Buddy Guy’s new album is no gentle stroll around the park: though this veteran is 74 years old, it’s full of swagger, soul and simply ferocious guitar. Michael Heatley catches up with the Chicago dynamo.
The blues is the only area of popular music where age can sometimes be an advantage, so Buddy Guy has every right to revel in the veneration he currently enjoys – and his new album Living Proof celebrates the fact by kicking off with the song 74 Years Young. BB King, who guests on the album, may have 11 years' seniority, but Buddy's deep-rooted connections with the Chicago blues scene, the fact he played with Muddy Waters and other Chess label legends and reputedly taught Hendrix much of his showmanship make him the last living link to a vital tradition. Little wonder Clapton called him 'by far and without a doubt the best guitar player alive… he was for me what Elvis was probably like for other people.'
Talking on the phone from Rothschild, Wisconsin, latest stop on an extensive US tour, Buddy started by reflecting on the advantages and disadvantages age and experience bring to a musician.
'You don't have the energy you used to,' he points out.' I think I was 26 or 27 when I first came to England. I could jump off the boat into the water and come up without getting wet! Now I can't even reach in and dip a cup of water out without getting wringing wet!
'A lot of people have told me the blues is like whiskey – the longer you leave it in the barrel, the better it gets. I don't know how true that is of a musician. But I do know that with blues musicians it's very seldom you get recognised as a youngster. They wait until you get to a certain age and people say 'Yeah, he's a legend.' And of course I've been around with some of the greatest that ever did it.'
The song 74 Years Young was the idea of Buddy's drummer Tom Hambridge, who produced the current album and its predecessor, 2008's Skin Deep. He wrote the lyrics based on conversations with Buddy, hence the biographical tone. 'He threw this song at me and I recorded that in March; my birthday was July. It's a few months late, but it hits the spot.'
But don't expect to hear the song played on stage unless it goes down well with the critics: Buddy's not one to waste his time learning tunes unnecessarily. 'I wait and see what the public likes best, then I'll say 'Let's play this.' Even before the albums, my 45s, I just waited to see if the public were gonna like it. They'll let me know if it's good, then I go from there.'
Something else Guy doesn't do these days is practice. 'I don't know if I should say this,' he laughs, 'but I don't have to pick up the guitar no more. I just listen to a lot of spirituals and a lot of jazz.'
Despite this, he still retains a keen ear. 'I was born on a farm and learned how to play by listening to other people – I never had an instructor or teacher. I copied everything from guitar players like BB King and T-Bone Walker. Without them I don't think you'd be talking to me. If I pick up a guitar, I try to learn something from what I've been listening to. I play by ear, get it in my head and go for it.'
Pressed to name his favourite tracks, Buddy admits he's partial to one he co-wrote, Let The Door Knob Hit Ya. 'They made me play that lately,' he admits. 'I Taught Myself How To Play Guitar [actual title Thank Me Someday], that's another, and I love the BB King one [the duet Stay Around A Little Longer] – it's a spiritual. My oldest listeners tell me I can sing spiritual better than blues. They've been trying to make me do that for 50 years!'
Buddy agrees that Skanky, the peculiarly-titled instrumental that closes the album, has an Otis Rush vibe. And while most of us remember Rush as the man who wrote All Your Love (I Miss Loving), a standout of the Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton album, Guy's connection is more direct. The pair, along with Magic Sam, were labelmates on Cobra in the late '50s and together created Chicago blues' trademark singlenote lead guitar style.
In live terms, Buddy would be content to forget his own back catalogue and perform fellow bluesmen's music all night. 'I come out and play a Muddy Waters lick and the music of the people who made blues famous. I like to keep all those guys' music alive, that's what I tell the audience most nights. It was one of the last things Muddy told me. When I called him he didn't even let me know he was sick. I said 'I hear you've not been feeling well,' and he said 'No, man, I'm feeling fine – just make damn sure you don't let the blues die.' The next week he was gone. That's why I'm doing this.'
Indeed, Buddy has been forced to record when he'd rather have been on his sickbed. 'When I was doing the sessions, you wouldn't believe how unwell I was feeling. I kept telling my producer we should wait and he said 'No, we gotta get you now.' I saw him last night and said 'I'm glad you kept twisting my arm.''
He has concerns that the blues' exposure in the mass media has diminished since its renaissance in the early '90s, when John Lee Hooker was charting and Guy cut his 'breakthrough' album Feels Like Rain. 'If this record doesn't get heard by some young kid who says 'I like that, I'm gonna learn how to play it', then I'm concerned about where the music is going. It's not exposed at the moment on TV that much, and I don't know where it's gonna be shown.
'If you come up with a product – clothing, shoes, a bicycle – if no-one knows about it, nobody's going to get it. You gotta keep the door open for what we're doing. The blues has been there for a while and I'm still trying to work out why they stopped playing it.'
One way Buddy has tried to infiltrate the mainstream media is by including guest stars on albums, following the lead of John Lee Hooker's The Healer. Purists have decried the practice, but Clapton and Beck's contributions to Feels Like Rain have been followed by others over the years, from Carlos Santana (on the new release's Where The Blues Begins) to child guitar prodigy Quinn Sullivan on Guy's previous album. If Jimi Hendrix were alive, would he invite him to appear?
'Of course! How could you say no to someone so creative? I don't know if I taught him much, although people say that. If T-Bone and the others were still around, I would be on the phone saying 'Would you come play on my record?'' The lyrics of 74 Years Young insist 'there ain't nothing I haven't done.' There may still be the odd ambition unfulfilled, but Buddy Guy is content to go with the flow. 'I dedicated my life to what I love doing so well – playing music. I didn't have a plan. Everything else just happens. I didn't think I would be good enough to be a professional musician. I just wanted to be a guitar player out in the country in Louisiana. I guess I was blessed with the fact that the good Lord sent me in the right direction, around Muddy Waters and those people in Chicago. They asked me to come in and start playing guitar, and I today I wound up talking to you about some CD I got out!'
A Guy And His Gear
When Buddy Guy hit Chicago in 1957, fresh from his native Louisiana, he admits he was 'as square as a billiard table and just as green.' One change he made was to replace his Gibson with a Strat, his trademark ever since, despite a long dalliance with a Guild Starfire. He used a Strat for most of the new album; 'I had a Les Paul for a couple of tunes to get the right tone,' he adds. Asked what makes the Strat so good for the blues, he harks back to Eddie 'Guitar Slim' Jones, whose habit of roaming the audience with a long lead Buddy borrowed. 'I saw with a Strat in the days before I could barely afford strings. When I finally had the money for a guitar, I found that you could drop a Stratocaster and it wouldn't break. I couldn't afford a case and, because it wouldn't warp like those acoustic guitars, that made me fall in love with it. Guitar Slim was the wildest player I ever saw. I said 'I'm gonna try and play like BB King but act like Guitar Slim.'' As for amplifiers, he's a fan of the Chicago Blues Box. 'The guy who made it tried to get as close to the Fender Bassman as he could – and it comes pretty close. I was using a [Randall] Module in the studio on a couple of cuts. We had three or four amps hooked up to get different tones. They plug me in and if I hear anything good, then cut me loose and let me play!' Guy's effects begin and end with a wah-wah. 'The first one I saw was used by the late Earl Hooker – that was before Hendrix, and he perfected it so well. But I'm like BB King… I believe in just shaking my left hand!'