Bugs Henderson's influence reaches much further than his name. "He's the most famous unfamous person you'll ever meet," former bandmate and Dallas Guitar Show organizer Jimmy Wallace told me the morning of Friday, March 9, the day after Bugs died. But there's hardly a rock 'n' roll or blues guitar player alive who hasn't been influenced by Bugs Henderson.
I never knew him, but I only recently learned of his impact on my life. A few days after he died, my dad referenced a concert we went to years ago: Eric Clapton at Reunion Arena in 1998. It was my first major concert, and it turns out Bugs supplied the tickets. A friend of my dad taught Henderson's son at a Garland junior high. Bugs couldn't use them, so they eventually made their way to us.
From what people tell me, Bugs was like that — a really generous guy. But he was also a bit of a bad-ass. When I spoke to Jimmy Wallace a second time, he told me a story about a run-in Bugs had with one of his musical heroes, Chuck Berry. Bugs wanted Berry's autograph on a guitar he bought for his son, but Berry, flanked by a few groupies, decided not to oblige.
"We see each other out on the road all the time," Berry said. "I'll get you then." He was just showing off in front of the girls, one of whom talked Berry into signing the guitar. When he finally did, Bugs grabbed a T-shirt, wiped the signature from the guitar and walked away.
There are many stories just like that from musicians who've jammed with Bugs and his myriad fans. We asked a few such people to share some of their favorite memories.
"He's a quintessential American soulful guitar adventurer. He could do it all. I first met Bugs [when] he invited me to jam with him when we came through in 1975. We were playing Dallas, and I think we were opening up for Bad Company, who we absolutely mopped the stage with, and I was already getting a bit of a reputation myself as a guitar wank slammer.
"Bugs had gotten word to me that I should come to this club he was at and jam. So we did and we became friends. I probably jammed with him, I don't know, 30 or 40 times over the years. It was always a mutual-admiration musical adventure. He comes from [the] old school.
"I had heard about Bugs. People talked about him and told me to be prepared for a real guitar slammer.
"I think the most important thing, other than that we offended some really wonderful musical mountains that night, is that I was fascinated by his bare feet. I've seen him do it a number of times. He was barefoot that night, and I was already suspicious of that because I have always had disdain for hippies, so I thought maybe my new-found guitar friend might have some hippie undertones and I was going to try to fix that. But no, it was just a little cute quirk he had, playing barefoot.
"Here's the word that describes my relationship with Bugs: He was my blood brother. He was my musical Texas blood brother."
"Bugs was at the Dallas Guitar Show — it's an annual event, happens every April at Market Hall. There's all kinds of vendors and lots of ridiculously expensive guitars, $25,000 or more. Bugs saw one of those guitars and said, 'I wouldn't pay that much for a guitar. I wouldn't pay more for a guitar than I would for a car, and I've never spent more than $800 on a car.' He had a very self-deprecating sense of humor.
"I guess I first met him back in the late '70s. I was a lot younger than him — a generation younger. He was the first local guy that, when I first started playing guitar, I became aware of. He influenced me and was a guitar hero of mine. [He] did a live show in the parking lot of Sound Warehouse in, it must have been 1978. I told him, 'I'm trying to play guitar.' He was patient with me. I'm sure he'd met a lot of goofy teenage kids that played guitar, but he was nice and signed my album: 'To Jim, keep on pickin', Bugs.' I still have it today.
"I liked him because he wouldn't play the industry game of, back then, getting a skinny lead singer with a Rod Stewart haircut. He would do it his own way for better or worse and I always respected him and admired him for that. Probably one of the high points of my career as a songwriter was when he recorded a song of mine called "Starvation Box." That was an enormous honor for me. He was very much an influence in the way he lived his life."
"My first exposure to Bugs was at [Dallas'] The Cellar in, I guess, 1969. He was in a group that played there just about every night called The Dream.
"They were all a little older than me and it was clear their approach to what they were doing was way different from any I'd ever been around. They were no-nonsense; they exchanged very little banter with the crowd or anyone else, and they were in no way interested in putting on any kind of show. They were there to play and they took it way seriously. Professional musicians in the most literal sense imaginable.
"The linchpin of this, the guy who set the tone for it, was Bugs. He was the drawing card. He was the guy people came to see. He had the big reputation. But if you thought that when you went to see The Dream you were going to see a Hendrix knock-off or even a guitar-intensive bluesy-jammy thing, you couldn't have been more wrong.
"It required a certain amount of restraint and nuance, and that was the great thing about Bugs — he didn't try to stand out. Yet, by not standing out, he came off as greater than any other guitar player around.
"The Cellar was an unusual place. Just as there will never be another Bugs, there won't be another Cellar, and if you didn't watch yourself there, you could fall under the influence of some serious vices. Time passed; the place went away and Bugs set out on the course he would follow the rest of the way. The one most associate him with. His role changed. His greatness and his approach did not. If you never saw him at The Cellar, you will recall him in a particular way, in which he surrounded himself with a few great players, sang and carried the night, unfailingly sending his fans home satiated by the blues. That was the course he chose.
"But if you did see him at The Cellar, you know that when it came to his mastery of the guitar, the latter-day fans saw just the tip of a massive iceberg. There was never a bad time to see Bugs. There was never a better time to see him than then."
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