Buddy Guy Lives for the Blues—“If I Can Make You Smile, I Can Sleep Better” 

Legendary 86-year-old musician Buddy Guy wants to keep the blues alive. It’s been his mission his entire life to honor and participate in the significant musical style. Even before he could put words to the cause, he was constructing makeshift instruments out of wires.

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“There are very few old blues cats hanging around,” he tells American Songwriter. “Every little bit helps.” As a kid, he was born so deep in the Louisiana countryside that his modest home didn’t have running water or electricity. In the summers, it would get excruciatingly hot. But there was no air conditioning. His mother put up screens in the windows to keep air flowing in and the mosquitos out. At one point, though, she noticed the bugs getting inside the house. She checked the windows and saw the screens had been fiddled with, stripped of their wires. Why? Because the young burgeoning musician had taken the wires out to make his own makeshift guitar. That’s the tradition from which Guy comes and the type of foundation that makes his newest album, The Blues Don’t Lie, which he dropped last year.

“My dad’s friend used to look at me,” says Guy. “Because I had a rubber band stretched near my ear and you could hear it. I’d take hair combs and put a piece of paper on it and blow to get a little sound.”

Guy craved music, sound, and vibrations. He remembers a local musician who would come around his home and those of his neighbors every Christmas, playing his guitar. That fellow would take a sip of wine here and there and if he passed out from the drink at Guy’s house, Guy would sneak away and play his guitar.

When Guy was a teenager, his father bought the two-string guitar from that fellow and gave it to Guy. It cost $2 and it meant the world. Guy’s parents weren’t particularly musical, themselves, but they appreciated the songs. Wherever he got his love for the art form, it stuck. Guy remembers afternoons when he’d sit up on a nearby levee when he was 14 or 15 years old. He’d be by himself and bang away at the guitar. At one point he figured out how to play the old blues song, “Boogie Chillen,” by John Lee Hooker. The song was released in 1948 when Guy was about 12. Guy was so thrilled he could play it, he was scared to move his hand off the guitar neck for fear he’d never be able to perform it again. 

“That was the first thing I learned how to play,” he says. 

As a young person, Guy’s heroes were people like Lightnin’ Hopkins, Muddy Waters, Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, and other blues players. People who helped create and define the style. He learned more and more about them, their songs, and how they had day jobs and played music at night. If you played well, you could get drunk, meet women and get a belly full of fried fish. That was enough.

For the most part, Guy didn’t want to have anything to do with anything that didn’t have anything to do with the guitar. He remembers an early relationship in which the woman he was seeing gave him an ultimatum: it was either her or the guitar. So, he picked up his six-string and said goodbye as he walked out the door. In another instance, as a boy, he was a good baseball player. The neighborhood kids would play on the sandlot, but Guy would leave the games to go home and listen to his father’s radio broadcasting the blues radio show. 

“I got to go listen to my radio now,” he’d tell the young athletes. “Then I’ll come back and play baseball before it gets too dark.” 

The history of blues in America is fraught. The genre in the U.S. was created out of pains many in the Black community felt from being subjugated and marginalized. Born from the spirituals sung during slavery, the blues became a cathartic style, a way to artfully express sadness and create a sense of commiseration amongst a hurting community. Soon, the genre’s best players began getting a little bit of recognition and were able to cut a few records. Those albums weren’t as respected in the United States as they were in other regions of the world because of the inherent prejudice baked into the American social fabric. When those albums made it across the Atlantic Ocean, however, British musicians, who didn’t have the same history as Americans, began to honor and cherish the sounds. They tried to emulate them, too. That’s when bands like the Rolling Stones, Cream, and the Beatles began to be global forces. They loved Muddy Waters, and B.B. King—artists who, in America, were barely making enough to get to the next gig. But in the U.K. they were gods. 

“Let me give you an example,” says Guy, who came up as part of the next generation of blues players after Waters and the early heroes. “There was a TV show in the ’60s. At the time, the Rolling Stones were bigger than bubble gum. And that show was trying to get them on TV. Mick Jagger said he’d do the show if they let the band bring up Muddy Waters. White America said, ‘Who the hell is that?’ And Mick Jagger said, ‘You mean to tell me you don’t know who Muddy Waters is? We named ourselves the Rolling Stones because of his song!’ That was the first time I saw Muddy Waters play in front of a television.”

In terms of his own career, Guy was a sought-after player for outfits like Chess Records. He says when the label would hire people to back up people like Waters in the studio, those up-and-coming players would often try to outshine Waters instead of playing the material they were given. Not Guy, though. “When I’m playing with Muddy Waters, I’m in school,” he says. “Listening to the teacher.” Sometimes he’d get the call to hit the studio at 5 or 6 in the morning. He’d come in and put “a little charming guitar” on the track, sometimes in just a matter of minutes. He was a pro’s pro. A student, lover of the sounds. Later, when the British invasion kicked in full swing with folks like Jagger, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, and Eric Clapton, the blues and its players earned more recognition and opportunity. 

“All of them told me they didn’t know a [fender] strat could play the blues until they saw me,” Guy says. “They thought the strat was just for what we called Country-Western music. Eric Clapton says he saw me throw a guitar up in the air and catch it in the same key but I don’t remember that. That’s what he said—we were laughing about that.”

After the British invasion, blues was heard more and more on the radio. White folks were showing up more and more in the Black clubs in the U.S. to hear where it all came from. It was a testament to the power of the music and also the largely repressive nature of the times. Today, though, Guy persists. While he announced his final tour and released perhaps his final album last year, he continues to play gigs. His newest LP features names like Mavis Staples and Jason Isbell. He hopes he can continue to play festivals like the New Orleans Jazz Fest for years to come, but he also doesn’t want his fans to see him sub-par. 

During the prime of his career, Guy was known as someone who bridged the blues with the power of electric guitars, amplifiers, and distortion. He was trying to do the stuff that other artists after him, like Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck, became known for. But Chess Records wasn’t interested then to put out louder, earth-shaking stuff—something the label’s executives later apologized to Guy for. “They said, ‘You been trying to sell this since you came here and we were too dumb to listen,’” Guy says. Just as America wasn’t ready for the blues in the early days, the country’s biggest execs weren’t ready for its evolution either. It took the Brits and younger folks like Hendrix to bring all that power to the stage. 

Nevertheless, today, Guy remains a living legend. He’s played for presidents and dignitaries all over the world, including former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. In fact, it was the man from Arkansas that made Guy cry. Clinton made a speech about Guy one day. How did Clinton even know about him? Guy wondered. A United States President! Moments like that justify his nearly nine-decade love affair with the guitar.

“I had a lot of reasons to throw my guitar away,” Guy says. But thankfully he never did. Now, looking to the future, Guy knows the end of his career is on the horizon. He doesn’t like traveling as much as he used to. He’s one of the last great links to the old days of the blues. So, while he still can, he wants to honor the music. He talks about younger players like Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, who Guy paid to record recently because he’s that good. It’s all about paying the music back for what it gave him. 

“If you look at the world now, man,” Guy says. “Some people are angry and don’t know what they’re angry about. But if you come see me play, I intend to take that frown off your face and make you smile. If I can make you smile, I can sleep better.” 

Photo: Paul Natkin / RCA Records

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