Who knows? If I’d have clicked back when I was in my 20s, I might’ve took the wrong route and ended up like so many other successful musicians did that didn’t know how to handle it with all the money pouring in and getting whatever they wanted. I don’t know how I got out of it, but that never did happen. So, really, that’s what’s important is that I’m enjoying myself now.”

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Founded in 1997, the locally owned and operated City Paper is Charleston's only weekly alternative newspaper and the second-largest publication in the metro Charleston area. Reaching a strong mix of active, affluent locals and tourists, the City Paper has thrived...
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