Re: Part 1 of Article on Buddy Guy Including the Question of White Musicians Benefitting From/Appropriating Black Blues Music(ians), Stones-Related Content, interesting
Date: March 11, 2019 07:42
Part 1:Buddy Guy Is Keeping the Blues Alive
Is the legendary guitarist and singer the last of his kind?
In the sixties, just as Guy was reaching a certain stature in the blues world, something curious began to happen. White people happened—white blues fans and white blues musicians. For its first half century, the blues was popular entertainment for, and of, black people. Not completely, but almost. Guy told me that, when he played clubs in Chicago during the late fifties, “if you saw a white face, it was almost always a cop.”
With time, it became clear that some white kids, including Mike Bloomfield and Paul Butterfield, were in the audience, watching Guy the way he’d once watched Guitar Slim. At the same time, the best of the British Invasion expressed a kind of community awe toward the American urban blues. When Guy first toured Great Britain, in 1965, all the white English guitar heroes—Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, and Eric Clapton—flocked backstage to ask him how he did this and how he did that. Guy had spent so much of his recording career backing up other musicians that he was shocked that people knew his name, much less the nuances of his work. But they did. As a young singer, Rod Stewart was so in thrall to Guy that he asked to carry his guitars.
“Our aim was to turn people on to the blues,” Keith Richards, who had formed a friendship with Mick Jagger by trading Chess blues records, has said of the early days of the Rolling Stones. “If we could turn them on to Muddy and Jimmy Reed and Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker, then our job was done.” When the Stones were invited to play on the American television show “Shindig!,” they insisted on appearing alongside Howlin’ Wolf, who had never received that kind of exposure. They invited Ike and Tina Turner, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, and B. B. King to open for them.
And yet there was something unsettling about the spectacle of the Stones or Eric Clapton playing turbocharged versions of Robert Johnson, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Muddy Waters to fifty thousand white kids a night, most of them oblivious of the black origins of those songs. Clapton, for one, experienced a measure of guilt and, eventually, acted on it. “I felt like I was stealing music and got caught at it,” he told the music critic Donald E. Wilcock. “It’s one of the reasons Cream broke up, because I thought we were getting away with murder, and people were lapping it up. Doing those long, extended bullshit solos which would just go off into overindulgence. And people thought it was just marvelous.” In 1976, Clapton went on a drunken, racist rant onstage, in Birmingham—an incident, he later said in an elaborate apology, that “sabotaged everything.” Clapton never stopped playing the blues. In 2004, he put out an entire album covering Robert Johnson songs; it sold two million copies.
Some critics, notably the poet and playwright LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), found the prospect of white blues players making a fortune enraging. In “Black Music,” he wrote, “They take from us all the way up the line. Finally, what is the difference between Beatles, Stones, etc., and Minstrelsy. Minstrels never convinced anyone they were Black either.”
“Go wipe your feet on the neighbor’s doormat.”
Black performers almost never echoed that sentiment publicly; Waters and Guy were usually quick to express friendship with the Stones, Clapton, and the rest. Yet hints of their disappointment came through. “It seems to me,” Guy said in the nineteen-seventies to an interviewer for the magazine Living Blues, “all you have to do is be white and just play a guitar—you don’t have to have the soul—you gets farther than the black man.”
It also hurt that black audiences, particularly younger black audiences, were moving away from the Chicago blues. B. B. King told Guy that he cried after he was booed by such an audience. “He said that his own people looked on him like he was a farmer wearing overalls and smoking a corncob pipe,” Guy recounted in his memoir. “They saw him as a grandfather playing their grandfather’s music.”
As late as 1967, Guy drove a tow truck during the day and played the clubs at night. The hours were punishing, and high blood pressure and divorce followed. (Guy married twice and divorced twice; he has eight adult children.) In Germany, he played at the American Folk Blues Festival, but he got booed, he said, because the audience thought he “looked too young, dressed too slick, and my hair was up in a do. Someone said he was also disappointed that I didn’t carry no whiskey bottle with me onstage. They thought bluesmen needed to be raggedy, old, and drink.”
Expectations placed constraints on his recordings, too. As sympathetic as the Chess brothers were to black musicians, and as shrewd as they’d been in marketing their work, they had been reluctant to have Guy unleash the wildness in his playing. As the singer-songwriter Dr. John said of Guy’s early records, “You feel a guy in there trying to burst out, and he’s jammed into a little bitty part of himself that ain’t him.”
Elijah Wald, a historian of the blues who has written biographies of Josh White and Robert Johnson, told me, “I feel like Buddy Guy is somebody who, due to American racism, never quite reached his potential. He could have been a major figure, but he was pigeonholed as a museum piece, even in 1965. . . . Nobody from Warner Bros. was coming to Buddy Guy and saying, ‘Here’s a million dollars, what can you do?’ ” Bruce Iglauer, the owner of Alligator Records, a blues label in Chicago, agrees. Buddy Guy was one of a small handful of “giants,” he said, who helped define the blues but never got the chance to become household names: “The door was never open to them at the time when they were most likely to walk through. By the time the doors were opened by Eric Clapton and the Stones, these guys were already in their thirties and forties.”
In the late nineteen-sixties, Guy recounts, Leonard Chess called him into his office. “I’ve always thought that I knew what I was doing,” he told Guy. “But when it came to you, I was wrong. . . . I held you back. I said you were playing too much. I thought you were too wild in your style.” Then Chess said, “I’m gonna bend over so you can kick my ass. Because you’ve been trying to play this ever since you got here, and I was too @#$%& dumb to listen.”
Chess’s failure could have stayed with Guy as a bitter memory. But he has turned the episode into a tidy, triumphant anecdote. He refuses any hint of resentment: “My mother always said, ‘What’s for you, you gonna get it. What’s not for you, don’t look for it.’ ”
The richness of a form, however, does not guarantee its continued development or popularity. Guy didn’t begin to make real money until the early nineteen-nineties, when he was nearing sixty. Like Sonny Rollins in jazz, Buddy Guy was now in the business of being a legend, an enduring giant in a dwindling realm. In 1991, “Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues,” an album on the British label Silvertone, sold well and won a Grammy; not long afterward, two more albums of his, “Feels Like Rain” and “Slippin’ In,” also won Grammys. He began playing bigger halls around the world. His most recent album is titled, almost imploringly, “The Blues Is Alive and Well,” and one of the cuts is “A Few Good Years”:
I been mighty lucky
I travel everywhere
Made a ton of money
Spent it like I don’t care
A few good years
Is all I need right now
Please, please, lord
Send a few good years on down
Guy still performs at least a hundred and thirty nights a year, including a “residency” at his club every January.
Both of his ex-wives and his extended family came for Thanksgiving. Guy did all the cooking. He loves to cook. When I came by late on a Sunday morning, he was in the kitchen making a big pot of gumbo. Much of the animal and vegetable kingdoms simmered in his pot: crab, chicken, pork sausage, sun-dried shrimp, okra, bell pepper, onion, celery.
An enormous jukebox in the den offered selections from pop, gospel, rock, soul. “I listen to everything,” Guy said. “I’ll hear a lick and it’ll grab you—not even blues, necessarily. It might even be from a speaking voice or something from a gospel record, and then I hope I can get it on my guitar. No music is unsatisfying to me. It’s all got something in it. It’s like that gumbo that’s in that kitchen there. You know how many tastes and meats are in there? I see my music as a gumbo. When you hear me play, there’s everything in there, everything I ever heard and stole from.”
As we looked at a row of black-and-white photographs, it was clear that the shadows of Guy’s elders in the blues never leave his mind. “I hope to keep the blues alive and well as long as I am able to play a few notes,” he told me. “I want to keep it so that if you accidentally walk in on me you say, ‘Wow, I don’t hear that on radio anymore.’ I want to keep that alive, and hope it can get picked up and carry it on.
“But who knows?” he continued. “The blues might just fade away. Even jazz, which was so popular when I first got here—all of that disappeared.”