At 75, guitarist Buddy Guy remains as nimble of a string-bender as he was when his career started over 50 years ago. And what a career it's been: Eric Clapton calls Guy the greatest player ever, and, clearly, Guy has influenced generations of blues guitarists.
Read the complete Q&A after the jump.
You're coming to town to play the Bedford Blues & BBQ Festival. Why do the blues and barbeque go so well together?
I'm glad you asked me that! When I first started going to California, a couple of my old friends -- guitar players who aren't around anymore -- we went to get some barbeque and the place didn't have any napkins or towels. One of the guitar players had to wipe his hands on his pants. You just don't stop playing the guitar just because you've been eating greasy ribs. All the blues folks were always playing in barbeque places or at the Friday night fish fry. You were just playing for a drink and a good look at a woman and some barbeque and some fish. I guess it all goes together.
Where is the best barbeque?
Texas. But it's pretty good in Kansas City, too. They got good barbeque everywhere, man. But, in Texas, you guys got it good. You guys are living high off the hog. You can eat barbeque all day in Texas. They will barbeque you to death.
Your most recent album, Living the Blues, is your highest-charting album ever. After so many years, are the masses finally catching on to Buddy Guy?
Well, I think the album is a success because we finally made it to Nashville. Being in Nashville is almost like being in the '60s when all the great guitarists went to England to be discovered. Folks go to Nashville to make a good record. Hendrix had to go to England. All these people who picked up a guitar in Britain seemed to become superstars. I didn't take off and go over there. I guess I was too blind to see it. Hendrix was in New York playing with Little Richard, and they came in and took Hendrix to England. Next thing, he was a superstar. But I stayed here under the wing of Muddy Waters.
Some critics have said the Delmark recordings you made with Junior Wells feature your best guitar playing. Do you agree?
Those were some early, six-o'clock-in-the-morning sessions with a big bottle of wine or whiskey sitting on the piano. It was unrehearsed. We just went in there and the guy said, "Play like you did last night." We played on a Sunday night and the guy wanted us in the studio Monday morning, half drunk. Back then, that's all we did. We weren't making any money. We would play all night, until about four or five in the morning and you would try to go home, but then somebody was telling you to go into a studio. They'd tell they had another bottle of whiskey, and you could go get a cup of coffee before playing. Chess Records was like that. They would buy the whiskey for you because they wanted it to sound like it did the night before -- like a jam.
What was your reaction when Chicago recently named a street in your honor?
It's the street where my club is. It's the largest blues club in Chicago and it may be the largest straight blues club in the world. A week or so ago, when they named that street after me, it was the biggest surprise of my life. They kept it hidden from me. I never dreamed that I would see something like that. Most people get that after you're gone. My mother told me before she died, "Honey, if you got flowers for me, give them to me now so that I can smell them. I'm not going to smell them when they are on top of that coffin." When they told me to walk outside, I wanted to know for what. It was pouring down rain and they said, "Look up." I told them that I was too old to cry, but when I got home, I just had to cry and let it all hang out. That street will always bear my name for the rest of time, I guess -- unless someone come along and take down the signs.
One of your new prodigies is a young performer named Quinn Sullivan. Can a 12-year-old understand the blues?
I just finished a show last week with him. We were at the Hollywood Bowl last month. The guy is only 12 years old! I put his record out myself. A lot of record companies now are kind of skeptical about everything these days. Sales are kind of lagging because of the economy. But I put this record out for him because he is such a talent. But it's hard because you don't hear blues records on the radio anymore. I guess that's why we sing the blues -- because we've been catching hell for so long.
Many rock guitarists claim you as an influence. Some are technically brilliant, but lack the emotion of your playing. Why do you think that is?
Before they started changing all the names, it was all the same shit to me, man. You could call anyone a rock guitar player if you want, but he just turned that amplifier up and played the blues. Of course, I turned up my amp before anybody did, but no one would let me record like that. If you turn that amplifier down, they are all playing the same stuff. It got so bad that they started calling it West Side Blues out of Chicago. When I came here, everyone was playing R&B.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Eric Clapton calls you the greatest guitar player alive. Who do you think is the greatest?
I think Eric and B.B. King are the greatest. B.B. is the best ever. He taught us all everything we knew. It's nice of Eric to say that, but I still have to go out and prove that I can play a few licks. I don't take that for granted. Hell, if Eric says that I am the greatest guitar player ever, then maybe I am. That's just like saying you're the best boxer in the world or saying you're the best baseball player in the world.
You've played with Hendrix, Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn and many others. Is there any great guitar player you have not played with?
There might be one or two. It's hard to get them all. Oh, I keep forgetting his name. Who's the boy who played with Led Zeppelin?
Yes, I don't think I've ever been on stage with him yet, but I am looking forward to it. If you come to my club, we have guitars signed by every great guitar player. I am trying to keep the blues alive. It's like a good restaurant. If you've got good food, people will come and eat it. 54 years ago next month, I came to Chicago and they had so many blues clubs that you couldn't go to them all. After the riots in the '60s, they started disappearing. I keep the blues alive because of B.B. King and Big Joe Turner and Eric Clapton and now Quinn Sullivan. The music is too good.
Buddy Guy performs Sunday, September 4, at the Bedford Blues & BBQ Festival