Trouble blues

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.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky