Buddy Guy: the Blues is Blood

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Blues is Blood:
Chess Records, Eric Clapton and ‘The Mud’ with Buddy Guy
Words by Martin Halo

Chicago, Illinois — Imagine yourself traveling by riverboat through a rising haze which hovers just above the surface of a flowing river in the heart of the Deep South. The rhythmic sounds of T-Bone Walker and John Lee Hooker hauntingly echo across the shores of the delta courtesy of the captain’s ailing record player. Just past the fertile bank you can vaguely distinguish ghostly silhouettes of hundreds of black slaves bending deep into the vegetation of the land. It is noon and the higher to sun rises in the heat drenched sky, the earth becomes scorched.

Providing comfort in mind and body was a raw, earthy, rhythm of song, deriving from their own pure emotion. Call and response saturates the humidity-laden air with a swagger so seductive that puts a vice of salvation on the soul.

Because of the intimacy of these songs sung amongst slaves, the music depicted a life under the grip of unspeakable oppression. The heartache and pain bled blue in lyrical prayer and transcended a culture that will forever be revered as the backbone to American musical expression; the Blues.

What Skip James and Son House was to Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy was to bombastic the electrified feedback of British Blues of the glorious 1960s.

“As a kid growing up my parents were sharecroppers and we really didn’t have running water, electric lights, or nothing,” says Buddy Guy in reference to the farm where he was raised just outside of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. “I used to take rubber bands, stretch them to my ear and then pluck them. I would stretch and pluck anything I could until I got my hands on a guitar at the age of fifteen.”

“You were just playing guitar in those days,” offers Guy, “I didn’t pursue it because you really couldn’t sit down and learn guitar with any guarantee that you could make a decent living as a result.”

“There were guys like Robert Johnson, Lonnie Johnson, T-Bone Walker, and Fred McDowell who would go to these Saturday Night Fish Fry playing with their hats in front of their guitar for nickels and dimes. Every time they would accumulate sixty or seventy cents they would sit down for a pint of wine or a quart of beer,” offers Guy. “They did this every weekend and went back to picking cotton during the week.”

“At about 16 my Dad was earning enough to afford electricity and brought home an old phonograph. The first record that I learned how to play was ‘Boogie Chillen’ by John Lee Hooker,” confesses Guy.

“My mother just had a stroke and to help her out I got on a train bound for Chicago on September 25, 1957 because I was told that I could get the same job I was doing at LSU in Baton Rouge in Chicago for three times the wage.”

There was a wealth of culture brewing in the American South before the dawn of 1960. Juke Joints were the most popular houses of alcoholic consumption and live music. Standing side-by-side with New Orleans, Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee was an equal hub for blues music.

Beale was a cultural explosion from life on the rural farms and plantations. A sinful heaven manifesting itself in the form of all night blues clubs and ramped public prostitution in front scores of movie palaces, hotels, cafes, and pawnshops.

Street musicians filled every corner. It was the devil’s playground for the devil’s music.

And where is Buddy Guy in the midst of all this music? He is sitting on a train at the station within stumbling distance, heading for Chicago with a plan other than music.

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Buddy Guy:
“I went out to England in February of 1965 and found Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck living in a van. They couldn’t sell a single record because they thought a Fender Strat was solely for playing Country music. They didn’t know that a Strat could play Blues.”

“The train stopped in Memphis but I had already made up my mind. The ticket was already bought,” says Guy. “I didn’t know anything about Beale Street, where BB King and Howlin’ Wolf were. Nobody really cared much for black people’s music back then anyways. They all ended up coming to Chicago eventually because of Chess Records’ contributions to Blues music.”

Buddy Guy could play the Blues when he arrived in Chicago in 1957 and Chicago was Beale on steroids. 47th Street was the epicenter for Blues clubs and musicians filled the streets trying to earn a buck. Buddy Guy was in the middle of the gold rush, not playing to earn his way into a club, but instead trying to just collect change for a phone call back to his parents’ farm.

“I was catching hell in Chicago before anyone found out that I could play,” he says as laughter follows. “Nobody knew who the hell I was. I was trying for three days to get a dime to call home because my Mom had a stroke and she didn’t know that I was broke or if I was alright.”

“A stranger grabbed me by the arm one day and led me into this famous club called the 708. Otis Rush was on stage and this guy told him I could play so he let me on stage with him. So there I am on stage with Otis Rush and I started playing. I was too shy to even really sing. I think we were playing some BB King number.”

“Well as this is going on somebody called Muddy Waters and got him out of bed to come down a see me because I guess somebody thought I was good. I ended up getting tipped from the club that night.”

“There I am walking out of this club with my guitar in hand with some money in my pocket and this guy is standing there on the street telling me to get in the car, that ‘He’s the Mud.”

“So back when I was in Baton Rouge they would tell me that I should be careful because, ‘You’ll get mugged in Chicago,’” Guy explains.

“Get in the car; I’m ‘the Mud’ this guy says. I’m thinking to myself, ‘O shit I’m gonna’ get mugged.’ Well, unknown to me, I wasn’t told that Muddy Waters was referred to as ‘the Mud’ in Chicago.”

The chance meeting led to a mentor-ship that subsequently inspired a flood of British Blues musicians overflowing into the states which included The Rolling Stones and very young raspy singer by the name of Rod Stewart.”

“The British musicians helped all of the blues cats out because I don’t know if you remember but they had a television show called Shindig and the Stones were booked to play.  The Stones said they would only do the show only if they could bring Muddy with them. The producers of the show asked Mick Jagger who is Muddy Waters?” Mick replied, “You don’t know who he is? We only named our band after one of his records!”

“These British musicians were letting Americans know who we were,” says Guy, “everyone was calling it ‘The British Invasion.’”

“I went out to England in February of 1965 and found Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck living in a van. They couldn’t sell a single record because they thought a Fender Strat was solely for playing Country music. They didn’t know that a Strat could play Blues.”

“Those British guys did like I did,” explains Guy, “they picked up a guitar and turned up the amplifier.”

“That is what Clapton and those guys were telling people about me when I was playing. I would blast my amp. The people at Chess wouldn’t let me come near the studio if I was going to do that until after they heard the British guys and they said ‘Wait a minute,’ go get Buddy he plays like that!”

“They stood there and told me that I was trying to sell them this shit ever since I got to Chicago but that they were to dumb to listen,” concludes Guy.


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