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Blues guy

Tim Mutrie

Buddy Guy has a blues bar on South Wabash in Chicago and there’s an empty lot next to it. He wants to build a blues museum there.”And the lot is big enough,” says the revered electric blues guitarist.Eric Clapton and B.B. King are behind the project, and Mayor Richard M. Daley, well, “he’s pretty cool with me,” says the 67-year-old Guy.”It should’ve been done before. Chicago deserves it. All the great players came through Chicago. Man, I came here looking for work because my mother was sick, and I ran into all these great musicians,” he says, rattling off whole paragraphs of players. “Ain’t nobody know who I was when I arrived. But then they heard about me. Matter of fact, I think Muddy and Wolf told ’em. … And to be honest, Buddy Guy don’t have nothing if it wasn’t for those guys.”Guy was raised on a sharecropper’s farm in Louisiana. Now he has two homes in Chicagoland and an audience wherever he goes.”My mother told me before she died, ‘If you’ve got the roses, give ’em to me now because I’m not gonna smell ’em on top of the casket.’ … So starting tomorrow or the next day, I’m gonna push some people to see if can we get this museum thing off the ground.”The night before I spoke with Guy on the phone at Legends, his bar, the audience unexpectedly coaxed him made me get up there,” he chuckles.Then, hours after our June 10 interview, it was reported that Ray Charles had died at 73.Guy had mentioned Charles in his lengthy acknowledgments.On Sunday, June 27, when Guy takes the Jazz Aspen June Festival stage at Rio Grande Park in Aspen, expect a tribute. Or two.The timing is right anyway, as Guy is promoting his 2003 all-acoustic album “Blues Singer,” a journey back into the blues story, and Charles’ and Guy’s careers.Strutting his StratCharles played piano for Guitar Slim in the early 1950s.And it was Guitar Slim who turned Guy onto his chosen guitar, the Fender Stratocaster, one of the two instruments behind the loud guitar rock revolution. (The Les Paul is the other.)”I didn’t always play a polka-dot guitar,” says Guy, “but that does go back to Guitar Slim. When I first heard him, I was right at the stage – it wasn’t that big a place – and they just started moving everything out of the way. I’m like, ‘What the hell?’ He comes in with a guitar slung around him like he’s carrying a baby. And it’s a Strat. He didn’t even have a strap, just this piece of fishing line over his shoulder, that’s just how crazy he was.”And hell, man, that guy put on a show. He was knocking over music stands, all kinds of stuff. I said, ‘If I ever get big, I want to play like B.B., but I want to act like him.’ “Guy learned to play as a kid in Louisiana. But he soon learned that music books and formal lessons were not going to take him where he wanted to go.”I didn’t want to learn what they wanted to teach me,” he says. “I went back to my teacher with this 78 [record] of Muddy Waters called ‘Rolling Stone,’ and I said, ‘If you can’t teach me this, and Lightning Hopkins and T Bone Slim, I don’t want to play.'”All I wanted to do was make people pat their feet in the fish fry houses, when I got old enough to go in ’em.”Guy moved 60-some miles from his rural home to Baton Rouge as a young man, on the advice of his mother. “When I started to play, my momma just told me to go,” he says.Eventually, he found his way north to Chicago.”You could be the best in the world and never make it,” he says, “just like football or basketball, only 5 percent are going to make it. Music is the same way. And I never thought I’d be in that 5 percent.”Daunting at first, Guy came to embrace the Chicago music scene.”Before music got big, all these greats would be in one club Friday, another on Saturday and then another one on Sunday,” he says.’Back down to the mud’For much of Guy’s career, a driving, hard, string-bending guitar has defined his work, leading to the Grammy-award-winning 1991 album “Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues.”But with the release of 2001’s “Sweet Tea,” including its lauded interpretations of North Mississippi hill country blues primitives, and then 2003’s “Blues Singer,” Guy for the first time emphasizes his unsung voice, and blue-blooded soul, over his guitar chops.”Blues Singer” features Guy on a 1950s Harmony arch top guitar prying open a vault of classics including John Lee Hooker’s “Crawlin’ Kingsnake” and Son House’s “Louisa McGhee.”The model for the album was Muddy Water’s 1963 “Folk Singer,” which featured Guy on second guitar.Producer Dennis Herring, who collaborated with Guy on “Sweet Tea” and “Blues Singer,” said the idea was to “take the Chicago guy and pull him back down to the mud.””Blues Singer” features Eric Clapton and B.B. King on two tracks (“Crawlin’ Kingsnake” and Willie Borum’s “Lonesome Home Blues”) and Jimbo Mathus of the Squirrel Nut Zippers on guitar on all but two of the 12 tracks.Said Guitar Player magazine: “Guy’s earthy soul and gutsy acoustic performances make any latter-day ‘unplugged’ record sound clean-cut by comparison.””Guy’s latest finds the wildest and most uninhibited electric blues player channeling his explosive energy into an unamplified box and the result is no less stunning,” wrote Guitar One magazine.Nevertheless, Guy says his quiver of Stratocasters will be making the trip to Aspen with him. Guy, after all, is just as much of a showman as he is a player.”It’s supposed to be acoustic, but you know how people are,” he says, chuckling. “I can’t just bring the acoustic. I’m just trying to put a smile on people’s faces, but trying to please everyone is very damn hard to do.”The lefty legend Jimi Hendrix credited Guy for pioneering a louder, rougher version of blues, jazz and rock. And in concert, Guy often throws recognizable Hendrix riffs into jams, at times playing with something other than his hands, like a knowing nod to the roots of modern guitar.”Before Hendrix came on the scene with his wah-wah pedal, everybody’s like, ‘What’s that s–t? You can’t play like that. Don’t come in here with that noise,'” says Guy.”But Jimi just blew everybody away. And with the release of the Hendrix or the Cream album, my record company called me, all serious like I’d done something wrong. But they said, ‘Motherf—er, this is what you’d been trying to sell us,'” Guy says, bursting out laughing, “‘and we’re too dumb to listen.'”This loud s–t is like hip-hop rap now,” Guy continues, “because you couldn’t get away with it in the early days. Then they started selling all kinds of records.”And as Guy shifts away from the Stratocaster these days, at least in the studio, he finds himself in a place looking back and forward in music history.There’s the museum – “I might get too emotional to talk about it,” he says at one point – and his daughter, Shana, who appears on a soon-to-be-released Ludicris album. (Think Guy’s “My Baby’s a Superstar” from the 1993 “Feels like Rain” album.)”It means a lot to me to be able to pay tribute to the old forgotten guys, and a museum in Chicago is the right way to do it,” says Guy. “It’s like Mohammed Ali or Joe Dimaggio – there’s only one. Just like Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf – they looked like they were singing when they were talking.”If it wasn’t for this city and these people, I don’t know if I’d be here.”Tim Mutrie’s email address is mutrie@aspentmes.com


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