120 Percent

Contrary to popular misconception, Buddy Guy's career didn't commence in 1991 with his Damn Right, I've Got the Blues album, and he needn't work with big-name bores like Eric Clapton and Carlos Santana to merit your rapt attention. Guy, in fact, first hit the Chicago blues scene in 1957; his twisted early recordings, blessedly bereft of wearisome celebrities, sound like B.B. King and James Brown soldering each other's tits together.

An impetuous lad who infused the blues with acute volume, energy, flash and immediacy, Guy literally twitched and screamed with youthful brass. Many Windy City blue-biz figures, habituated to the regal stoicism of Mayor Muddy Waters, were appalled by Guy's histrionics. This analysis proved woefully shortsighted; the British blues movement was at hand, and Guy would find his initial audience overseas.

“I went into Chicago and turned way up loud, but the blues clubs didn't like it and nobody wanted to record it because they was doing so good with Muddy and them,” Guy recalls. “Nobody wanted to hear me bending strings and playing feedback and all that until the British accepted it. A lot of us black people had to go over there, Hendrix did too, but I was so in love with what I was doing I didn't care if you liked it or not. You tell me this fool's cooking ain't no good, but it taste good to me so I'm giving it to you, motherfucker!”

Guy's sojourn next found him back home in the midst of the blues hippie scene of the late '60s, where his audacious persona, hyper-speed chops and meltdown vocal shriek were deemed assets of the highest order. Among his ardent admirers/disciples were Jimi Hendrix and Clapton; Guy realized the rockers were copping his shit, but he remains humble about it all.

“I don't wanna take credit, but whatever Hendrix and Eric and them were doing . . . well, look, I don't think none of us really have our own style, man. When I was talking to B.B. King and them, I said, 'Man, I don't have nothing—everything I learned, I'm playing you guys' music.' They said, 'We did too, but the people we learned from didn't have records out, we heard them at the Saturday-night fish fry.' We all got something from somebody. When you hear me, you hear B.B. King, T-Bone Walker, Guitar Slim, all of that. To this day, I don't have nothing. Maybe you have a little something you added, but it come from trying to sound like whoever you learned from, and then a piece of you come up in it. I'm still a student after all these years.”

By the '80s, however, the student was failing. Guy was too young to enjoy the elder statesman status accorded a King or Waters, the hippie scene was in the rear-view and his longtime musical partnership with Junior Wells was embraced only by hardcore blues Nazis. Guy's solo career was taking a commercial dump even as he continued performing with the same scary passion as ever.

Finally, some biz suits set upon our hero and placed him in the studio with a bevy of pop-star elite, made him record such mercilessly burned-out covers as “Mustang Sally,” and overproduced the beejeeziz out of the sessions—hey, the formula moved assloads of units for John Lee Hooker, right? Damn Right, I've Got the Bluesbelatedly transformed Guy into a big-time, Grammy-winning blues star.

This he's remained since, releasing a string of ill-conceived, usually celeb-studded concept albums that keep Guy flush but do little to illustrate the magic he still stores in his soul. While we celebrate Guy's good fortune, we lament his lost sovereignty in the process; Guy himself recognizes the irony and says he'd like to remedy it all someday.

“I had a real long dry spell, almost 16 years, and had come to the conclusion that the labels thought I had nothing to offer, so I don't know how to say no. When somebody ask me to record something, I'm gonna do it. But someday I want to try to record myself and have no one but myself to blame for how it come out. I would like to go in the studio with my own band, my own musicians, call out my own songs.

“In the old days, Eric and Hendrix and them would just go in the studio, lock the doors, get high, get fucked-up and play what they wanted to play, and all that stuff turned out good. You give me a couple shots of cognac and turn me loose to do what I want, and I'll play every damn thing I know. You would get 120 percent of Buddy Guy, you would get the best singing and guitar playing that I'm capable of doing.”

And few are more capable than Guy.

“Ain't but a handful of us around anymore,” he says. “I just read where B.B. King is not going to tour internationally anymore. I'm turning 70 this year, man. It's like I become an endangered species, but I'm gonna keep it going long as I can.”


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