Still touring, making music, and even running his own radio station at the age of 85, Buddy Guy remains passionate about the blues and passing it on to future generations.
The eight-time Grammy Award-winning musician formulated his own Chicago blues after coming up with the Mississippi greats like mentors Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, and B.B. King. It was Guitar Slim who Guy said taught him about showmanship.
“It was the first time I ever saw a Strat [Fender Stratocaster] in my life,” said Guy in a 2020 interview on Slim, who died at the age of 32 in 1959. “I paid a dollar and a quarter to see him in Baton Rouge. When they introduced him, I was standing at the bandstand—there weren’t any chairs. It was on the second floor at a rented hall called the Temple Roof. The band played for a half-hour or so until a voice said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Guitar Slim,’ and all I heard was a guitar.”
Now approaching his 86th birthday, Guy’s drive to continue making music comes from a deeper desire to pass the blues on to younger generations.
“If you went to sleep yesterday and woke up, all the great blues players are just about gone, and I’m not a baby anymore,” said Guy, who was recently the subject of the documentary Buddy Guy: The Blues Chase the Blues Away. “I got a birthday [July 30] coming up. I’ll be 86. We used to talk about it with Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, and all of those guys. They still was in their best health then, and we used to talk about this day, ‘Who would be left… please, don’t let the blues die.’”
He added, “A lot of those people spent a life just playing for the love of music. There weren’t no pay, and we used to tease one another. We would say, ‘Hey, man, I know you ain’t gonna get paid tonight, but, if you play good enough, you might get you a good-looking gal.’” He laughed, “And I found out that there was nothing wrong with that.”
Mentoring younger artists like 23-year-old Quinn Sullivan, who first met Guy during the 2013 Crossroads Guitar Festival and played guitar with the legend at the age of 7, and Mississippi-bred Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, who has toured with Guy, the bluesman has recognized that the newer generation of guitarists play at a much more advanced level than in his days.
“I heard them kids was playing some licks I didn’t know … I can’t tell ’em nothing,” laughed Guy. “These kids are more advanced now than when we were children, because they got a lot of things that they can look and learn, and I didn’t have that. These kids can look at some of the most famous guitar players in the world on television. I didn’t have that. I just sat down and tried to pick out what John Lee Hooker and [Samuel John] ‘Lightnin’ Hopkins and these people was doing myself.”
Guy added, “I didn’t figure it out right, but I knew what I was listening to and played by ear. I don’t read music now, so sometimes you have to play by ear, and I was blessed with that.”
Photo: Paul Natkin / RCA Records