Since the dawn of time--or at least since Pat Boone took the tutti out of Little Richard's frutti and went to the top of the pops--white musicians have gotten rich and famous off the innovation of their black counterparts. No startling revelation here: the whiter the musician, the brighter the future--whether it was Boone, Elvis Presley, Eric Clapton, Vanilla Ice, even Stevie Ray Vaughan. In rock and roll, the black folks metaphorically still sit at the back of the bus--or the touring van, or the chartered jet. Next time you're at the grocery store (hell, at the record store) ask the guy behind the counter if he's ever heard of Lonnie Johnson, Willie Dixon, Buddy Guy. Probably not.
Guy--among the greatest blues innovators of a generation that also included Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and Otis Rush--has always known it, always been bothered by the inequalities (be they ones of finance or simple recognition), but he has always been too much of a gentleman to make much of a fuss about it. A peer of Waters and Wolf's during their days at Chess Records, heralded by Clapton in a 1986 interview as "by far and without a doubt the best guitar player alive," Guy nevertheless went for more than a decade without a record deal; no one would sign Guy to any sort of contract until Stevie Ray Vaughan, Clapton, and a handful of other superstars forced the issue in 1990--and even then, only Silvertone (a small subsidiary of the mammoth BMG distribution company) would take him.
But press him on the issue of race and the blues and Guy will admit to a frustration that has dogged him since the '60s, when Clapton and Jeff Beck and the Yardbirds and Creem and a myriad other white British "bluesboys" climbed to fame upon a ladder they had borrowed from black American musicians still stuck in the basement. Yes, their interest in the blues rescued many careers of the most influential players of the '50s, but the rockified blues of the British Invasion forever changed the complexion of the music--for better, or for worse.
"A friend of ours got a tune out and I may even record it, but I hate to do things like that," Guy says from his home outside of Chicago. "It's called, 'Something is Holding Me Back, I Wonder If It's Because I'm Black.' It often crosses my mind. But, you know, please believe me--I don't let that stop me because it's so great that I've had friends like Stevie, Eric, Jeff Beck, all these people. They have done more for me than any record company I have known. Oh, yeah, when they speak, record companies listen.
"But they can sell millions and billions of records, and then they can look back and say, 'Well, you know, I do this because of Buddy Guy.' But it's not like saying, 'I hit the baseball because of Willie Mays.' You know and everybody know who Willie Mays is, and he did hit it. I don't want to be Eric Clapton. I don't want to be Stevie. But I would love to drive down the street and say, 'Oh, they played an Eric and a Buddy Guy record yesterday.' They play Eric's four to five times a day at least, they should play mine once a week. But we not even gettin' that.
"It's like when Otis Rush and I was youngsters, we was standing outside a club during the heyday of Muddy Waters, and we was jokin' about who would fight who and who would win. And Otis told one of the horn players, 'Man, I'm gonna let you hit me every day of the week, just let me hit you on Sunday.'"
After all these years, listening as Lonnie Johnson begat Robert Johnson begat Son House begat Blind Lemon Jefferson begat infinity, it still remains the ultimate question of credit. Hendrix, for instance, did not spring from nowhere; he was often found at the foot of Buddy Guy's stage, a microphone in one hand and a tape recorder in the other, taking notes as though he were a student in the classroom. For each person who knows of a Muddy Waters or a Magic Sam, there are a thousand more who own an Eric Clapton record or 10.
To consider Clapton the primary source would be like asking the second-smartest kid in the class for an answer when the teacher's readily available; Clapton's From the Cradle album, released last year, may have been a return to his "roots," but Guy has never strayed. Clapton's record was hailed as the genuine article, it bounded to the top of the charts and garners extensive airplay on MTV and VH-1; Guy's Slippin' In, released a couple of months later, disappeared into the hands of only the small flock of the faithful.
And yet Guy still plays with the same power and excitement as when he first recorded in 1957, when he stepped into a Chicago studio and recorded the single "Sit and Cry"/"Try to Quit You Baby," backed by a band that included Willie Dixon on bass and Otis Rush on guitar. The sound that explodes from his fingers--a twanging squall of noise and beauty, a wave of feedback and distortion--remains unchanged after all these years; it is perhaps more refined, but it is no less dignified now than when it blew away Muddy Waters in Chicago the day Waters bought the starving young Guy a sandwich and made him his pupil.
Almost four decades later, Guy is literally a bluesman with few peers--his friends and mentors having all gone to that blues jam in the sky where they don't allow country musicians and college kids.
Guy certainly does not begrudge the white musicians their fame--how can he when they gave him back his own, though to a smaller degree? All he wants now is the respect owed to him, the understanding that this music came from men who suffered (often quite literally) to create it.
"Why don't people play a record by Muddy Waters?" Guy asks. "Then the audience that don't know who the hell he is might say, 'Oh, I can see what they're talking about. Let me go buy this record here and see what they was tryin' to show me.' That's what I'm hoping will happen, but my hope is evidently not doing too good in my lifetime. I talk and I talk and I talk, and I never get an answer. I'm not the type of guy to complain. My family isn't hungry. I used to tell Stevie Ray, 'Man, I get up and go to work every morning at 7 o'clock, take a shower, go straight to the gig to make money to makes ends meet.'
"I don't think Eric or those guys ever had to do that after they got started. They picked up their guitars and made millions. Buddy Guy was runnin' around here and couldn't even buy strings to put on my guitar. I know how to splice a string so it won't slip. I had to do that."
As far as Guy is concerned, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Hendrix were the rare students who surpassed the master, the end result of lessons learned directly from Guy. To listen to Vaughan after his death, to hear him now as a contemporary of the greats instead of merely a contemporary hit maker, is to trace the innovations of Guy and Hendrix to their logical conclusion. Guy taught Hendrix feedback, how to bend strings and sounds till they became otherworldly, and both of those men taught Vaughan how to transcend his instrument.
Vaughan and Guy shared the stage as often as Stevie Ray could find the time, at places such as Antone's in Austin. Guy performed with Vaughan the night of his death in Alpine Valley; the last set of Vaughan's life included Guy's "The Things I Used to Do" and "Let Me Love You Baby," with Guy watching from the side of the stage. He recalls how they made eye contact, the master smiling at the pupil, proud of how far he had come and how much he had left to say. Before that night was over, Vaughan, Guy, Clapton, and Robert Cray joined for a rousing encore of "Sweet Home Chicago." Just a few hours later, Vaughan was killed in that helicopter crash.
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"The way that guy stood out, man, everybody wanted to learn something from him, you know?" Guy says of his late friend, reminding that Double Trouble performs on Slippin' In as tribute to Vaughan. "We just sat there and saw how the guitar was supposed to been played, you know, and things like that, and it's a big loss, man. I thank God--I'm kinda religious--'cause we was like related when that thing happened because I played that last number with him, man. And I was sayin', 'Oh, no, you know you can't take this guy right now.' This guy's a leader into what we we've been trying to get across for years, and he was puttin' it across and taking us with him, you know, and when you lose something like that it's a lot.
"And from my point of view, I think, I don't know if the progress of the blues has stopped, but it's very slower than what it was when he was there. I mean everybody can see that. I mean his records was played where I would love to have mine being played and they're not. He said it himself, that the doors was closed to the people that he learned a lot from and loved. The last words we talked about was I didn't have a record contract that night that thing happened, and he said, 'Man, we gotta get you a record deal 'cause I ain't gonna steal no more licks [from you]. The way you was playing out there tonight, man, we got to go in [the studio].'
"And you don't fill Stevie's shoes, Muddy Waters' shoes, Howling Wolf's shoes like that. Time will tell if somebody else will come up, and those guys come along only once in a lifetime. I'm sure somebody else will come up doing something in the near future. I don't know if it will be a impact like Stevie had or Hendrix had. You know, when Hendrix left, who thought that would be a new Stevie coming up and he was playing the stuff, too? Stevie reminded me so much of Hendrix--he was so creative, you know, in what he was doing. So I'm saying, let's just wait. But those shoes that he took off is still goin' to be under that bed. Forever."
Buddy Guy performs January 30-February 1 at Caravan of Dreams in Fort Worth.