Buddy Guy's Rock And Rules

The bluesman shares wisdom
Buddy Guy's Rock And Rules
As the leading light of Chicago blues, Buddy Guy has seen legends come and go. His is a life made for music. Here are his Rock And Rules.

Below you can read the full transcript of Clash Editor Simon Harper's chat with the great man. Pick up the current issue of Clash Magazine for the condensed version.

Hi Buddy, how are you?

Oh, for an old fellow I’m hanging on.

It’s a very early start for you. Are you an early riser?

Yeah, I’ve always been like that, man. I was born and raised on a farm down in Louisiana, man. All of my musician friends, some of ’em have gone and left, one or two of ’em still around, and sometimes I’ll be out in the morning going to get a newspaper at five thirty and they’d say - matter of fact, before Junior Wells died, he’d be coming in, and I’d be on my way out with a cup of coffee to get a paper. ‘What kind of nut are you? Don’t nobody get up this early in the morning but a nut!’ I say, ‘Yeah, but especially in the spring I like to hear the birds sing.’

I’m interviewing you for our Rock And Rules piece. We’re going to discuss your own experiences in music and how your life might inspire or advise someone who’s considering following in your footsteps.

Whatever you do, I think you should give it your best. I didn’t ever think I would be talking to you this morning being interviewed, because I didn’t ever think I was good enough. I came up under the wings of Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Lightnin’ Slim, and watching those people play. I didn’t ever think I was good enough to go in the same room as them. But my parents always did tell me, ‘Son, whatever you do, don’t be the best in town, just be the best until the best came around.’

When you were younger, you couldn’t afford a guitar, so you had to make your own. Were you that desperate to play? Would you have played music no matter what?

Well, that’s what happened: I played music no matter what. But I didn’t look to make a career out of it, because I didn’t think I was good enough. I played the guitar because of the love of music. I didn’t see me making a decent living out of playing the guitar. I’m seventy-four-years-old now. Once, when I was fifteen-years-old, you couldn’t reach out there and find a guitar player doing well like it is today, where some of these guitar players making millions of dollars. Wasn’t no such thing as that.

You look at Arthur Crudup and Lightnin’ Hopkins and those fellas like T Bone Walker: they was the ones who were playing the blues music then, and I imagine they would make enough to buy a bottle of wine or maybe get a hamburger or something like that, but they weren’t going to no banks or nothing like that. I had the pleasure of meeting Lonnie Johnson - I didn’t meet Robert Johnson - but I met Fred McDowell, Son House and those people like that, and I met them before they passed away, and they were just down in Mississippi playing for a drink on a weekend - what they call a Saturday Night Fish Fry. I’m like saying I want to do that, because that’s what I wanted to do. I didn’t say one day I’d be talking to you and making a decent living out of playing my guitar.

When you first went to Chicago you must have been surrounded by musicians that were more successful. Were you inspired by them to try and be the best? Were you working hard to become as good as them?

I was, but as I got to know them, they was no less successful - they was successful at making a record, but there was neither one of us making no big money, man. When I first met Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Little Walter, they was making hit record after hit record, but they wasn’t making any money off that. I think the record company was making money, but the money wasn’t out there then.

I went to work - I started driving a tow-truck - and they didn’t do it, but the people like Muddy Waters and them, they was making about the same thing a night I was driving a tow-truck, maybe six or seven dollars a night to go play at a club. I was still in love with it. I said, ‘If that’s the way it is, that’s the way it is’. If Muddy was living now he could be making twenty, thirty, fifty thousand dollars a night like B.B. King. B.B. and I are good friends - he’s on this last CD with me - and he told me himself, he just started making a little money in his sixties. He didn’t ever make no money out there before, but I thought he was.

You obviously have to be dedicated.

Oh yeah. You have to love what you’re doing, because if you don’t... Let me put it like this: I’ve known quite a few guitar players, man, put that thing in the closet and said, ‘Forget it’, because he had a wife and had to support his family, and you couldn’t do that. My first wife, man, you know, I went to work to drive a truck but I didn’t throw my guitar away. I told her, ‘I’m gonna go to work and take care of the children but I’m gonna still play my guitar.’

You were signed to Chess in Chicago, but they didn’t really know what to do with you - Leonard Chess didn’t understand your music. Did you feel like you were held back? How did it feel being signed to a label you couldn’t put any music out on?

Well, I don’t know if I was held back, but they wouldn’t give me a chance at it until the British guys exploded, then Leonard came back - I think it was maybe four or six months before he passed away - and he sent Willie Dixon to my house. He said, ‘Go get the MF’ - if you know what I mean - ‘and bring him down.’ And I went down and he said, ‘Man, you’ve been trying to give us this stuff ever since you come here and we was too fuckin’ dumb to understand. And it’s selling, and it’s hot, because the British guys are playing it.’

And he put on a record I think by Hendrix or Cream, and then he said, ‘You come in here now and do exactly what you want.’ He didn’t live too long after that. But I went in there doing that, because I copied that stuff from the late Guitar Slim and T Bone - they was putting on a show with the guitar. I wasn’t as good a guitar player like some of those guys like the late Wayne Bennett, Matt Murphy, Earl Hooker - I could go on and on - but I still considered myself in school. When I saw Muddy and B.B. and them play, I didn’t even want them to know I was in the house after they got to know me, because I wanted to sneak in and watch them and learn something.

So how did you develop your own style?

I don’t know. Everybody asks me that. I didn’t really know I had a style until some of the British guys started telling me I had one. I was just playing the guitar like everybody else and trying to improve, and, like my mother and father told me, ‘Don’t be the best in town, just try be the best until the best came around.’

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Was there any resentment towards the white musicians from England who came over playing the blues and became more successful than you?

No. I felt good about it because they exposed us. They had a television show here called Shindig, it was a new thing mostly about music. The Rolling Stones was getting famous, and they was going out of their way trying to book ’em. Finally they agreed to do the show, but they said, ‘Only if you let us bring Muddy Waters on’. White America said, ‘Muddy who? Who the hell is that?’ When they said that, Mick Jagger got offended, saying, ‘You don’t know who Muddy Waters is? We named ourselves after his most famous record, ‘Rollin’ Stone’.’

So America didn’t really know their own heritage? They were buying an English interpretation.

That’s what I think it was. America was kinda stubborn, you know? Chess did well with Muddy, Wolf and Walter, and you would go in there and they wasn’t ready for nothin’ new. But that stuff Muddy and them was doing was new, because they amplified those harmonicas and different things like that, and that was new, but they wasn’t ready for the kind of stuff that I had brought, which was a little more wilder and a louder guitar. Muddy came to the UK right after Big Bill Broonzy, I think in 1958 or ’59, and he came back and said he got booed because he took the slide and the amplifier.

His trombone player is still living - I saw him this past summer in Europe; his name is Chris Barber - and he brought Muddy back the next year, and Muddy didn’t take the slide guitar and amplifier, he took an acoustic guitar, and they booed him again. They said, ‘No, don’t come here with that now, we done got used it: we know about the electric slide now!’ Muddy said he was a victim of circumstance. He got booed for bringing the acoustic guitar back!

You career went into decline in the Eighties. Did you become disheartened? Did you lose hope, or just keep playing?

I don’t know if you lose hope, but I always answer like this: music is up and downs, and blues has more downs than ups. But I had done got used to being down, so I’ll just keep playing because I enjoy playing. If there ain’t but two people out there, if I see them smiling, I’m ready to play for your sir, because when I learned how to play, you could count the guitar players on one hand, but now you’ve got people playing the guitar better than me, even though I consider it as something that I can do well with. You have to be lucky, you have to be in the right place, the right people have to listen to you, the right record company got to get you to promote and everything else. It’s not an easy life, sir. You just have to dedicate your self like I did. I just said, ‘Even if I have to go to work I’m still gonna play my guitar’, and I did that.

Eric Clapton proved to be your saviour, inviting you to play with him in the late Eighties, and eventually helping to get you signed. Are you indebted to him for the help he gave you at that point?

Of course I am. Not only me, he did a lot for most people - The Rolling Stones, all of them did something for the black musician when they really convinced white America that this was something that they got from here. They was listening to Robert Johnson and all those people before they got famous. When I first went there, [Jeff] Beck and Eric told me they slept in a van to watch them play, because I played there with The Yardbirds in February 1965, and Rod Stewart was the valet for me! People laugh, but I ain’t had a chance to talk to him since he got so famous. I told someone the night before last I want to borrow some money from him!

When they got famous, they just came out and told you where they got this from, and that’s why everybody started coming back saying, ‘Let me see who Muddy Waters is’, ‘Let me see who B.B. King is’, or Ike and Tina Turner and Billy Preston and all those young people coming up, and they just brought them all out on stages with them. Including myself. I played the Royal Albert Hall with Eric. I don’t think I would have ever got in the Royal Albert Hall if it weren’t for Eric inviting me there.

When you made friends with the English artists, did they ask you for any advice?

No. When I first met Beck and Eric they just shook a Stratocaster at me and told me - and you know I won’t ever forget this - they said they didn’t even know a Stratocaster could play blues until they saw me. They was going with the Gibson and stuff, and when I played the blues on this, they threw the Gibson away and been playing a Strat ever since.

Your children have entered into the music business. Did you give them any advice when they were growing up to follow in your footsteps?

No. My parents couldn’t figure it out - nobody in my family was musically inclined, because there wasn’t no such thing as looking for a career out of music in my day. My kids, they have opportunities; I got guitars that they can play - I got one son plays pretty well. He works at my club. He’s a little shy, like I was. And I got a daughter singing. They’ve given it a little try, but I don’t jump up and say ‘Go for it’, because it’s not an easy life, sir. You know, I’ve been to places and I know some friends that had it worse than me. I’ve been to places away from home and you don’t get paid - you know you’re not gonna get paid before you get there.

I played a club and asked the guy to just give me fare to catch a bus, and I had a gun put to my head saying, ‘I told you to get out of here’. And the house was full. Me and B.B. King were talking about that when we did the video for this CD. He said his bus broke down and he called the guy and said, ‘If I make I’m gonna be late’. The guy said, ‘Come on, I’m sold out’.

When he got there an hour late, the guy said, ‘I don’t need you now. You’re too late’. And he said, ‘I called you and told you’. And the guy said, ‘Well, I’m not gonna pay you’. So he said, ‘Well, let me play one tune anyway because these are my fans’. And he plugged his guitar in and got on the microphone saying, ‘I think all y’all should get your money back because I’m not gonna get paid’. And that’s the kinda stuff we were going through. And that’s the kind of experience I learned from Sonny Boy, Muddy, Walter, Wolf and all of them - there was a lot of that going on. The promoter never did live in England - he would live in Germany but he would go to England and rent the place and sell advance tickets, and before you get there he’d pick up the receipts, leave, and go to France.

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You’ll be touring this album. How has touring changed for you? Is it more enjoyable now?

Well yeah, it’s a little more comfortable now. I’m with an agent now and they will get fifty percent of my money before I leave. So at least I won’t get stranded. I can go to the door, and before showtime all they gotta do is say, ‘Have you got the rest of his money? He’s ready to go on stage’. That’s the way it works now, and it’s doing fine, but you know how long it took me to do that? I’m seventy-four-years-old, man, and I’ve been in Chicago fifty-three years.

When I was in Chicago recently I visited your blues club and had a great time. How do you enjoy keeping the city’s blues heritage alive when not many other people are?

Well, you know, I was friends with Muddy, Wolf, Walter, the late Junior Wells and all those people, and Chicago used to have many clubs that had blues musicians. During the riots in the Sixties they all disappeared, and I saw this coming. I said, ‘Well Buddy, you need to do something for the next Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf or somebody to come and play in’. Because you’re not gonna drive to Chicago and drive down the neighbourhood and just go to someone’s house and say, ‘I know there’s a guitar player in here and I wanna hear them’.

But if you go there and you find Buddy Guy’s Legends, you might get the chance to see something new, and that’s what the club’s for. When I went there, that’s how Muddy found me, in a club. Somebody called him, because I didn’t go to nobody’s house and somebody found me. Even in Baton Rouge or New Orleans, wherever you go, those clubs is... Like my parents used to say, ‘Music is like a baby: you crawl before you walk’. And that’s what the club is all about.

America hasn’t preserved much of its musical heritage - old buildings are gone with new ones built in their place, especially in Chicago. How do you feel seeing the past disappearing?

Well, I helped save Muddy Waters’ house, because none of those guys was doing as well as you might have thought they was doing back there in the Forties and Fifties. We made a landmark out of his house, and they made a landmark out of the Chess building. I had my first blues club on the South Side where all the blues was. When you went to the club that was downtown.

When I went to Chicago fifty-three years ago you didn’t have no blues club downtown, because wasn’t no white audience listening to blues. The first blues club I had was in the black neighbourhood and that’s gone, that’s a vacant lot. And most of the blues clubs that we would play at in those heydays of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy, Jimmy Reed, there’s none of those things left there. Like you say, there’s new buildings or vacant lots or something like that. Hopefully they won’t to the building I bought.

I bought this building that you went by to see, and I hope that will be around long enough to let that be a historical place for the blues. I don’t know if you saw all of my memorabilia on the wall - I got Robert Johnson and everybody else on it. We just been open five months, and I’m still putting up pictures and information. The bar is full of every musician that I ever known. I just said this is something I want the people that know to try to keep the blues tradition alive.

Well, you’re doing that with your new album. It really is good. I especially like the song you sang with B.B. King.

Thank you very much. You know, if I could get about a million people like you, maybe we could go make another one and the blues would wake up a little bit more than it has been for the last twenty or thirty years.

I hope so! Will you make it over to the UK again soon?

If I’m invited, sir, I never said no yet. And as I talk to you I’ve never missed a gig. Even as I’m feeling kinda lowdown now - I was off last night; I’ve had a little aching fever, but I don’t let that stop me, sir. Because when I was driving the tow-truck if I called my boss and said I don’t feel good, he would say, ‘Stay home’. But now, when it comes time for me to play, I can’t call up and say I don’t feel good. They’ll say, ‘We’ll send a blanket and you come on anyway!’

Words by Simon Harper

The edited form of this interview appears in the current issue of Clash Magazine.

Buddy Guy's album 'Living Proof' is out now on Sony.

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