Buddy Guy is the ultimate guitar hero.
The blues musician has served as muse to the likes of Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. Jimi Hendrix himself is said to have insisted, "Heaven is lying at Buddy Guy's feet while listening to him play guitar."
Luckily, you don't have to go that far to hear the legendary musician. He'll be taking on Sept. 19 at Cargo Concert Hall's Live from the Arch on the ReTRAC Plaza. G Love & Special Sauce and Todd Snider will also perform.
Feeding off the audience
In anticipation of the gig, Best Bests recently got the chance to ask Guy a few questions. Just don't expect a preview of the songs he'll be playing for the Reno crowd.
"I feed off the audience, man. If they're feelin' good, I'm feelin' good. I can't sit down when I play, because I get too happy with it," he said. "I don't use a set list, either. If I do, that means I'm playing what I want to hear. I come to play what you want to hear. When I see people in the audience smiling, I think it means I'm hittin' the right notes."
Guy, 79, has hit a particularly high note with his newest album, "Born to Play Guitar," released just last month. Its 14 tracks include collaborations with guest musicians like Van Morrison, ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons, Joss Stone and Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds.
While his latest effort has been heartily welcomed by critics — with a Ground Zero reviewer calling it "a fresh, fully alive album that keeps the blues alive and shows he remains the best at it" — Guy doesn't spend a lot of time ruminating on how his records turn out.
"B.B. [King] used to say he never made a record he liked. I'm kind of like him. I like to wait and hear what you think," he said. "They told me it hit No. 1 on the Billboard blues charts, so hopefully it's OK."
Doing right by the blues
Still, doing right by the blues is a matter of personal honor, because Guy promised his mentor Muddy Waters, on his deathbed, no less, that he'd help keep the music going.
The raves given to "Born to Play Guitar" aren't hyperbole, and neither is its title. The singer/songwriter was born in Louisiana in 1936, and got bit by the music bug when he was just a little boy. When they finally got electricity, his dad dug up the money for a phonograph, playing records by folks like John Lee Hooker and Lightnin' Hopkins.
Young Guy pored over the ads for guitars in the Sears catalogue, and pretty soon decided he couldn't wait any longer. At 7, he made his own guitar, using wire from a window screen his parents had installed to keep out the fat Louisiana mosquitoes.
He was eventually given a Harmony acoustic guitar, which nowadays resides in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. By the early 1950s, he was performing with bands in Baton Rouge, La. It was in these early years that Guy embraced the spontaneity for which he's known.
"I was living in Louisiana before I come up to Chicago ... and I went to see this guitar player called Guitar Slim," he said. "The show started and I heard this wild sound comin' out the amps but I didn't see nobody on stage, so I start lookin' around. And finally I see Slim all the way in the back of the room up on a security guard's shoulders with this 100-foot cable comin' out his guitar. He was so wild, man. From then on, I knew I wanted to play like BB but I wanted to act like Guitar Slim."
A fateful day
Guy considers the day he relocated to the Windy City — Sept. 25, 1957 — to be a second birthday, so much so that he has the auspicious date engraved on all his guitars. When he found his way to the 708 Club, he was so hungry he could barely stand, but he managed to play a rousing cover of Guitar Slim's "Things I Used to Do."
When Waters heard him, he told the management to hire him. The older musician took Guy under his wing, offering him a sandwich, helping him find gigs and bringing him into the studio for recording sessions. Guy soon joined Waters in epitomizing the Chicago blues, an electrified, amped-up version of the Delta Blues.
Guy is nothing if not loyal to his friends. His new album includes a song called "Come Back Muddy," a paean to his friend who died in 1983: "My mind is going back to the good old times, when me and Muddy Waters was playing blues and drinking wine. Come back, Muddy. Man, I sure do miss your face."
From 1959 to 1968, Guy was employed as a house guitarist for Chess Studio. His early recorded music lacked the wild panache of his live gigs, because the record company's founders, brothers Leonard and Phil Chess, considered Guy's hard-driving style to be "just making noise."
Guy's sound was music to the ears of some of history's famous rockers, however. His fans ranged from Americans like Stevie Ray Vaughan, who once said, "Without Buddy Guy, there would be no Stevie Ray Vaughan," to British Invasion infantrymen like Jeff Beck.
Guy's music — a loud and aggressive mélange of distortion, feedback and improvisations — provided a palpable link between blues and rock 'n' roll, which is in full evidence in the 1969 documentary "Supershow." The film saw Guy taking the stage with the likes of Clapton, Steven Stills and Led Zeppelin.
Guy continued to perform and release his own records, reaching new heights during the '90s when he produced three Grammy Award-winning albums: "Damn Right, I've Got the Blues" (1991), "Feels Like Rain (1993) and "Slippin' In" (1994).
"Whenever I accept one of those big awards, I do it for all the men and women who come before me and never got the recognition they deserved," he told Best Bets. "My mom used to tell me, 'Son, if you got flowers for me, give 'em to me now so I can smell 'em, 'cause I won't be able to when I'm six feet under."
Aging has done little to dampen Guy's all-in playing style. Sometimes, though, he marvels at how fast the time has gone. "It feels like just yesterday that Muddy, Wolf and Walter were tellin' me I'm still wet behind the ears. It's like I went to sleep, woke up, and all those guys are gone and I'm left to carry it on."
It's not always easy to keep the legacy going.
"The blues ain't gettin' the exposure it used to," Guy said. "You might find one or two major FM stations that play the Blues for an hour on Sunday, but you can't just turn on your radio and hear Muddy Waters or Howlin' Wolf no more. If mainstream radio played more blues, maybe more young people would hear it and we'd have a better chance at finding the next BB King or the next Muddy Waters."
Blues fans can rejoice that they don't have to look for the next Buddy Guy, because he's still here, making music and loving it.
"I'll tell you like I told President Obama when I performed for him at the White House: It's a long way from pickin' cotton in Louisiana!"