Near the end of a recent, enthralling phone conversation with the iconoclastic Buddy Guy, whose sleepy eyes belie the blur of his hands on an electric guitar, he offers this astute and touching insight: "Well, son, I get questioners always asking—you can go back in your history books—they'll always ask, 'When are you retiring?' Blues musicians don't retire, son, they just drop."
In fairness, the question concerned the future recording plans of the 74-year-old, but given the exuberance of Guy in conversation, on recordings and onstage, there seems an almost preternatural unwillingness to stop anytime soon.
The history of Buddy Guy is the stuff of legend. Born and raised on a farm in Lettsworth, La.—"I didn't know what running water was until I was about 15 years old"—Guy's upbringing was difficult. Nevertheless, his mother was a font of sage wisdom that has continued to aid Guy's career. In fact, it was his mother's riposte that inspired Guy's heralded Skin Deep (Jive, 2008).
"I said, 'Mom, I peeked in the mirror, and I'm good looking,'" Guy recalled. "She say, 'Yeah, son, but guess what?' I said, 'What's that?' She said, 'That's only skin deep.'"
Buddy Guy's musical career is also legendary—and just as rocky. After apprenticing under Muddy Waters, Guy was mishandled by Chess Records during the 1960s. The label looked to rein in his wild, smoldering presence, and his electric live performances stood in marked contrast to his recorded output, leaving some residual resentment.
"In my early years, I had Willie Dixon producing, and I had other producers teaching me how to play, and they never picked up a fucking guitar, so how can you teach me how to play? Just let me play what I know," he says.
Luckily, the decades that followed found some of Guy's biggest supporters—like the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton—championing his unique talent, which brought him the appropriate national attention. Tellingly, Guy found understanding about his career from the usual source.
"I didn't get mad about it," Guy said. "My mother always told me, 'What's for you, you gonna get it; what's not for you, you don't need it.'"
Thankfully, Guy has accepted his elder-statesman position in the blues pantheon with graciousness. Often, he spends his time at Buddy Guy's Legends, his blues club in Chicago, or mentoring the 12-year-old blues prodigy Quinn Sullivan. When Guy first heard Sullivan perform at 7, he was in awe of the youth's fretwork. "I told his mom and dad, 'When I was 7 years old, shit, I couldn't even play the radio.'"
Guy has also recently developed a fruitful relationship with the musician/producer Tom Hambridge, who helped Guy pen many of the tracks on Skin Deep and last year's loose, exhilarating Living Proof (Silvertone). Living Proof is in many ways a recorded memoir, with Guy's decades of heartache and joy, triumph and pain, tucked into a rollicking and soulful set of tunes. His famous yelp and madcap guitar solos pepper tracks about being a rake ("74 Years Young"), embracing fate ("Everybody's Got to Go") and enjoying overdue success ("Thank Me Someday"). Hambridge's role as producer is markedly different from those who occupied the role during Guy's formative years. Guy noted that this time, he sets the guidelines: "When I got to know him ... I told him years ago, 'Get in the studio; y'all back me up, and let me be Buddy Guy.'"
As a living blues legend, Buddy Guy could coast on his credentials or bask in his fame. However, it's clear from his current tour, recent recording output, involvement with his club and altruistic mentoring of future blues musicians that Guy operates on a whole different level.
When Guy talks about those "blues cats" of years past, like Lightnin' Slim ("The first electric guitar I ever saw"), there is an endearing reverence. His devotion to forgotten bluesmen is deadly serious; he even attempted to start a foundation to put headstones on their unmarked gravesites. Sadly, he found that such charity gets litigious unless you are kin.
Although Guy has finally and deservedly come to receive the proper respect, for every honor, like a Grammy or his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he holds firm to his past and those who helped shape his future.
"I'm most proud of the guys who didn't win, who I got a chance to play with, and I'm trying to carry on," Guy said. "Every time I win an award, I accept it in their honor."