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You won't find too many guitar heroes on the phone at 9 a.m. At that time of day, a lot of them are just calling it a night. Yet on this particular morning, the guitar hero who answers the phone at his suburban Chicago home is hardly comatose. An extremely jovial Buddy Guy sighs, then laughs as he blurts out his reason for exchanging 40 minutes of quality shuteye for a conversation with a journalist.
"I've got two kids, age 18 and 16, a boy and a girl," Guy says. "That's why I'm doing this at nine in the morning. Between 3:30 in the afternoon and 8:30 at night, I do not get to answer the phone."
Conceding quality phone time to his kids is just the kind of thing you'd expect from Guy, the electrifying Chicago blues guitarist and vocalist who's put family and convictions ahead of personal gain for decades. For just as long, Guy has adopted an almost programmed predictability when explaining why he was a persona non grata in his home country during the 1980s, playing to small but appreciative crowds in Europe while, as he puts it, being "shut out" of the U.S. recording industry.
Anyone who's interviewed Guy over the years knows that, at some point, the Louisiana-born guitarist will give his ten-minute "no respect" spiel on how other guitarists have ripped him off, and on how in the late '60s his producers at Chess Records held him back, reacting in horror if, while recording, he trotted out the kind of frenzied minor-key riffs that performers such as Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton were copying from his live shows. Often, says Guy, when Hendrix met up with him at one of the bluesman's performances, the first thing out of Hendrix's mouth would be, "Do you mind if I tape your show?"
Even in the '90s, when Guy is finally getting respect from a wide audience with a string of Grammy Award-winning CDs, dates opening for the Rolling Stones and this year's bold-sounding live album, Buddy Guy -- Live! The Real Deal, Guy still has a bit of a chip hidden under the shoulder strap of his Fender Stratocaster. Guy has dedicated his life to the blues, and even if his greatest fear -- that he would be revered only after his death -- has been alleviated, he isn't about to admit it. But the way Guy looks at it, if you've worn your emotions on your sleeve your whole life, there's no sense changing things now.
"Just a little while back we were playing at a club in Kentucky, and the audience in the house was making me feel real good, so I know it was a good show," Guy says. "The next day, my guitar player was in the back of the van, and he says, 'Hey, man you made the paper, but they said you were playing Eric Clapton licks.' That stuff just keeps coming around. When I was in the studio in the Chess days, I'd be cranking the guitar, man, [producer] Willie Dixon would be sayin' I'm sounding too much like B.B. King, or too much like Jimi Hendrix, that this wasn't Buddy Guy. Man, I'd be thinking, 'Bullshit, this is mine.' "
Okay, so if Clapton is God, and he still tells interviewers that Guy is the best blues guitarist there is, then what superlative should be attached to Guy? For his part, Guy doesn't have an answer, insisting that he's always considered himself more of a good listener than a good player. He's the first to say that the fundamental way to learn the blues is not to read charts but to keep your ears open. As a session player at Chess, working with Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson, he mopped up sounds like a musical sponge. In turn, the riffs Guy cranked out on nuggets such as "The First Time I Met the Blues" were soon spinning round the turntables at the Clapton, Hendrix and Keith Richards households, being melded into blues-rock classics for a generation who'd never heard of Buddy Guy, a process that continued into the 1980s with blues-rock wunderkinds Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robert Cray.
But while Guy continues to forge ahead, he's not afraid to look back. His recent live release, recorded in Chicago and New York with guitarist G.E. Smith and the Saturday Night Live band, supplemented by longtime Chess alumnus and pianist Johnnie Johnson, is a throwback to the kind of big-band sound that B.B. King popularized in the '60s. To maintain the flavor of the new CD on his tours, Guy has beefed up his longtime backing trio with keyboards and a three-piece horn section. So when Guy belts out "My Time After Awhile" on-stage, you can bet that the live version will equal the firebrand emotion of the one on the CD.
Not that, with age and wisdom, Guy hasn't learned a little about relaxing. As passionate as he is on-stage and on the road, at home, he admits over the phone from Chicago, he doesn't practice much. But then again, with his decades of playing, maybe practice would be redundant.
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