blues in his blood
We can count our lucky stars that Buddy Guy continues to sing the blues, effectively keeping the genre alive and well on his new album LivingProof.
We can count our lucky stars that Buddy Guy continues to sing the blues, effectively keeping the genre alive and well on his new album Living Proof.
IF Buddy Guy is worried for the future of the blues, then we’ve got some real hard thinking to do. While there seems to be a constant flow of talent coming through the ranks for every one that fades into the sunset, a serious danger exists of the genre sinking into oblivion.
And come on, let’s be a little honest and realistic here: while no disrespect is meant, the new crop often straddles the divide between lame and tame. But that’s the status quo at the moment and more worrying is the lack of interest from the African American population, who, though gave birth to the blues, couldn’t care less about it now.
B.B. King and Guy are the last remaining custodians of the genre from the first generation of urban blues players, but Guy insists that’s only applicable if one of them releases a significant body of work.
“We’re only relevant if we put out a great record,” said the living legend humbly over the phone from Chicago, the United States.
Guy rightfully has a gripe on how the music industry has grown because “industry” has been given greater emphasis at the expense of “music”.
“The blues just doesn’t get the exposure it deserves. You don’t hear it on the radio or watch it on TV. They’re only looking for young people these days. There’s no place for older folks now. If my face was on TV, you might see a few more black players because people look for role models. Blues is good time music and it’s for everybody,” he asserted.
The 74-year old guitarist is not one for modern musical pastiches. He eschews hip hop and makes no bones about it, either.
“I grew up as a student of Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker ... people who dedicated themselves to their art and lived by it. I mean, music is music but there seems to be a need these days to be a superstar, which I don’t get. We play for the love of it, but with the new music, they play for the love of money ... they just can’t tell the difference.”
No surprises then that the Lettsworth, Louisiana-born musician has continued to ply the same route he has for all of the last half century. His new record, Living Proof pools all his life stories and experiences, presenting it with a lucidity and conviction rarely present in today’s music. “There ain’t nothing I haven’t done. I’ve been a dog. I’ve been a tomcat. I chase ’em tales, and I’ve left some tracks. I still know how to have my fun ‘coz I’m 74 years young,” go the lyrics of the opening track on the album, aptly titled 74 Years Young.
There couldn’t be a more tell-it-likeit-is album out there. On You’ll Thank Me Someday, his lyrics reminisce on his growing talent 60 years ago; “Down in Louisiana, on a cotton plantation. Little tin roof shack, and a third grade education. Two-string wood guitar. I taught myself how to play. Kept my whole family up all night and told them you would thank me one day.”
“I would go out in the yard, on the levee, to practice. We didn’t have electric lights or running water – you could hear that guitar a mile away in the country, so I’d have to go a long way away so they didn’t say ‘ Get out of here with that noise,’ ” he confessed of his disapproved musical ambitions.
His family may have ultimately thanked him, though, especially after Guy earned his stripes as a hotshot guitar slinger in the 1950s. In fact, it was this guitar-slinging mentality that found him in a “shootout” with West Side contemporaries Magic Sam and Otis Rush, which eventually earned him a recording deal under brothers Leonard and Phil Chess’ burgeoning label Chess Records in 1958.
All was not rosy though and Guy faced the ignominy of having his playing labelled “a bunch of noise” – a testament to his frenetic and fiery style on the guitar. He has few fond memories of his time with the label since he was forced to play in a tamer manner than he’d liked.
Guy soldiered on though, and went on to become a prime influence for the likes of Eric Clapton (who’s performed with him on numerous occasions) and Jimi Hendrix. Over the years, Guy has confessed to his mentors – T-Bone Walker, B.B. King, Lightnin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker – that he hasn’t anything original to offer, only for them to respond that they picked up what they knew from others, too.
“When we were playing back then, we didn’t call it blues, we called it R&B. Back then, we had to play Top 10 hits, stuff that was on the jukebox like Ray Charles and Lightnin’ Hopkins. If I was lucky, I got paid three dollars a night,” he offered, providing a peek into his past.
Earning his keep by driving a tow truck in the day, Guy continued to hone his craft and ply his trade wherever he was given the opportunity at night.
Today, Guy enjoys the luxury of being allowed to do what he wants and how he wants. How times have changed. “These guys said, ‘It’s your guitar, your studio, you just go be Buddy Guy’ ... and I’ve been trying to be that for the past 50 years.”
And that’s exactly what the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame inductee has been doing. “I just keep going on. Life is so strange but I am blessed that I’ve been allowed to do what I love. I’m just trying to play good music, to make people happy and put a smile on their faces.”
Amid the stinging blues of opener 74 Years Young, Thank Me Someday and On The Road, Guy has also squeezed in a modern classic, Stay Around A Little Longer, a collaboration with B.B. King.
“I’ve played with B.B. before but this is the first time I got him on record and it was wonderful,” he said, his joy almost seeping through the phone line. Latin jazz/rock hero Santana has also thrown in his two cents worth into the mix with the surprisingly sumptuous Where The Blues Begins.
Cotton is no longer picked by hand, so how is fresh blues written today? Guy doesn’t have any conclusive answers but he reckons that this music form only ever gets exposure if a rock band or a second generation musician popularises it.
“America didn’t accept it (the blues). And when the British guys started playing it, the British people said ‘Bring it on’, but America still didn’t know about it or like it. You need to pay attention to blues to appreciate it,” he said, all fired up.
Ultimately, the blues deals with the highest of highs, the lowest of lows ... and all points in between, and there’s plenty of that on Living Proof. Guy takes pride in having penned/copenned many of the songs on the album.
“I’m happy that I didn’t have to play other people’s songs. My producer, Tom Hambridge would speak to me and jot down some of the things I said and turn those things into lyrics,” revealed Guy on the album’s creative process.
Guy – who has almost 70 albums under his name (compilations and live albums included) – is the epitome of cool and sees no reason in hanging up his guitar just yet. He has seen and done enough to realise that it’s the hardships he’s endured that allows him to continue singing the blues.
“I treat this situation as if I was a prizefighter – if I’m not willing to get in that ring and risk getting knocked out, I don’t stand a chance to win,” he concluded, divulging his secret to success.
Living Proof is no Buddy Guy And Junior Wells Plays The Blues, but it’s still testimony to the endearing quality of this music, played by one of the last living legends. n Buddy Guy’s LivingProof is available from Sony Music.
Mojo working: Blues legend Buddy Guy certainly has his going on his all-new tell-it-like-it-is album LivingProof.