I promised myself that if I ever met Buddy Guy in person I would stay cool, calm, and collected, not to mention especially respectful. Well, I broke that promise when I met him years ago.
I’ve met other celebrities and I managed to keep my composure and not freak like some girl dripping over Elvis or the Beatles. I think being in Mr. Guy’s presence had a much more powerful effect on me.
I think he showed Jimmy Page how to strum a guitar with a foreign object (Page usually uses a violin bow). Buddy Guy can play with or without a pick – sometimes both in the same song as he hides the pick in his hand. He plays with his sleeve dammit. For Godsake’s he has fans in the audience that strum for him and it still sounds great! He’s a damn fine acoustic player too. His covers seem original and his original material is cutting edge and relevant.
For me he’s the Picasso of guitar players, having different periods with different sounds but you always could recognize the baritone blues singer with bone-chilling falsetto. Whether from the Chess days or the Silvertone. Whether with or without Scott Holt and Ray Allison or Eddie Kramer he always makes me want to pick up the guitar and play except when I see him playing – then I want to put my guitar down.
Let’s put things into perspective. Many people will say that Buddy Guy is not the best guitar player and that there are or have been better players. Consider that Eric Clapton has called Buddy Guy the best guitar player Consider also that the only reason Jimi Hendrix ever cancelled one of his own shows was to see Buddy play on the same night. In the many available interviews with Buddy Guy, he often recounts the story of being on stage when someone would say, “Hey man, Jimi’s in the audience” when he would simply retort, “Jimi who?” Jimi Hendrix has also been cited as saying that Buddy Guy was a major influence on his showmanship and that many of his onstage antics were there to complement what he thought was mediocre playing, as did Buddy Guy himself. It’s widely known that Buddy’s over the top onstage style compensated for what he thought was not so good playing and a not so good voice. I couldn’t disagree more today.
So, considering his style, deep southern seated Chicago style electric blues, à la Muddy Waters. In fact, Buddy Guy was also discovered by Muddy Waters after he had moved almost penniless from Louisiana to Chicago. Muddy had discovered Buddy sleeping on a park bench after he had heard that this new kid in town could play a few good licks. Buddy became a Chess session player, being taught by Muddy Waters himself. Also consider that Buddy played lightning fast – he plays sixteenths riffs where others are playing eights; he’ll play thirtyseconds where others are playing sixteenths. He was also the second to play with this guitar around his back (the first being T-Bone Walker, unless anyone cares to provide a more accurate historical citation). Consider also his more than emotional singing, his blues style guitar playing rising melancholic feelings in your soul, to making the guitar outright cry; but not crying hurtfully, but crying emotionally, sadly, like in Sweet Black Angel.
For those of you who don’t know, I hail from Montreal, considered a hockey capital, not a blues capital, yet we have our great share of local blues greats: Steve Hill, Carl Tremblay, the guys from Offenbach and Corbeau. We’ve also got our share of rock greats: Marjo, Robert Charlebois, April Wine, etc. Many of the blues folks in Montreal will talk reverently about Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, BB King, and Stevie Ray Vaughan (pronounced in French as “vogan” – no silent gh here). I’ve seen Buddy Guy about five times between the Théatre St-Denis, the Spectrum (now closed), and the Bell Centre. Buddy (first name basis only for the simplicity of writing this blog – I don’t know him personally, except probably for crashing his birthday bash in 2007 at Legends) always puts on an electrifying show, and some will point out that if you’ve seen him more than once, well you’ve really only seen him once as he’s almost always playing the same set. I don’t know about you but I never get tired of hearing Five Long Years and Sweet Home Chicago.
The first time I saw Buddy was at the St-Denis Theatre sometime around 1995. My wife had been in the hospital for a week with an undiagnosed respiratory problem (a persistent pneumothorax to be more precise). The show was on her birthday and she told me not to miss the show. I went to the show with her brother, with whom I agreed to be ready much before the show as the venue had general seating. St- Denis theatre has a balcony and I pushed for the brother in law to be ready so we could catch a seat on the floor in front of the stage, knowing that Mr. Guy frequently played in the crowd. My brother in law didn’t have his shit together and showered about 15 minutes prior to the show. I was fuming. We finally made it to the show to catch the opening act, John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers. Mayall and troupe were awesome. But we were stuck on the godamm balcony. We could see the stage well (but far) and the sound was excellent (as compared to that toilet bowl of an Olympic Stadium we have in Montreal).
Mr. Guy finally came on stage and we were riveted from that moment on. We were literally on the edge of our seats and he intentionally would play barely audibly for the crowd. He would whisper into the mic, and hand motion the drummer to play quieter still. Then he broke into the most explosive solo with the volume at full throttle. The effect on the crowd was both mesmerizing and hypnotic. He got us. Throughout the show, he’d played for the crowd a couple of seconds at a time and got some women to strum his signature Stratocaster while he did the neck work. He was surreal and though I had heard of his showmanship skills before, nothing could prepare us. The show was overall fantastic.
Throughout the show, I’d elbow my brother in law with these sharp reminders that we could have been sitting down below when all of a sudden he elbowed me so hard in the ribs I was winded. “There he is! There he is!” I looked over at two o’clock where there was Mr. Buddy Guy, world’s greatest guitar player according to Eric Clapton, soloing on the balcony! He was right there ten feet in front of us on the balcony. Everyone could hear him but few had figured out where he was playing from. We approached cautiously and he played for us – I mean it. He played for us, not the stage nor the crowd. We got close enough that he let me put my arm around his shoulder and my brother in law put his arm around his waist. We played for the entire St. Denis theatre, looking over the balcony and everyone looking up at us. We smelled the Geri Curl and we felt his perspiration but that didn’t matter. We were in his aura. The experience probably lasted no more than thirty seconds to a minute but time had frozen for us.
From that point on, Buddy Guy was my hero, just about surpassing Stevie Ray Vaughan, whom I had the opportunity to see play in Jarry Park, Montreal, during the September 1987 Miller Fest.
On top of my “bucket list” or list of places to visit before I died, Chicago escalated to number one spot. I figured it would be much easier and more likely that I visit Chicago than the Great Pyramids of Egypt. I was right.
On business travel, I ended up for about four days in the Chicago suburb of Northbrook (that’s where the Underwriter’s Laboratories are located). I looked up Mr. Guy’s touring schedule and noted that he was in Europe the week before and the week after I’d visit Northbrook. I hoped that he’d be in his club Legends, on Wabash street in lower downtown Chicago.
I entered Legends in awe, for me it was as important as a pilgrimage many Elvis fans make when they visit Graceland in Memphis. I paid the ten dollar admission, bought a t-shirt, sweater, hat, and mug. It was early evening so no one was on stage. I took a seat, any one to my liking as the place was relatively empty. I scouted the place to see if I’d spot anybody famous. Saw a couple of people at the bar, almost invisible they were.
I went to the doorman and asked him whether “Buddy” (my first lesson in disrespect – don’t refer a famous blues legend that you don’t know personally by his first name to one of his bodyguards) would be in that evening. “Mr. Guy will be dropping by anytime now,” the bouncer reassured me. He also let me know that Mr. Guy was very approachable and usually never turns down a handshake, a photo, an autograph, or even a drink and a five minute talk so long as you approached him carefully and respectfully.
At that moment he walked in and the whole place offered him hellos and heys. He was very humble and looked almost uncomfortable by the attention. Hey, don’t forget this man is well into his seventies and plays some 300 shows a year. What does he owe anyone?
Some female out of town fans quickly approached him with a disposable camera. He offered to take his photo with them. They didn’t need to ask. His cue was well known. He took a couple of photos with them when he saw me in the corner of his eye with the white Legends T-shirt. I hesitated to ask him to sign it, but again he offered. I approached, dry mouthed and speechless. I put out my hand and he shook it with a, “pleased to meet you, sir”. (I actually have goosebumps as I right this passage). We shook hands and I told him I was from Montreal and almost always saw him, I was his best fan, I bought all his records, rant, rant, rant. He acted genuinely as if he knew me or remembered seeing my in the crowd. I became too enthusiastic after he offered to sign my shirt. “Buddy Guy 2006”. Wow!
The following year I happened to be in an Illinois suburb when I figured I had the time to swing down to Chicago and check out Legends again. Checked out the touring schedule and that week there was no touring. As it happened, I showed up at Legends with my digital camera this time, saw Mr. Guy at the bar, and immediately went to him, patting him on the back as if we were long time friends that hadn’t seen each other since the last family reunion, with a, “Hey Buddy, how are you?” He didn’t remember me as that fan from Montreal from the year before and I obviously irritated him more than anything else. Before he could answer I jibed, “Could you take a photo with me?” Now there was a look of consternation just like when a celebrity is about to tell a paparazzi to fuck off. I immediately came to my senses, offering an apology but it was too late. The damage was done. Here I am in Buddy Guy’s world famous Legends bar, on his terms, making an ass of myself, but more importantly, upsetting one of the most pivotal figures not only for the blues, but for all guitar players around the world, when he looked at me in the eyes, pissed, with a, “Come on man. You want your picture? What are you waiting for?” It was the most awkward moment of my life. I really didn’t want that picture that badly. But I got it.
I’m sorry Mr. Guy for bothering you. You didn’t deserve it. Folks, remember, those musicians and rock stars you aspire to become, or idolize are human too. They have good days and bad days like lots of us. The next time you have a bad day imagine what it would be like to live in a hotel for 300 nights a year (on constant restaurant food) without your family. With fame comes lots of responsibility but also lots of family challenges (does any celebrity have a normal family life?). I don’t know anybody that enjoys being harassed by a sales clerk in a store. Well many celebrities aren’t really impressed by strangers demanding something of them.
My memory of Buddy Guy went a lot further when I actually shook his hand and had a thirty second chat with him without expecting anything in return.
This article reprinted with permission from grasshopperjames.com
When in Chicago, Be Sure to Visit Buddy Guy at his Premier Blues Club Legends
Buddy Guy’s Legends – http://buddyguy.com
700 S. WABASH, CHICAGO, IL, 60605