At 72, Buddy Guy is the reigning king of the postwar Chicago blues scene—a mantle he inherited from his mentor, Muddy Waters, in a blaze of edgy, nervous guitar frenzy. But although he's been gigging steadily since 1957, the year he decamped from his native Louisiana, he gives the impression that now, finally—to paraphrase one of his best-loved songs—it's his time after a while. NEWSWEEK's Brian Braiker recently caught up with Guy to talk about his new album of originals, "Skin Deep." Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: What's the secret to maintaining this vitality?
Buddy Guy: To be honest with you, this is the first album that I had a lot to do with. Throughout my whole career, I'd put one or two new songs on the album. They was handing me the Willie Dixon stuff and whoever made a name for themselves writing songs. This is 100 percent new songs that I got on this CD that I've been trying to do ever since I was 21 years old.
You've said Chess records sat on you in the '60s. They wouldn't let you do your thing.
Well, they didn't hear it. Leonard [Chess] told me this before he passed away: when he found out the British had turned them amps up like I was trying to do all the time, he came and told me, "You had something we was too damn slow to realize. Now you can come into the studio and do whatever you want." He didn't live long enough to see me do that.
This sounds like a pretty personal record.
I would say so. I'm more excited over this CD than I ever have been in all of my life.
Tell me about the title song, "Skin Deep."
My mom used to tell me when I was 8, 9 years old, "Boy, I don't care how old you get and how far you go, beauty is only skin deep." I was just a country boy running my mouth and it just stuck with me. I look through life and I say, "You know, this is true. We're all the same."
And on "Who's Gonna Fill Those Shoes," you sing about all the legends who've passed. What it suggests is that you're one of the last men standing.
Well we've still got B. B. [King] and one or two of 'em. But what worries me most is that in the last 15, 20 years is that they quit playin' blues on your big radio stations. Along came the satellite stations, but how many young Buddy Guys can afford a satellite radio? When I was growing up as a kid my dad couldn't even get an AM radio that was playin' music for free.
How did you first hear the music, then?
To be honest, my dad finally got a radio when I was about 12, 14 years old, an old battery radio. If there was a cloud in Louisiana, all the static would come on the air. You had a big long antenna from one end of the shotgun house to the other. You had to have a big battery for it. And I'd start to hear Lightin' Hopkins and John Lee Hooker's "Boogie Chillun."
Radio's different now.
You can turn on the average radio now and you would never hear a Muddy Waters album or Howlin' Wolf now. All those big stations, I hate to call names, but all you hear is Britney, Madonna and Mariah Carey. That's all they're going to play all day. When you had AM radio stations, you had Frank Sinatra and Muddy Waters and Mahalia Jackson. They just played everybody's music. Now you don't hear that no more.
Over time you mastered blues, jazz, as well, rock, soul. What is it about the blues specifically that's so special?
Right now I'm branded as a blues player, but, sir, to be honest with you, all I know is M-U-S-I-C. Ray Charles was an R&B player and B. B. King was an R&B player, Muddy Waters was an R&B player. They wasn't branded as blues players. They used to have a juke box in all the small blues clubs in Chicago when I went there. I would go in and say, "I can play, give me a gig in this club." They would go back, "If you can play these top 10 records in this juke box, you can make 50 cents a night." They would point to Fats Domino, they would point to Chuck Berry, Lightnin' Hopkins. Then they would point to Miles Davis, Gene Allen! Somebody told me, "If you learn that, you'll be around for a while." I didn't even go to bed sometimes when I was 21 or 22 years old, I was afraid I would miss something.
Do you still practice?
No, I got a bad habit, and I'm glad you ask because I don't ever rehearse. My band is on me now about the new stuff. I did a television show with Hank Williams Jr. back there early last year and he came up to me. I had never met him before. He said, "Don't play nothing with me like I played last night." I said, "Hank, I don't ever do the same show, the same song." I don't have no set list on my stage or nothing. I don't go out there for Buddy Guy. I go out there and say can I touch you with whatever I do? If that's the mood you in, that's what I'm going to play.
What do you play?
I 'm going to go out there and give you a lick on Muddy Waters, a lick on Buddy Guy, a lick on Junior Wells, a lick on Stevie [Ray Vaughan], a lick on Eric [Clapton] if I have to, a lick on Hendrix. You gonna look at me and say, "Well, Buddy Guy is almost like that crap come from Louisiana called gumbo," because that's what gumbo is: any kinda meat you find gonna be thrown in the pot.
Is there any Louisiana in your music?
I think it's still there. That's another thing they came up with—the idea of the blues and the Delta. Some of the greatest blues players that ever played are really from the Delta. But you also got some that's not from the Delta. Lightin' Hopkins wasn't from the Delta. Gatemouth Brown wasn't from the Delta. All of us from down there in Louisiana. Louis Jordan! All those guys, Johnny Shines. You got people from Alabama, everywhere. Just call it Southern stuff. I still got that Louisiana in me. I'm going there Monday, and the first thing I'm going to do is get my kids and my red beans and rice. I wrote a song once: "You can get me out the country, but you'll never get the country out of me."
And on this record you have "Out in the Woods."
Yeah, man. This record just makes me so emotional, I can't even hardly sing it. It's a true fact of life.
You influenced all those '60s blues rockers—the Rolling Stones, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Hendrix. They sort of owe you a huge debt. Do you think it's been paid?
I think they paid it. They didn't come in and say, "This is a British invasion." That was the media and the jockeys and the radio. Matter of fact, the Rolling Stones came in the Chess Studio when I was recording a record called "My Time After Awhile." I had never saw a white man with hair that long, and I'm saying, "What the hell is this?" We became friends that day. I think it was 1963 or '64. They had a television show called "Shindig," which was poppin' off with nothing but music. They was cravin' to get the Stones. Finally, the Stones agreed and said, "Yeah, we'll come do it but you gotta let us bring Muddy Waters." They said "Who is that?" Mick Jagger got offended and said, "You mean to tell me you don't know who Muddy Waters is, and we named ourselves after one of his famous records?!" [Laughs.]
Now all those guys are the old-timers.
If you stay here long enough, you're going to get old. I got the gout. It gets in your feet; it's a big pain. And you know what? I'm just going to hop on it and play. If you don't live long enough to get it, you'll never know.
Who are the young guys today that give you hope?
You got Derek Trucks on that record. On that cut "Who's Gonna Fill Those Shoes," that's an 8-year-old kid Quinn Sullivan playing one of them solos on there, man. He's 9 now. When I first met this kid, he got a polka-dot bandana on, he's sitting there with his guitar and his dad. I said, "Come on up, man, let me hit these two notes and be through." Man, that kid matched me note for note for all the rest of the night. I just cannot ignore this. I gotta let somebody know what can be done at 8 years old and 9 years old. The blues need it.
What did getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame mean to you?
I got a lot of awards. Every time I accepted an award, I accepted an award in honor of all the people who should have got that award before me, some of 'em don't even have headstones. Every award I got, including the Hall of Fame, it shoulda been Smokey Hogg, Lightin' Hopkins and on and on and on. I don't know who in and who out, but I know some of them is not in there.
Well at least you've still got the fire.
Thank you very much. I hope we get a few million people feel like you do. I'll be the happiest man alive.