Originally published in Spinner, Jun 27, 2012
Mention Sept. 25, 1957 to blues guitar legend Buddy Guy and he could immediately tell you of its significance: On that date, the-then 21-year-old left his home state of Louisiana for Chicago. As he writes in his memoir, When I Left Home, “I think of this date as my birthday. Fact of the matter is, it’s my second birthday. It’s when I was born again. My life before Sept. 25, 1957 was one thing, and my life after was something else.”
When I Left Home, co-written with David Ritz, begins with Guy in Louisiana where his earliest experience with guitar playing was through tin cans and screen wire as a youngster. After moving to the Windy City, Guy met Muddy Waters and became a session player at the legendary Chess Studios. He also describes in the book about meeting and working with other greats such as B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, and the Rolling Stones, as well as his partnership with harmonica player Junior Wells.
A Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, Guy, 75, spoke to Spinner to talk about aspects of his extraordinary life that includes overcoming his initial shyness at performing, living without food, meeting Muddy Waters and performing with Stevie Ray Vaughan on the night he died.
In the book, you wrote that your first encounter with music was hearing the birds sing.
I was born on a farm. My mother was singing in church. There were no instruments — they would sing that old spiritual stuff in the church on Sunday. The birds have a lot to do with it and then the church, the spiritual singing that they would moan and groan. My grandmother used to say, “I’m moaning this song. When I moan, the devil don’t know what I’m talking about.” And that’s when the blues kind of touch you. When I look out and see somebody in the audience, I’d say, “Somebody’s mad, but if you sit here for an hour and a half, or two hours, I’m gonna make you smile and forget about that anger that you got. You can pick it up when you leave. But if you watch me, I’m gonna make you forget about it.”
Did you want to become a musician growing up?
I didn’t have [anyone] to say, “You want to be like this, Buddy?” because even when I came here [to Chicago] 55 years ago, Muddy Waters and all those great blues players, [playing] was like a day job. There were so many blues clubs [and they were] playing seven nights a week … and making just about the same thing that I was doing at Louisiana State University [as a maintenance man] for a living: $3-6 a night. I don’t know how they survived with that, but they were having so much fun, that I said, “I’m not cold. I’m gonna stay here, I’m going to find me a day job and go listen to them play that stuff at night, like it was supposed to be done.”
In the early days, you were once a shy performer in Louisiana.
That’s the only time I’ve ever been fired. I was pumping gas and a guy [named Big Poppa] found out that I could play. He came out of the gas station and I sang the Hank Ballard number “Work with Me, Annie,” and he asked me how much I was making. I think I was making $69 a week, and he said, “If you come and play Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Tuesday, I think I can let make you about $12 or $13.” I said, “Okay.” And then I went to that club that night and the guy told me, “C’mon, sing ‘Work With Me, Annie,’ and it’s gonna work.”
And I turned my back to the audience. [Big Poppa] said, “If you don’t turn around, I can’t use you.” I’d have to go back pumping gas. But a good friend of mine heard about it. He said, “Man, I got something to make you turn around and face that crowd. ” He came up with a bottle of Dr. Tichenor antiseptic and a Coca-Cola and put [Thunderbird] wine in there. I swallowed it and some of it got me high and I turned around. I’ve been turning around ever since.
After you moved to Chicago in the late ’50s , you experienced a rough period during which you were broke and hungry. And then you met a man who brought you to the 708 Club, and afterwards you met Muddy Waters for the first time.
I was walking down the street with my guitar. I wasn’t going to sell my guitar — I guess I would have died from hunger. A guy saw me and asked me could I play, and I said, “Yeah.” I went over to his house. I didn’t know who the hell he was and I still don’t. I did a Jimmy Reed song. He told his wife, “Baby, get ready. We ought to go for a walk.” I didn’t know what he was thinking.
He walked up to the 708 and he pointed up to [guitarist] Otis Rush and said, “I got somebody here who can play as well as you and can probably run you off the stage.” [Otis] said, “Bring him up.” And I went up and played “Things I Used to Do.” When I came off stage, people were asking who was I, and I said, “Man, I’m just hungry.” And they were like, “There’s no way in the world you could be hungry with the way you play that song.”
Somebody heard me and called Muddy. He lived only about five blocks away. I walked out the door of the 708 Club with my guitar in my hand and somebody grabbed me and kind of roughed me and said, “I’m the Mud.” They called him the Mud, not Muddy Waters. He had a 1958 red Chevrolet and he put me in there and he had that salami and he said, “Let me make you a sandwich because they told me you were hungry.” I said, “You’re Muddy Waters. I’m not hungry.”
When you were on Chess Records, owner Leonard Chess inhibited you in some way because he thought your guitar playing was too wild?
I had the amplifier turned up with the feedback like all the British guys did. They were like, This is what we want, after they found out that I was playing it. Every time I see [Jeff Beck] and Eric, they remind me that when I first went to England in 1965 — they had never saw anybody play blues on a Strat. They said, “Man, you were the one who made us play Strat.” I don’t know what I was doing. I tell people right now that I was looking for a dime and I found a quarter.
Those British rockers kept the American bluesmen’s names alive.
They did so much for us. Some people asked me, “Was I ignorant because they became bigger stars than B.B. and me and everybody else?” I said “No,” because they woke America up and let America know who we were. Otherwise, they could’ve went on and said, “Yes, this is something new.” But they didn’t say that.
You recorded ‘Hoodoo Man Blues’ with Junior Wells in 1965; it is regarded as one of the definitive blues albums.
The guy just called us and said, “Come to the studio.” Matter of fact, we never did rehearse nothing back then anyway. We just go in and say, “Let’s play.” They would bring a big bottle of wine or whiskey and say, “I want you to sound just like you did last night at that blues club because the people were loving it.” Right now, I think we still should maybe go back to something like that because I think we get too tech in the studio.
But they wouldn’t let me do that at Chess. They would say, “Man, nobody’s gonna listen to that guitar turned up loud with all that feedback.” When [Leonard Chess] found out the British guys were doing it, he sent [Willie] Dixon to my house and they would all curse, “Go get that motherf—er, man. He had that s— all the time and we kept on ignoring it.” I had I never been to Leonard Chess’ office. He just come in and said, “I want you to kick me. Now you can do what you want.” I said, “OK, man.”
You performed “Sweet Home Chicago” at the Alpine Valley show in 1990 with Eric Clapton, Robert Cray, Jimmie Vaughan and Stevie Ray Vaughan, who was killed in a helicopter crash later that night.
Me and Stevie were sitting there talking for a long time because I think Eric closed the show. By the way. Stevie had drove up there with his brother [Jimmie]. He wasn’t supposed to be on no chopper but Eric had. We had three choppers. Stevie was gonna ride back with his brother in the car [and] I was gonna cook gumbo for them. They ran back in and got Stevie [and said,] “There’s a seat on the chopper.” He ran out and got on the wrong one, man. That’s the way life is. When that day comes, there’s no way around it. The almighty told him to get on the [chopper], “I’m calling you home.”
Are you going to be working on a new album?
I was in New York and my record company called me. I had a good meeting with them and [they] said, “I can’t wait ’til you get back into the studio. You go and do your thing.” So I’m going into the studio somewhere around October and do my next CD.