Buddy Guy strives to keep the blues alive

02/20/2014 2:33 PM

02/20/2014 2:33 PM

Buddy Guy’s latest release, “Rhythm & Blues,” is a rarity in this era of EPs and singles. It’s a double album, with 22 all-new tracks.

Guy and his producer Tom Hambridge didn’t go into the project expecting to make any more than a single album.

“What really happened was every time we came up with a song, and we were both excited about it, (we’d say) let’s do it,” Guy said in a recent phone interview. “And every time we finished that, there was another one…”

Guy and Hambridge believed in all of the tracks, but they weren’t so sure the idea of a double album would fly with Guy’s label, RCA Records.

In fact, Guy said he thought RCA would accept just a single album and have him save some of the 22 tracks for a future album.

Instead, RCA bought the idea of a double album. “I’m like saying ‘Oh, thank God,’ ” Guy said. “I can’t wait to see what’s going to happen. If we can get a little airplay, hopefully I can sell … more CDs and keep the blues alive a little longer.”

Introducing the blues to more fans and breathing life into the genre is a mission Guy’s been trying to fulfill for more than two decades.

“I’ve dedicated my life to the music,” he said. “The late Muddy Waters, Little Walter, the late Junior Wells, I could go on and on, and we used to sit down and talk and be having a shot of wine or a shot of whiskey, and we would be joking and laughing about it …,” Guy said.

“Muddy Waters, he didn’t let me or a lot of us know that he had cancer,” Guy said. “I kind of got it from the grapevine. Junior Wells and I were in a little club, the Checkerboard Lounge (in Chicago), and I said ‘Man, we’ve got to go out there and see him. Let’s call him and see.’ We rang him up and he cursed us out and said ‘I ain’t sick, just don’t let the blues die.’ I remember that precisely.”

A week later, Waters had died, and Guy continues to do his part to keep the blues alive.

Guy may be 77 now, but age hasn’t slowed him down. He’s energetic and passionate about blues and is doing more shows this year than many musicians half his age. Guy and long-time friend, B.B. King, though, are the last of the major blues stars still living from the post-World War II wave of blues artists still recording and touring regularly.

A native of Louisiana, Guy began his career in earnest when he moved to Chicago in September 1957, where he was signed by that city’s legendary blues label, Chess Records in 1960, home to Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Little Walter.

Already an accomplished guitarist, Guy was recruited to play on numerous albums by the label’s leading artists, but struggled to get label co-owner Leonard Chess to embrace the high-charged, hard-edged type of blues he wanted to record.

Guy’s tenure with Chess ended in 1967, when he moved to Vanguard Records. But he went through the 1980s without a record deal, before he was signed by Silvertone Records and released the 1991 Grammy-winning comeback CD, “Damn Right, I’ve Got The Blues.”

He has recorded regularly ever since. And Guy has delivered one of his best albums with “Rhythm & Blues.” Even with 22 songs, there isn’t much filler, as Guy shows his command of several forms of blues. There are hard-hitting rockers like “Never Gonna Change,” “Justifyin’” and “What’s Up With That Woman,” tunes with a little funk and Memphis soul (“Best In Town”), a little (mostly) acoustic country blues (“I Could Die Happy”) and even some horn-filled jump blues – a style Guy has not often recorded – on songs like “Well I Done Got Over It” and “Poison Ivy,”

Guy may be enjoying some of his greatest popularity now, but he sees the future of blues being less certain.

One of the big challenges facing the genre is the lack of radio play. “The radio stations have almost completely quit playing blues, man,” Guy said. “It’s not like it was in the ’50s. There weren’t as many guitar players. If you played two or three good licks, somebody knew about you and we had all of the AM stations and the disc jockey could play what he wanted. You could take him a demo of something and he would play it. Well, you don’t get that now on blues.”

Blues artists also don’t have the extensive network of blues clubs that once existed. “In the early days we had the little blues clubs all over the country and in Europe, where you could go and hopefully be seen and make a little name for yourself,” Guy said. “In the last 20 years, 30 years, all of those small blues clubs have disappeared.

“Fifty years ago, if you could play at all, somebody knew about you because we had all of those little clubs you could go in,” he said.

Guy is doing his part to keep the blues alive by touring extensively and bringing his music directly to the people. He also makes a point of touting young blues talents. In this interview, he talked up Gary Clark Jr., who guests on the song “Blues Don’t Care” from “Rhythm & Blues,” and a 14-year-old guitar phenom, Quinn Sullivan, whom he first saw play when Sullivan was just 9.

And those who see Guy’s energetic live show might get excited enough about the blues to check out other blues artists. Guy tries to cater to his audiences by not working from a set list.

“I go to the stage, and you can hear people,” Guy said. “They’ll call out a song. I’ll look at my band and say ‘Let’s do it.’ That’s why I’m here. That’s why this particular fan came to hear me.”

“I listen to the audience,” he said. “I’m going to give you the best that I got, whatever I do. But I don’t go there saying I’m going to drive ‘Damn Right, I Got The Blues’ down your throat. You might want to hear ‘Slippin’ In.’ Or you might want to hear me try to do something like Muddy Waters.”

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