In the blaze of summer, with hands calloused from pulling cotton from the boll, the children would crawl beneath the floor planks of the shack where the dirt was cool, lie flat on their backs in the dark and dream.
To describe Sam and Isabell Guy’s home in Lettsworth, Louisiana—a village about an hour from Baton Rouge, just northwest of St. Francisville—it is easier to list what it lacked than what it had: plumbing, running water, electricity and meat—other than a little pork shared with the neighbors every Christmas.
Like his brothers and sisters, George “Buddy” Guy didn’t have much as a child in the 1940s, but what he craved more than a water faucet or an electric lamp or a belly filled with pork was a guitar, a mystical machine to tap the music he felt running in his veins and spill it out like syrup.
One day, young Buddy stripped a few wires from his mother’s new wooden window screens and strung them tightly across tin cans.
This homemade instrument seemed like a bright idea at the time—until the skeeters swarmed in. Skeeters “big enough to carry us out of the room,” Guy recalls.
Sam knew what Buddy had done and ordered his son to fix the window screen. But his humble act of creation proved to be the seed of an electrifying journey that has taken Guy from the tiny night clubs of Baton Rouge to the blazing-hot spotlights of Muddy Waters’ blues-booming Chicago to stadiums and arenas around the globe and the heights of adoration from the stars of rock ‘n’ roll.
Tours and movies with the Rolling Stones. Albums with Eric Clapton. Grammys. Six of them. And a club of his very own called Legends, where most nights, Guy can be found at the end of the bar, quietly reminiscing about his friends “Mud” and “B.B.” and “The Wolf” and sharing a beer with fans as the reigning “King of Chicago’s Electric Blues.”
Guy’s hands are still calloused, but for a different reason now, for bending six strings into the righteous cry of the blues—a beautiful thing, Guy says, that turns sadness into joy.
The iconic musician lives comfortably now in the Chicago suburbs, but in many ways he remains that humble boy on the farm, breathing to the intrinsic rhythm of his youth in rural Louisiana. Planting and reaping. Blood, sweat and harvest.
He eats only organic produce—has done so since before it was fashionable. He watches the seasons change with devotion. He still wakes at dawn.
At 75, Guy thinks of this month’s return to Baton Rouge as a natural part of his life cycle, too.
As a dreamer, an innovator, his relationship to the city he called home in his teens is nothing if not complex. He loves Baton Rouge, but to become who he was supposed to be, he says, he had to get out.
Though every Christmas the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer returns to feast with family and friends—“They make me gain weight down there,” Guy says—he acknowledges that for more than four decades, his concerts in the Capital City have been few and far between.
“I used to laugh about it, because I think it was a bit of an attitude of, ‘Why am I going to pay to see you when I helped raise you?’” Guy says with a laugh. “Like, ‘I knew you when you couldn’t play [expletive]!’ But I get excited to come home and play. I really do.”
Guy performs live at Manship Theatre on March 16.
In December, 225 spoke to the blues icon just after the release of Buddy Guy Live at Legends and his recognition at the 2012 Kennedy Center Honors ceremony.
First of all, congratulations on the Kennedy Center Honors. What did it feel like to be handed something like that by President Obama?
It was real nice. Real nice. Kind of surreal at the time. But actually, I had already played at the White House, so I had met Obama before then. You know, I was born on a farm, and when we first met, I told the president, “This is a long way from pickin’ cotton for 30 cents a day.”
Led Zeppelin was honored the same night. They’re famous for playing heavy blues-rock, and you’ve said [Zeppelin guitarist] Jimmy Page was one of the early English musicians to praise your music. What did you and Zeppelin talk about?
Well, Jimmy Page was never one to come straight up to you and talk a whole lot. He’s quiet. But Zeppelin was sort of bowing down at the Kennedy Center. They didn’t want to talk about anything but the guitar. It was sort of like, “You sent us this information through your guitar. If not for you, we wouldn’t be playing the blues.”
Hearing things like that makes me realize that I must have really hit some licks that touched a lot of people. So I’m blessed with that.
Being honored by the president is definitely a long way from working on a farm in Louisiana. What are some of your first memories of music as a child in Lettsworth?
Before my family had a record player, my sandlot baseball team would try to listen in on the radio. We’d pull that antennae wire from one end of the house to the other. In a sharecroppin’ house, the radio was always static—especially when it was rainin’—but every now and then we’d hear a lick from B.B. King coming through like lightning.
And you made your own guitar. How did you teach yourself to play?
Growing up was rough. I don’t know how my parents survived. It really was eat to live and live to eat. I think Jesus got us through. Back then, we didn’t have music instruction books and things that kids have today. You had to just find it on your own, pick out what you’d hear Lightnin’ Slim was doin’ or B.B. King, and try to make the same sounds. It was a lot of practicin’ and listenin’. I wanted to be B.B. King.
As a teenager you moved to Baton Rouge to live with your sister and attend McKinley High School. What was the city like in the 1950s?
It sure seemed like a real big place coming from the farm. I still remember plucking my two-string guitar for hours and hours on my sister’s porch and goin’ downtown with a man who bought me my first real guitar.
Guitar Slim, Lightnin’ Slim, Muddy Waters, they all came through this little club off Government Street, and I would always be the first one to show up, pay my 50 cents and wait for them to come on the stage.
Nobody local was making any money with a guitar when I learned how to play it. I’d go to an instrument shop and ask about guitars, and they wouldn’t know much about them. They’d always try to get me to play something else. At McKinley, all the music was about trumpets and horns. The guitar was seen as obsolete.
But you did start playing around town.
Played in a trio with Raful Neal in Baton Rouge for about a year and a half. But I first played with a fellow named Big Papa. I’d never been on stage before, and I tried playin’ with my back to the audience. I was so nervous. Big Papa didn’t like that at all. That was the first and only time I’ve ever been fired.
Soon after, you developed confidence on stage, though, and you made the move to Chicago. Now people call you a blues legend. Old bluesmen seem to command a reverence and respect that elder statesmen of rock or pop don’t always receive. Why is that?
The blues are like whiskey. It has to stay in the bath for 100 years before it tastes right. I got bad reviews in places like Germany when I was in my 20s. People said, “Oh, look at him. He’s too young.”
And yet, as a young guitarist you did find a crowd that liked your playing—a lot. Let’s talk about your fan club, and by that I mean the English rock stars that still look up to you. On your book jacket, Keith Richards [of the Rolling Stones] says you raised the bar for the blues. He calls you amazing.
When I went to London for the first time in 1965, I met Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Jeff Beck, and they told me they had no idea they could play the blues with a Strat—which was more like a country and western guitar at that time—and seeing me play the Strat real wild like I did just turned them right around.
It was just me playing what I had learned to play off Muddy and everybody else before me, but it really floored them back then. A few years later they all got famous [and] started saying things like, “I wouldn’t have played the blues without Buddy Guy.” I guess I was in the middle of making history and didn’t really know it. That’s a blessing right there.
You toured with the Stones in 1970. Was that a blessing, too?
This was the summer after Altamont when someone had been killed, so the band was a little more subdued, but still wilder than you think. They were gettin’ kicked out of hotels. Lots of parties were goin’ on. The Stones were so popular at the time that the crowds would boo us as the opening act. Probably thought, “This ain’t who we came to see!” We had to really win the people over. And a lot of times we did.
What piece of music are you most glad to have your name on?
Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues. I’m still proud that I wrote that [title] song. And that’s been my bestselling album. The public lets you know what your best album is.
I wanted to ask you about polka dots. You play a polka dot guitar. That’s a bold choice for a blues artist. What’s your fascination with those?
My dad got to see me play, but Mom had a stroke and never did. I lied to her when I moved to Chicago. Told her I’d be back soon and buy her a polka dot Cadillac. She loved polka dots. But I never did come back home, and I didn’t make any money in time to buy her that car.
When she died, I thought about that lie I had told her and asked Fender to make a polka dot guitar in honor of my mother. It took them years, but finally they did, and I play that polka dot Strat as a tribute to her.
In your new book [When I Left Home: My Story], you talk about pumping gas and doing maintenance work at LSU, all the while dreaming of meeting blues legends like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, guys you eventually played with. Did you always know you wanted to move to Chicago?
I did. All the time I dreamt of doing that. Problem was I didn’t think I was ever good enough to really make it. I always doubted myself, and I think that doubt held me back from gettin’ started even sooner.
When I did leave Baton Rouge for Chicago, they didn’t fill my spot [on the maintenance crew] at LSU. They said, “You can always have your job back, Buddy, if things don’t work out up there.”
You obviously had the drive to succeed, but what would you say today to those who have talent but doubt themselves?
Don’t give up. Ever. Don’t lay down. Be like a prizefighter. Keep swingin’, and eventually you’ll land your punch. buddyguy.net