Buddy Guy has been waiting, frustrated yet determined, since the days when record stores carried only vinyl. Waiting for the day he can switch on the radio and hear his voice -- his guitar, too -- on a mainstream, big-city station. Before midnight, preferably.
That radio airplay has eluded the blues legend over several decades of an otherwise stellar career is nothing if not mysterious, especially to the man himself. That may all be changing, however. And the person who may bring about that change isn't some wizened radio station music director or influential disc jockey. It's Jonny Lang, a seventeen-year-old guitar-playing blues prodigy turned pop phenomenon. By the simple act of guest-starring on "Midnight Train" from Guy's brand new CD, Heavy Love, as well as by hooking up with him for a summer shed tour that should bring both players arenas full of new fans (though not in South Florida, the tour doesn't visit these parts), Lang may be able to pull off what no one else has: taking Buddy Guy beyond his loyal following and delivering him to the masses.
Lang isn't the first one to attempt this. Guy owes the resurrection of his once-sputtering career to the efforts of people such as Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Jeff Beck, all of whom have emphatically and repeatedly championed him over the years. In fact, Guy's successful deal with Silvertone Records -- so successful that he won Grammys for his last three studio albums and earned a fourth nomination for his 1996 live album, The Real Deal -- can be traced almost directly to Clapton's campaigning on his behalf.
None of that help should have been necessary. For 40 years Guy, now age 62, has been not only a consummate musician, but one hell of an exciting performer; his lengthy concert solos are inventive and full of energy. Virtually nuclear, in fact, such as when he melts down with a blistering four- or five-minute instrumental rampage on Vaughan's "Cold Shot" or on his own classic "Damn Right, I've Got the Blues."
Unfortunately, despite his and his disciples' best efforts and the short-lived (especially for those who don't score an appearance during the annual television extravaganza) attention bestowed on Grammy winners, a whole lot of people outside the ranks of devoted blues fans still don't know Buddy Guy, or his mentors and former recording partners. The very people who laid the groundwork for all that's happened in popular music -- everything from the Beatles to Bush -- linger in the shadows, so to speak. Guy would like to turn on the lights.
"I've dedicated my life to this music, following Muddy Waters and those guys who dedicated their lives to the music," Guy said during a phone interview from his suburban Chicago home. "My main goal now is that hopefully we'll be recognized as a part of this thing. I'm not going to sit here and tell you I want to be as rich as some of these people. I'd feel just as happy if the music gets known. Keep the money -- just recognize us as a part of this industry that has something to do with all these billions and billions of dollars of music that everybody loves so well."
And that's where Lang comes in. It's not that Heavy Love needed beautifying by any fresh-faced kid. Hardly. Guy has simply churned out another winner. The funky, slippery title track, brought to the table by producer David Z (former Prince protege and mastermind of both Lang's and blues wunderkind Kenny Wayne Shepherd's debut albums), is all but guaranteed to have 'em dancin' in the aisles. Likewise for Guy's up-tempo cover of Waters's "I Just Want to Make Love to You." His rendition of Tony Joe White's "Did Someone Make a Fool Outta You," meanwhile, is achingly emotional. He even throws in covers of ZZ Top ("Need You Tonight") and Forties swing-jazz star Louis Jordan ("Saturday Night Fish Fry"), the man Guy and fellow blues luminary Robert Jr. Lockwood decided some years back, on the eve of a Cleveland, Ohio, performance, is the true inventor of rock and roll. But it's the duet with Lang, lively and modern, with its gritty vocals and overdriven bass riffs, that might just land Guy his first Top 40 hit, a feat that has thus far escaped him. That some hotshot kid might turn a spotlight on the under-appreciated guitar hero's career is actually quite ironic: Guy was once the hotshot kid.
Born in 1936 to sharecropper parents, he grew up working farms in Louisiana. He didn't know electricity until the age of fourteen; he rode horses for transportation, long before ever slipping behind the wheel of an automobile. Guy picked up the guitar at a young age after hearing regional recording stars such as Roscoe Gardner and Smiley Lewis; he decided that picking the blues beat picking cotton hands down. By his teens he was playing roadhouses from Lettsworth, his hometown, to Baton Rouge, the nearest big city.
With an eye on grander accomplishments, the ambitious young man moved to Chicago in September 1957 and immediately set out to make a name for himself. That didn't take long. Weekly guitar battles against established Chicago players such as Otis Rush and Magic Sam, with a bottle of whiskey at stake, introduced everyone to the new kid in town. Using showmanship tricks he learned watching Guitar Slim, like plugging in a 150-foot cord and beginning his solo in a car outside the club, Guy energized an otherwise sedate scene. "When I first came to Chicago, most of 'em would sit down," he recalls. "They were playing blues kind of quiet and had chairs on the stage. And when I saw that I said, 'I'll win this bottle of whiskey.' And I won it every Sunday for quite a while."
But it wasn't really the booze Guy was after. He used these "head-cutting" competitions to work his way into the circle of influential local players. Before long Guy was hanging with the big boys. Damn cool, but every relationship has its give and take.
"When I first came here and met 'em," he remembers with a laugh, "I had a little three-piece band -- keyboards, drums, and myself -- and no one knew who I was. I didn't have a record out. And I had met Muddy and them, and they said, 'Well look, if you play at these small clubs, we'll come by and just stop in, and that'll give you a boost.' And I was making three dollars a night, and they would come in and say, 'Hi.' And Muddy would walk up there and say, 'I'm a Hoochie Coochie Man,' and somebody would say, 'I saw Muddy Waters at the last place.' And I'd get off that night, and they'd done drank two bottles of whiskey -- and [my bar tab was] twelve dollars, and I didn't have but three comin'. They would tell me later, 'You didn't think I would come around there for nothin', did you, motherfucker?' And I'd say, 'Okay, man.' I would do it again if I had to."
The work that followed more than made up for the pay-to-play gigs Guy unwittingly found himself working. Rush and Willie Dixon soon hooked Guy up with a small label named Cobra, where he cut his first tracks. He didn't have any success there, however, and in 1960 he followed Dixon to Chess, where he would record regularly until 1967. Besides releasing a slew of singles -- some originals, some Dixon compositions, and tracks like Eurreal Montgomery's "First Time I Met the Blues" (included on the excellent compilation Buddy's Blues, part of the Chess 50th Anniversary Collection released last year by MCA), Guy worked as a regular session ace. His Chess legacy includes recordings with Dixon, Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, and numerous other legends.
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Guy went on to enjoy a creative yet sporadic partnership with harp player Junior Wells throughout the Seventies and early Eighties. He released albums on a variety of labels, then spent ten years without a recording contract. During that lean time, Guy concentrated on running his own nightclubs, first the Checkerboard Lounge and later, after he sold the Checkerboard, Buddy Guy's Legends, both still popular Chicago blues hot spots. (In addition to international tours, Guy sits in at his club with performers throughout the year and plays there every year for most of January.)
It was in the late Eighties, after Eric Clapton started telling anyone who would listen that Buddy Guy was the "greatest living electric blues guitarist," that Guy's fortunes began to pick up. His Silvertone deal produced the 1991 barnstormer Damn Right, I've Got The Blues, still his biggest seller, and the albums Feels Like Rain (1993), and Slippin' In (1994), all three Grammy-winning discs and fine examples of Guy's striking fretwork and expressive singing voice. As is Heavy Love, the eleven-track opus that Guy hopes to hear screaming out of car radios nationwide this summer. That depends, of course, on radio programmers paying attention this time around, even if only because of his collaboration with a charismatic singer and guitarist young enough to be his grandson. Regardless, Guy isn't concerned with how he gets the job done. As one of the few remaining caretakers of the blues heritage, Buddy Guy just wants to know that his music will never be forgotten.
"That's been kind of worrying me all of my life. But it didn't disencourage me to say, 'Well, don't play blues no more; jump on the bandwagon.' I still play my blues, so I still think one of these days I might hit the right note that somebody will say, 'Oh shit, I gotta play this [on the air]. I can't refuse to play this.