Concerts

Buddy Guy Is a Reminder of Blues' Influence on Popular Music

Buddy Guy (left) and John Hiatt
Buddy Guy (left) and John Hiatt Photo courtesy of the Broward Center
George “Buddy” Guy was born July 30, 1936, in Lettsworth, Louisiana. That same year, blues pioneer Robert Johnson entered a hotel room in San Antonio to record his voice and guitar for the first time, laying the groundwork for a genre that would embody the moods and ethos of those living in and around the Mississippi Delta.

Among the songs chosen for that first session, Johnson played “Sweet Home Chicago,” a song that Guy would regularly perform in the ensuing years –– so much so that he chose it as the closing number for the “Red, White and Blues” White House event in 2012, accompanied on stage by B.B. King, Mick Jagger, Trombone Shorty, Jeff Beck, Shemekia Copeland, Susan Tedeschi, Gary Clark Jr., Derek Trucks, Warren Haynes, and a guest vocal appearance by Windy City native President Barack Obama.

Johnson died at 27 years old, only two years after that initial 1936 session, never able to witness the monumental impact his music had on the world and future generations.

About 20 years later, Buddy, a young cotton-picker-turned-musician, traveled north to accompany Johnson’s contemporaries and former associates, including Son House, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Hound Dog Taylor, Willie Dixon, and Big Joe Williams, to help establish the Chicago blues sound with its electric amplification and urbanized sensibility. The recordings released by these artists, mainly through Chess Records, were largely be ignored by mainstream America yet found their way across the pond where they directly influenced future British Invasion bands: the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, the Animals, and Cream. The Chicago and Delta sounds would later impact homegrown acts like the Allman Brothers Band, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and the Black Keys.

Before they began to die out in the late 20th century, some of the original Chicago blues artists began receiving acknowledgment for their contribution to rock 'n' roll music, largely dominated by white musicians. Having mainly played to and recorded for black audiences in small clubs for most of their careers, many of the old-timers found themselves in second and third acts in their later years, recording with younger musicians who prized their original creations. In 2022, Buddy Guy is the last of that original Second City era. His club, Buddy Guy’s Legends, which opened in 1989, is one of the last of its kind, too.
The terms “torch carrier” and “gatekeeper” have become so overused for a musician living as long as Buddy that sometimes the general public needs to be reminded of what exactly he’s keeping alive. If you listen to nothing else but Top 40 radio, Spotify’s most popular playlists, or YouTube's most-watched music videos, you’d never know the blues even existed (but then again, the same could be said about rock 'n' roll, jazz, classical, and most other genres) and would assume the flame blew out long ago. But like any art form steeped in rich history, it’s the duty of new generations to discover and infuse new life into it, therefore upholding its tradition while connecting with the current.

“I was a fan of Mr. Guy first,” Christone “Kingfish” Ingram tells New Times. The 23-year-old blues guitarist and singer won Best Contemporary Blues Album at this year's Grammy Awards and has had the privilege of playing alongside and recording with Buddy Guy. “Having the opportunity to work with him on a track, to talk music business with him, and to receive his support for my debut album was all icing.”

Like Ingram, Guy understands his place in the blues lineage, but if the Lettsworth legend’s most recent studio album, The Blues is Alive and Well, is an expression of his personal sentiment, then we’ll have nothing to feel blue about for a long time — by way of music, anyway.

Buddy Guy. With John Hiatt & the Goners featuring Sonny Landreth. 7:30 p.m. Thursday, August 4, at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale; 954-462-0222; browardcenter.org. Tickets cost $39.50 to $124.50 via ticketmaster.com.
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Raj Tawney is a poet, journalist, and writer covering race and culture from his multiracial American perspective. Find him at rajtawney.com.