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Author: Subject: Buddy Guy: The Kingpen

True Peach





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  posted on 2/20/2006 at 06:28 PM
http://www.rollingstone.com/news/story/9257392/buddy_guy_the_kingpin?rnd=11 40477723625&has-player=true&version=6.0.12.872




Rolling Stone 02/10/06

Buddy Guy: The Kingpin

The electric dreams of the last of the South Side blues giants Buddy Guy, among the last of the great Chicago bluesmen, was standing in the ballroom at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in Manhattan last year, where, in a few hours, he would be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Though Buddy is stone-cold blues, his music stands as a headwater of rock & roll. Even today, you can hear echoes of the records he made in the 1950s and 1960s in Chicago up and down the radio dial: in the 1970s epic that features an eight-minute guitar solo; in the 1980s power ballad that makes you reach for a Schlitz; in the 2005 chord-bending tune by the White Stripes. "Buddy was for me what Elvis was for other people," Eric Clapton said at the ceremony. "My course was set, and he was my pilot."
As Buddy watched the roadies work onstage -- he was here to rehearse his performance at the induction ceremony -- he shivered and said, "Is there somewhere else we can wait? I'm freezing!"

A security guard led Buddy and his entourage (a manager, a publicist, a guitar tech, a photographer and me) to a back room, where Buddy sat on a folding chair. He's sixty-nine, slim, handsome and, surprisingly, bald. In Chicago, Buddy was long known for his head of straightened, product-filled hair, a look he clung to years after it went out of style, until it became a landmark in the city, as recognizable (to blues fans) as the Sears Tower. He used to wear overalls onstage -- as a suggestion of backwoods authenticity -- but he is, in fact, urbane. Even when dressed down, like now, in a Nike pullover, black shoes, white socks and jeans, he looks less like a Ford pickup than like a souped-up race car with a sheet tossed over it. He learned his look from Guitar Slim, a New Orleans bluesman Buddy admired as a boy. After each show, Slim would walk down the street in a red suit. "People would laugh, but Slim didn't care," Buddy told me. "He knew he looked great."

When talking about the Hall of Fame, Buddy used words like "honor" and "thrill," but you could tell that for Buddy, who came of age in a more picturesque time, it was another gig in a lifetime of gigs. He wanted to accept the honor and smile so he could get to the part where he plays his guitar, because that's where the truth is. As soon as he started talking about the ceremony, his thoughts turned to the old days in Chicago when juke joints ran up and down the broad avenues. He has the aura of a last man, the last Aztec, who carries with him the memory of a vanished people -- the Chivas-drinking, reefer-smoking South Side bluesmen: Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Willie Dixon. "I got to Chicago September 25th, 1957," Buddy said, folding his arms. "I had nowhere to stay, no job, and went all over town with my guitar. Twenty-one years old. Winter coming. I went three days without food!"

Turning to his manager, he said, "Three days without food, and now my biggest problem is 'Do I drive the T-Bird or the Ferrari!'

"I wanted to call my mama and get her to send the train fare to come back to Louisiana," he continued. "But I didn't even have the dime to get the operator to make the collect call. After you get the operator, the dime comes back, but no one would even lend me a dime! Finally, I asked a man on the street. And he looked at me and sees my guitar and says, 'Can you play the blues?'"

"'Hell, yes, I can play the blues!'"

"He said, 'Play a song.'"

"I said, 'I'll play for a hamburger.'"

"He said, 'If I give you a hamburger, you'll lose incentive.'"

"So he gave me a swig of wine. I hadn't eaten for three days. That wine almost knocked me down! I played for him, and he said, 'Motherfucker, you can play!' He took me in his car to the 708 Club, where Otis Rush was playing. And he called out, 'Hey, Otis, I got a kid here will blow you away.' Otis said, 'Bring him up.' I get up, and I went crazy! I played like a man hadn't eaten for three days! Someone called Muddy Waters and held up the phone for him to hear, and he got outta bed and headed over. As I played, people were throwing money at me -- nickels and dimes. Someone shouted, 'What you gonna do with the money?' I said, 'I'm gonna get a hamburger.' They laughed, but I didn't know what's so funny. Then this big guy came up and slapped me on the head -- and said, 'My name is Muddy Waters, and now you'll never forget me.' He asked where I wanted to go. I said, 'Take me to a hamburger.' He took me to his house and made me a salami sandwich."

As Buddy spoke, there was a commotion at the door and a man with glasses came in. Buddy stood. The publicist nudged me and said, "Eric Clapton."

Along with B.B. King, Clapton would induct Buddy into the Hall of Fame. The men have known each other for decades. They were together at the Alpine Valley Music Theater in Wisconsin, playing with Stevie Ray Vaughan for what turned out to be Vaughan's last performance. Soon after the encore ("Sweet Home Chicago"), Vaughan was killed in a helicopter crash. "The fog was so thick," said Buddy, "the pilot used his shirt to wipe off the windshield." Clapton stood close to Buddy, sharing a moment, but I could hear what he was saying: that he had learned so much from Buddy, and that his life really began in 1965 when he first saw Buddy at the Marquee Club in London. "Doing all the things we later associated with Jimi Hendrix -- playing with his teeth, his feet, behind his back," Clapton said later. "Whenever I see him, I become an ecstatic, helpless teenager all over again."

* * * *

By 11 a.m., Clapton and Guy were onstage at the Waldorf, strumming their guitars as B.B. King, then seventy-nine, was seated before a microphone for rehearsal. King, a big mountain of a man, greeted Buddy with a smile, saying, "George Guy!" He was one of Buddy's earliest models. Buddy told me about the first time they met. B.B. had come into a club where Buddy was doing this dead-on imitation. Buddy later apologized, saying, "Man, I don't have nothing. I'm just playing your stuff."

King said, "I'm playing somebody else's stuff, too, Buddy. We all got something from somebody."

The guitarists would be backed by the Late Show With David Letterman band. Paul Shaffer would play organ and direct. Buddy turned to the band and said a few quick words. This is what the young Clapton picked up from Buddy -- not just the sound but the authority of the man with the guitar. He would play two songs: "Damn Right, I've Got the Blues," a 1991 hit from his Grammy-winning record of the same name, sung in the manner of the old bluesmen, out of the side of the mouth; and "Let Me Love You Baby," a Willie Dixon song.

The drummer counted off, but before the band could get going, Shaffer was on his feet, calling for the musicians to stop. With such a lineup, you might think he would be content to let the players play, but it was clear he wanted to produce the song tightly. At one point, Shaffer waved his arms and told King he had gotten the words wrong.

King looked up, confused. "I got what wrong?"

"The words," said Shaffer. "Read them off the TelePrompTer."

King stared into the distance. Maybe fifty yards away, a screen showed the lyrics of "Let Me Love You Baby."

"That's too far," said Buddy.

"Well, he's getting the words wrong," said Shaffer.

Clapton groaned and said, "The words are whatever he says they are."

Shaffer shook his head and went back behind his organ, and the song started again. When the musicians got past the first notes and it was clear no one would stop them, they began to roll. The music filled the room, bottom to top. When it was time for Buddy to step forward, you could tell it did not matter that it was 11 a.m. and rehearsal. He was in that holy space he has made for himself with his music, fingers fast and fluid, notes hanging around him. At one point, he hit a note that sounded like the whine of a generator after the switch has been thrown and the city blacks out and the looting begins. Unlike so many others, Buddy never got trapped in the style that made him famous. He has kept inventing, getting wilder as he gets older. His latest record, Bring 'Em In, features Carlos Santana, Tracy Chapman and Buddy's newest acolyte, John Mayer. "I'm still listening to young people, trying to steal, trying to keep the blues alive," Buddy told me. "Every time I pick up my guitar, I'm saying, 'Please, Lord, lemme hit something new that we ain't hit before.'"

* * * *

At the Waldorf, Buddy played a white Stratocaster covered with black polka dots. He also has a black Stratocaster with white polka dots. Each guitar is engraved with the numbers 92557, the date Buddy arrived in Chicago. He had also brought his 1958 Stratocaster -- the first time he had taken it on the road. The '58 Stratocaster is a stand-in for the guitar Buddy carried when he first left home -- a '57 Stratocaster later stolen by a neighbor. Buddy said no guitar could replicate the sound of an old Stratocaster, because "old guitars are like old cars; they don't make them like that anymore," and he feared he would never replace it. Then one night a kid approached him in a club with a '58 Stratocaster to sign. "I don't want to sign it," said Buddy. "I want to buy it."

In exchange for the '58 Stratocaster, Buddy gave the kid $150, one of his custom polka-dot guitars and a bottle of cognac that Buddy calls "Connie."

Partly because of Buddy, the rock & roll guitar hero is always imagined playing a Stratocaster. Clapton said it was not until he saw Buddy perform that he got his first Strat. In the book Hendrix: Setting the Record Straight, Eddie Kramer, a sound engineer, said Jimi Hendrix, a martyred guitar hero, played a Stratocaster because that's what Buddy Guy played.

One afternoon, I followed Buddy through the Waldorf. As he glided down maddeningly symmetrical halls, strangers clapped him on the back. Sometimes they got his name wrong. "Hey, it's Bo Diddley!" "Hey, it's B.B. King!" But it's OK. Buddy is Bo Diddley. Buddy is B.B. King. Buddy is everyone who ever played the blues. An elder statesman, calm and sane, the man with the wild youth who has come through all that. The 1950s were weird and electric. The 1960s were crazy nuts. (Buddy said he used to buy weed so Hendrix and Clapton would smoke it and pass out, then he'd take their girls to his room. "Nowadays, when I see some sweet thing, I smile," he told me. "I look like a nice old man, but I'm thinking, 'You should have been here in '68. I woulda got your ass.'") The 1970s were the bad time, so many friends dead, and the new crowd hardly knew Buddy. Forty days in the wilderness. Forty miles of bad road. He retreated to the bar he owned on the South Side of Chicago, the Checkerboard Lounge. Two dollars to get in, drinks for a buck fifty. He kept a guitar behind the counter. He would challenge the hotshots. The 1980s were slow for visionaries, but by the 1990s the tremendous impact of Buddy's work began to be known. Time had remade him from a ghetto noise freak into a civic treasure, a point of interest for tourists. All that remained of the young despoiler was the sound, the searing flights of guitar fancy. His transition to late middle age has been a rare success. He is enlightened. He is egoless. It does not matter that he makes the music, it only matters that the music gets made.

* * * *

George "Buddy" Guy was born on July 30th, 1936, in a shack without electricity or running water, in a town called Lettsworth, Louisiana, across the Mississippi and to the north of Baton Rouge, a few miles from Angola, a state prison set in a bend in the river. Buddy worked alongside his parents in the fields, sharecropping --work that connects him to the brutal world of the first bluesmen. Negro cotton pickers, like a painting in a museum, a distant red sky, men struggling under heavy loads. The blues is the music of those fields; the electric blues is the life that music went on to live in the city.

On Friday and Saturday nights, Buddy could hear music in the juke joints on the levee where the men carried mojo hands for luck and the lunatics drank Sterno strained through a handkerchief. He heard more of this music later on records and radio, Lightnin' Hopkins, or T-Bone Walker, or Muddy Waters, the guitar talking like a human voice, the chords slurred with a Coke-bottle slide, scarps of language pulled down from the ether.

Going down in Louisiana, baby, behind the sun
Going down in Louisiana, honey, behind the sun

When he was six, Buddy hand-built his first guitar. "I stripped the wire off my mother's screen," he said. "I made the guitar out of a [bug killing] can . . . I would punch a hole in top and cut a hole and tie a spleen of wire to make it sound like a guitar." He would sit on the porch and play. One evening, a man walking up the road told him, "I bet if you had a real guitar, you would learn to play."

Yes, said Buddy, he would.

"Well, you be here this Friday," said the man.

"So that Friday the man said, 'I'm going to buy you a guitar.' I walked downtown with him, and he bought me a Harmony F-hole."

Buddy then said, "I just sent [that guitar] to the Hall of Fame."

This man was the first in a series of strangers who appeared in the narrative of Buddy's life. Maybe it was the man who bought Buddy his first guitar, or maybe it was the man who drove Buddy to the 708 Club in Chicago, but again and again, at a crucial moment, a stranger intervened. This gives the story the aura of inevitability. As if it were preordained. As if it were meant to happen this way. "I believe we are put here for a reason, not a season," Buddy told me. "I was given a talent by somebody. I believe that talent was given to me by God. I was put here to be just what I am."

When Buddy was sixteen, he was asked to audition for Big Poppa, a 270-pound blues singer whose real name was John Tilley. When Buddy stood up to play, he was so nervous, he froze and had to be carried away like a statue. Months later, he got a second chance. This time, his friends filled him with so much liquor, his inhibitions just melted. He got the gig. It was an indispensable apprenticeship, months on the road, playing for the boozy crowds. He took a day job as a janitor at Louisiana State University. After work he went to the honky-tonks. He played with some of the old masters: Lightnin' Hopkins, Lazy Lester, Slim Harpo. "Guitar-and-harmonica music wasn't making money," Buddy told me. "It was play to have fun. Play and drink. They used to throw pennies and dimes in a hat and the guitar player would say, 'If you have enough, get [a bottle].' That's all you got out of it."

Buddy felt lost in Louisiana and later compared himself (in The American Scholar, of all places) to "a ball in tall weeds." In September 1957, he decided to break out, heading to Chicago, because that's where the greats lived, because that's where the future was made, because that's where the tracks ended. He boarded the City of New Orleans for the forty-eight-hour run up the spine of America. The train got going with a start, the places of his boyhood drifting backward in the window. At night, when everyone was asleep, he stood between cars, watching the country. "The train stayed in the woods coming all through Mississippi," he told me. "I had been on the edge of the Mississippi but nowhere else, and I had never been to any other state, and I was just looking at the rails, and I didn't know if I was gonna come back or not. I see that every time I close my eyes, man."

* * * *

Buddy told me all this at Buddy Guy's Legends, the blues club he opened in Chicago in 1989, after the Checkerboard closed. When it opened, Legends was a little too far north for aficionados but still a little too far south for tourists, yet the area has been overtaken by gentrification. Safe yet gritty. Where the concierge sends you when you say, "I want to see Chicago blues." Buddy plays sixteen shows at the club every January. When not playing, he is at the bar, nursing a glass of Connie, greeting people as they come in. By touching him, you touch the entire tradition: Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Son House. Legends is cavernous, with a long wooden bar. On most nights, the crowd is overwhelmingly white -- as are most fans of the blues. (By opening his club in the Loop, Buddy hoped to attract just such blues fans.) It's a torment for the old blues musicians -- watching their music devolve from a living art into a museum piece. At the beginning of his career, Buddy was onstage with Son House and Howlin' Wolf. At the end, he's onstage with John Mayer and Paul Shaffer: That's the story of the blues.

Buddy's office is up a flight of stairs. He talked in a pleasant singsong, the voice of the South remade by forty years in the nasal Midwest. He wore a black shirt and a beret. He told me that when he arrived in Chicago, he was amazed by the speed of the place. "A hundred thousand people working 24/7 in steel mills, a station on every corner open 24/7, blues-bar joints up and down each side of the street with two-piece, three-piece bands." he said. "In Baton Rouge, we had Friday-, Saturday- and Sunday-night shows, then back to work. In Chicago, the streets were so full, I forgot when Sunday was. I told a guy in the middle of the week, 'I'm gonna go to church,' and he was like, 'Man, this is Wednesday!'"

Buddy's star first ascended in the winter of 1957, when, just twenty-one years old, he competed against Otis Rush, a Mississippi-born guitar player credited with inventing the "West Side style," and Magic Sam, another West Side legend, in the "Battle of the Blues." The prize was a half-pint of whiskey. Before the contest, Buddy bought 100 feet of guitar cord. "Even the man at the store asked, 'What are you gonna do with a hundred feet?'" said Buddy. Otis Rush played, then Magic Sam, then Buddy was introduced. You could hear his guitar before you saw his face. For several seconds, there was just the disembodied sound of the instrument: "Sweet Black Angel." Then Buddy strolled out of the bathroom, climbed on the bar, walked its length, jumped into the crowd, threw his guitar on the floor, stomped on it, picked it up, tossed it, caught it, walked into the street, down the block, then disappeared around the corner, still playing. "Everybody like, 'No, man, he ain't out there in the snow!'" said Buddy. "Then everybody ran out. And I be standing there hitting that one lick, man -- **** !"

Buddy was perfecting tricks that would later enter the repertoire of rock: Jimi Hendrix playing with his teeth, Pete Townshend smashing his guitar to pieces -- it's all just Buddy in the snow hitting that lick. "I didn't know **** ," he told me. "I just knew to act a fool. And that was new here: Take the guitar and put it behind your back or behind your head and play it. Next thing I know, the guitar players were saying, 'Who is it, man?'

"Before that, all the blues musicians would just set their hats down next to them, sit in a chair and play."

Buddy said he learned the moves from his boyhood hero Guitar Slim. "They brought Slim to Baton Rouge," he told me. "They said, 'Ladies and gentleman: Guitar Slim.' And there was just a guitar playing. He wasn't there. Fifteen or twenty minutes later, somebody comes in the door carrying Slim, like you do a little baby. With a red suit on. He was just that crazy. And I said, 'I wanna play like B.B. King, but I wanna act like that man.'"

Soon after the contest, Magic Sam brought Buddy to Cobra Records, a company operated by Eli Toscano, one of the legion of independent record men who haunted the West Side dives. Buddy made his first records at Cobra -- more important, he hooked up with Willie Dixon, who had quit his job at Chess Records. Dixon is less famous than some of his contemporaries, but he was the godfather of the scene. The straw that stirred the drink. While at Chess, he wrote songs that define the genre: "Hoochie Coochie Man," for Muddy Waters; "My Babe," for Little Walter; "Wang Dang Doodle," for Koko Taylor. He was in a constant state of war with the owner of the label, Leonard Chess, a Polish immigrant who got his start in the nightclub business, the tough little merchant you would see closing the Macomba Lounge with a pistol on his hip, his pocket filled with Chivas-stained bills. To Dixon, Leonard Chess was essential (he had a genius for business and a feel for music; it's no accident his label, co-owned with his brother Phil, put together the greatest catalog in the history of electric blues), but he was a shyster. Juggling songwriting credits, playing with royalties. Over the years, Leonard came to stand, unfairly, for the worst qualities of the hustling record man.

Chicago was full of guys like Chess, small-time operators cast as the devil in the world of the blues, but without whom the music would never have found its audience. The heads of the independent labels were often in trouble, just a step ahead of creditors. In 1959, Eli Toscano, president of Cobra, disappeared. Soon after, his body was dredged from Lake Michigan. He had been murdered gangland style. So Dixon returned to Chess, bringing with him two Cobra artists: Otis Rush and Buddy Guy. Buddy stayed at the label from 1960 to 1967, becoming part of one of the great scenes in the history of American music: Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Jimmy Rogers, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Otis Spann, hanging out, drinking Hennessy and cutting sides in the studio at 2120 South Michigan Avenue.

It was in these years that Buddy hooked up with Junior Wells, the harp player who, for decades, would be Buddy's sidekick and foil. Buddy first knew Wells as one of the most foulmouthed in a crowd of prolific cursers. "If you made him angry, he would say, 'Kiss my pussy,'" Buddy told me. "First time I heard that, man, it really shocked me."

Wells (his real name was Amos Blakemore) was born in 1934 in Memphis, where, in his teens, he was taught the basics of harmonica by Junior Parker, the local figure who, among other things, wrote "Mystery Train," an iconic early hit for Elvis. When Wells was twelve, he was sent to live with his mother in Chicago, where he remade his playing in the style of the visionaries Sonny Boy Williamson and Little Walter, the first men to electrify the harmonica, giving birth to the moaning city sound. In 1952, when Little Walter quit Muddy's band in a huff, Wells was recruited to take his place. He was eighteen. The kid on the scene. Buddy was the other kid on the same scene. They fell together in the manner of two hot young prospects shagging flies at spring training.

Buddy Guy and Junior Wells began performing together in 1958 -- the start of an epic partnership. They brought out the best in each other: You can hear this on the many records they made -- Junior Wells' Chicago Blues Band, Hoodoo Man Blues (1965); Buddy Guy and Junior Wells Play the Blues (1972); Alone and Acoustic (1981) -- Wells' wise voice backed by Buddy's screaming licks, Buddy's baritone punctuated by the freight-train blast of Wells' harp. For years, they were like Smith Corona. You could see them night after night, an act that continued into the 1990s, the last embers of a once-burning scene. In 1998, when Wells died, Buddy seemed instantly older, pushed into the last row of the family portrait. He does not speak of his missing friend with sadness or even nostalgia but with excitement, as if he were still alive, out there, tearing it up. Or he slaps his knee and says, "Kiss my pussy!"

* * * *

By the mid-1960s, the Chess studio at 2120 South Michigan Avenue had become one of the holy places of rock & roll, visited, as if on pilgrimages, by the Rolling Stones (who cut several songs there, including the homage "2120 South Michigan Avenue"). Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Jeff Beck. Outtakes of recording sessions in which Leonard Chess is heard swearing up a storm have been used to demonstrate the bullying vulgarity of the man, but in fact it's how everyone talked at the label. "For the first six months, I thought my name was 'Motherfucker,'" Buddy told me. "If you don't look around, they punch you on the shoulder and say, 'I'm talking to you, **** !'"

Buddy's debut for Chess was a cover of Little Brother Montgomery's "First Time I Met the Blues." He went on to record more than forty songs for the label, signposts in the history of electric blues: "My Time After Awhile," "Ten Years Ago," "When My Left Eye Jumps." But in the end, these were still traditional blues recordings -- not the wild songs full of sustained notes that would make his name. Buddy was struggling toward a new sound in the joints, but Leonard would not let him record it for Chess. He dismissed the new songs as "noise." "Who wants to listen to that noise?" It was only when Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck had hits filled with such noise that Leonard changed his mind.

"I used to go into Chess and turn that amplifier up like I do it now," Buddy told me. "I was looking for what they doin' now. Before that, it was all nice, clean. But Chess would run me out of the studio. They tell me, 'Don't come in here with that.' But when they found out what they did in London, they send Dixon to get me. 'Go down and get that **** .' And Dixon: 'Put the suit on.' So I put this blue suit on, and I'll never forget, I thought, 'This must be the end of my career at Chess.' And when I walked in there -- I had never been in his office -- he pulled this big cigar out of his mouth and bent over and said, 'I want you to kick me in my ass.' And I'm like, 'What the **** 's wrong with you?' And he said, 'Go ahead, **** , kick me in my ass.' I said, 'For what, man?' He said, 'Listen, you've been trying to give us this **** ever since you come in. We was too **** in' dumb to listen.' They had a drink for me and everything. Had me sit in the big chair. Said, 'We want you to do whatever you want, man.'"

That's when Buddy Guy became Buddy Guy.

* * * *

Though Buddy is nearing seventy, he spends more than half the year on the road. It's as if he's more comfortable on the road, as if moving is the only way he can stand still. On the road, the world is only road, a collection of rides and flights, the cities speeding past, faces going by, bubble wrap that you tear away to get to that pearl of a moment where you play. At home he is less at home, out of place in his suburban house south of the South Side. You sense his days here are precious and rare, like the life of a boxer between rounds. He sleeps late, drives fast, entertains, hangs out at Legends, spends afternoons in his garden, trying to grow vegetables that taste like the ones he used to eat in Louisiana as a boy. "I was driving around last year during corn season, and I found one of those guys who picks corn," Buddy said. "So the guy had two baskets, one with corn for twenty-five cents each and the other one for a dime. I said, 'What's the difference?' He said the ones for twenty-five cents don't have the worm at the top. I said, 'You give me the one with the worm -- he's there because nothing has been sprayed on it.'"

Buddy is a booster for the city of Chicago. Like a true booster, he knows it's not enough to say good things -- you actually have to believe them. Buddy believes Chicago is the greatest place on earth; it's where he found his way. It was therefore with pride that he agreed to give me a tour -- not the tourist's tour but a tour of the city as experienced by Buddy Guy.

We started one morning in the parking lot behind Legends. We traveled by SUV. Buddy sat in the passenger seat, and his assistant drove. We went west on Roosevelt Avenue, under the elevated tracks, over the highway and freight yards, the city spread across the prairie like a stain. The sun was out, behind us the lake was shining like a heliograph. He showed me the platform where he stood when he got off the train in 1957, the streets of the ghetto spinning below him like a propeller. He showed me the shop where he used to buy suits. "You'd separate your money, half in your pocket, half in your shoe," he said. "That way, after you make your offer, you turn out your pockets and say, 'Look, man, that's all I got.'"

He powered the satellite radio, which is always tuned to the blues station. He said he admires other music but feels he still has a long way to go before he exhausts his study of blues. When a song came on, he would comment with words or by turning the volume up or down. When "Hide Away," by Freddie King, a Texas-born guitar player, came on, he said that the song had been the theme of Hound Dog Taylor, Mississippi-born and known for wild performances, played before and after each set at Mel's Hideaway. Hound Dog never thought much of it until Freddie King swiped it and made it a hit. "But everyone got ripped off," Buddy told me. "That's the way it was. We thought Chess was ripping us off, and he was, but Chess was getting ripped off too."

We turned onto Homan Avenue -- Roosevelt and Homan is probably the most dangerous intersection in Chicago -- and cruised through blocks of low-slung houses, each backed by a complicated web of fire escapes. The streets were empty, the taverns shuttered. A wind was blowing from the west. (There would be home runs at Wrigley today.) We went by the office of Cobra and the warehouse where Sears used to store all the merchandise you could order from the catalog -- it's where Muddy Waters got his first guitar. We stopped at a lot. "You're looking at the place I seen a man killed," said Buddy. "It was called the Squeeze Club, but after that I call it the Bucket of Blood. I was on the pool table playing, and this guy comes off the street with an ice pick and does the doorman right in front."

We traveled south down Forty-seventh Street, once the main drag of Bronzeville, the ghetto paradise built by hundreds of thousands of African-American immigrants who flooded the city from Mississippi and Louisiana. As we drove, Buddy pointed out the former hot spots: the building that once housed the Blue Flame Club; the building at 708 Forty-seventh Street that once housed the 708 Club; the building that once housed Pepper's Lounge; the building that once housed Theresa's. In many of these clubs, the stage was behind the bar. (Buddy was known as the first performer to step off the stage onto the bar.) In the smallest clubs, there was no stage, just a ladder the musician would climb. We went by beautiful brick houses, dilapidated but now being remade by real-estate prospectors from the North Side. Buddy frowned and said, "All the ghetto done gone."

We went north, then turned into a little community, the streets desolate, drowsy, bourgeois, mundane. We parked in front of a modest house at 4339 South Lake Park Avenue. A FOR RENT sign was taped in a window. There was a plaque in the yard, but I couldn't read it. "It's Muddy's house," said Buddy. We sat there for several moments. A song came on the radio. Buddy turned it up. It was a Muddy Waters song called "I Love the Life I Live, I Live the Life I Love." Buddy let his head fall back and listened with eyes closed.

RICH COHEN

Posted Feb 10, 2006 9:20 AM

 

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Maximum Peach



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  posted on 2/20/2006 at 10:39 PM
Libby, that article's so long, I'm saving half for later. How about this, though:
quote:
As Buddy spoke, there was a commotion at the door and a man with glasses came in. Buddy stood. The publicist nudged me and said, "Eric Clapton."
DUH-uh!

 

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  posted on 2/20/2006 at 10:44 PM
I shook Phil Guy's hand in a southside blues bar Friday night.

No Buddy though.

 

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  posted on 2/20/2006 at 10:53 PM
Thanks for posting that article Libby...........
I am fortunate to live in Chicago and have seen Buddy
probably more than any other artist........
He is a true American Icon.........a real treasure.....
Every January Buddy plays about 16 shows at his club, Legends.......
If you ever get the chance, check him out @ Legends........
There is NOTHING like seeing Buddy at Legends.........
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  posted on 2/20/2006 at 11:01 PM
quote:
Thanks for posting that article Libby...........
I am fortunate to live in Chicago and have seen Buddy
probably more than any other artist........
He is a true American Icon.........a real treasure.....
Every January Buddy plays about 16 shows at his club, Legends.......
If you ever get the chance, check him out @ Legends........
There is NOTHING like seeing Buddy at Legends.........
EAPFP


Great article, Libby. It's nice when Rolling Stone has an article about a real musician.

It's amazing how much fire Buddy Guy has in his belly. I finally caught one of those January shows this year, and he was fantastic.

 

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  posted on 2/20/2006 at 11:12 PM
He can be wildy inconsistent, but when he is on, he is ON.

I was at Legends about 13-14 years ago in between Christmas and NYE when he was in town and just like any other bar owner, he was there watching the door all night. As I approached him to congratulate him on his recent success (Damn Right I Got The Blues came out not too long before) he was polite and I said, "Buddy, you don't look a day over 35.."(he looked amazingly young considering the life he had led up to that point), and he looked at me in disbelief and said, "Man, you need to get you some glasses!"

A true American original.

 

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  posted on 2/21/2006 at 12:55 AM
quote:
He can be wildy inconsistent, but when he is on, he is ON.




Ya got that right, Rich... The man can blow the roof off the joint when he is O-N!
Which reminds me... I have a DVD around here somewhere with Buddy, EC, SRV and BB. .....and Phil Collins... Paul Butterfield. I need to pull that thing out and make sure I'm not dreaming.

Jimmy, I do want to get up to Chi this summer. I'm not so sure I can handle Chi in January. I love the shows mcpeach sends me from Legends. I gotta get there!

[Edited on 2/21/2006 by Libby]

 

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  posted on 2/21/2006 at 01:02 AM
Would that be from the Cinemax B. B. King Special? Think I have it on VHS...

 

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  posted on 2/21/2006 at 01:08 AM
quote:
Would that be from the Cinemax B. B. King Special? Think I have it on VHS...



I do believe that is the one, Rich.

[Edited on 2/21/2006 by Libby]

 

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  posted on 2/21/2006 at 06:45 PM
Libby.........Chicago is BEAUTIFUL in the summer..........
Plan your trip around our favorite band!!!!!!
Hopefully, we get more than 1 show this summer!!!!
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  posted on 2/21/2006 at 07:27 PM
The B.B. King & Friends special didn't have Buddy, I'm afraid. It did have Albert King--he would be the other big guitar guy. It also had Gladys Knight and Billy Ocean; I think Etta James and a bit of Dr. John, too.

Tell you what about Gladys: She's usually too poppy and too willing to keep smiling at the audience to really get deep into the blues, but her old version of "Heard It Through the Grapevine" (preceding, and way funkier than, Marvin Gaye's) still kills me.

 

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  posted on 2/21/2006 at 07:47 PM
Thanks for the article Libby. Buddy Guy is ..............Buddy GUY!

 

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  posted on 2/21/2006 at 08:59 PM
Libby,
Thanks for sharing this article. Buddy Guy is the man. Sweet Tea is one damn fine cd as it is one of my favorites.

 

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  posted on 2/21/2006 at 09:19 PM
quote:

Jimmy, I do want to get up to Chi this summer. I'm not so sure I can handle Chi in January. I love the shows mcpeach sends me from Legends. I gotta get there!



Make sure you let us know when you're coming.

We'll hide Sang.

 

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  posted on 2/21/2006 at 09:58 PM
quote:
The B.B. King & Friends special didn't have Buddy, I'm afraid. It did have Albert King--he would be the other big guitar guy. It also had Gladys Knight and Billy Ocean; I think Etta James and a bit of Dr. John, too.



Libby, maybe you're thinking of the Muddy Waters tribute. I believe(my concert flicks are packed away in storage at the moment) Buddy played on that one, as did our own Gregg Allman.

 

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  posted on 2/21/2006 at 11:50 PM
Thanks for posting this, Libby. Reading this reminds me how I must make it to Chicago some year soon to check out all the blues clubs.

 

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  posted on 2/22/2006 at 10:21 AM
Rich, you are right on the money with this assessment:
quote:
He can be wildy inconsistent, but when he is on, he is ON.
I've seen Buddy live 10-12 times, and he is "wildly inconsistent" even from one song to the next. Every time but the last (January 2005--he must've been drunk), though, he'll have at least one or two songs where he goes off into someplace no one else can, and that makes his other stuff worth waiting through.

In January 2004 I didn't have a ticket, but I cruised down by the club anyway on my way out of Chicago. (I know I've told this story here before, but . . .) I parked my car and walked south down Wabash in the bitter cold and light snow. I tried to see what I could hear by that northern door by the pool tables ("to see what I could hear" ). I couldn't hear much, so I continued south to the stage door, where I was getting a good shot of sound through the closed door. (This side of the building, fronting on Wabash, goes like this:
door by pool tables
and large windows;
10 steps of wall, until you get to
the stage door;
then 5 more steps, till you get to
the windows and main entrance at the corner of the building, at Wabash and Balbo.)

I stand there for a couple minutes, just listening to Buddy. He is playing fast but unimaginatively--I would even say crappy. I stand there contemplating the contradiction that is Buddy. Also a puzzle is how much the fans are cheering in there for subpar guitar playing--not just subpar for Buddy, but plain old subpar blues (didn't Albert King have a song titled that? ).

I reach some final point in my head where I am thinking, Forget it--Buddy's lousy tonight, and I'm getting cold. Just then the door up by the pool tables opens. This is like a dozen steps to my right. And who should come out the door but Buddy! He is doing his nightly stroll through the audience playing his guitar--and wherever else his little feat lead him. That's why he was sounding so bad: because he was weaving through the audience and being more concerned with playing in their face (literally), maybe clowning and posing for pictures, than with how well he was playing.

An assistant comes ahead and opens up the stage door right in front of me, and Buddy slowly comes down the sidewalk playing some fast, riffy stuff. It isn't great guitar, but it is cool to see him just walking along down the sidewalk with guitar in hand like this.

When Buddy gets near me and the stage door, I back up for him to go in, and he shows himself in front of the door for a couple seconds, which gets a huge cheer from the audience inside (I am the only audience outside). Rather than go in, though, Buddy backs up a couple steps to where he is right in front of me, and he closes his eyes and just lets 'er rip. Actually the coldest night of the winter, I recall now, and it's snowing a little, and Buddy is riffing away for 30 or more seconds right there.

Then Buddy finally heads inside to tumultuous cheers, and the door is closed, and I go back to my car with a redeemed (in the nick of time) opinion of Buddy.

 

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