Really The Blues
An American Original, This Music Born of Heartbreak But Full of Joy Is Ultimately Simple Yet Hard to Define
T. Brooks Shepard
From the Print Edition:
John F. Kennedy, Nov/Dec 98
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Chicago blues musician-entrepreneur George "Buddy" Guy is a show business success, but getting there was no cakewalk. Born in Lettsworth, Louisiana, in 1936, the self-taught guitarist and owner of the internationally renowned Chicago blues club Buddy Guy's Legends moved to the Windy City to support his family after his mother had a stroke.
"I came to Chicago in September of 1957 and until the first of the year I was walking up and down the streets of Chicago," Buddy recalls, "no relatives whatsoever, trying to find any type job I could. If I could have found any kind of career-type job, I wouldn't be talking to you now." The blues frequently involves desperation.
He was headed back to Louisiana when a stranger, after hearing Buddy play, took him to the now defunct 708 Club, on Chicago's East Side, and introduced him to the vocalist Otis Rush, who let Buddy do a tune. Whereupon, the club owner said, "Whoever that is, hire him."
"I didn't know that I was hired when I walked off the stage and the fans were asking me: 'Who are you? How come I don't know about you? Where have you been playin?'" I said, 'Man, I'm just hungry,' " Buddy recalls. "Twenty minutes later, I walked outside the club and somebody slapped me upside the head. All I could hear was bells ringing." It was Chicago blues icon Muddy Waters, who'd gotten out of bed to give Buddy the once-over.
"He told me, 'Don't even think about going back to Louisiana.' He said, 'You hungry?' I said, 'Not now. I've met you.' He made me get in the back of a red 1958 Chevrolet station wagon, got me a sandwich and made me eat it, and the next Wednesday I was down at that place. I never did get the stranger's name," he said. "I've tried to find him but I don't know who he is to this day." The blues is a mystery.
Legends was not Guy's first venture. He opened the Checkerboard Lounge in 1972. "In the Sixties they had blues clubs on every corner of the black areas of Chicago and all of them was closing," he recalls. "And I remembered the club where Muddy Waters slapped me and I said, 'Where is the next Buddy Guy going to come to in Chicago, be playin' good and have somebody slap him?' " But running the club wasn't easy. .
"I opened up the Checkerboard in my neighborhood because I wanted to keep the blues down here. I had iron gates, but they had a tool to twist that gate off. I couldn't leave any package goods. I'd leave the cash register drawer open, had to open up the cigarette machine every night, put all the cigarettes in a sack and take them home," Buddy recounts. "They broke in there so much, I put a sign on the front door sayin' Don't tear my door down. Go to the back, it's open."
Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Jimmy Reed--they all played his joint. Capacity 90 people. When the Rolling Stones, longtime devotees of the Chicago bluesmen, played there, they had such a large entourage and so much security that Buddy recounts, "I only got three fans in there. I always say I had the biggest bands in the world and didn't make a nickel. But, it got a lot of publicity for the club."
Relinquishing control of the Checkerboard in 1985 was an authentic blues moment. "My wife used to look at me at home and tell me, 'You don't look right in the face. Why don't you go get you a banking account and your life savings and open another club?' And I just got up and did it," the four-time Grammy Award winner recalls. He started Buddy Guy's Legends, which has added a humidor featuring Legendary, the Buddy Guy signature cigar, made by Markus International.
Of the impact of the blues, he says: "If you listen to it, you'll hear something that's coming your way. Rich people get divorced and rich people fall in love, so we sing about the separation, the get-together and everything else. You can deny that, you can turn your back on that all you want. But, it's there. Oh, yeah." The blues are universal.
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