A friend of mine once asked me what the biggest difference between Buddy Guy and Jimi Hendrix was.
My answer: &quot;A plane ticket.&quot;
At Chess, you played by the rules if you wanted to work. Maybe it was that way at every American label. All the new and experimental recording techniques were coming out of London at that time. Leonard Chess wasn't looking for any innovators, just sales. A bull headed entrepreneur who gave the public what they wanted and paid his artists whatever he thought was their fair share. It was the only place in town for black musicians to strut their stuff. They got you out there and kept you there. As the world changed around it...it didn't. In spite of Chess' rigid, non-artistic outlook on the music business, the label spawned more music innovators in a short time than probably any other label in history.
When you think on Hubert Sumlin, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Rogers, Little Walter, Howlin' Wolf, Willie Dixon and of course, Buddy Guy all in the same room at one time, it's hard to believe somebody ain't making it up. Like some condensed version of history to make it all fit into a two-hour movie. But facts are facts. All you have to do is read a personnel list on any given song from those early Chi-town blues years to let you know that what was...was. But being black in America was neither a selling point nor a novelty in the early sixties, and certainly not exotic, the way Hendrix must have seemed to a waiting, jungle fevered London blues scene.
I've opened for Buddy a few times over the years, including at his club, Legends, during his annual three week long January marathon of gigs he stages every year. I'd play my set and then watch him rip through his take-no-prisoners show. The thing about Buddy that's different from most musicians young or old is his willingness to go out on the limb at every show I've ever seen. He digs the uncharted waters, no matter how treacherous and is willing to fall flat on his face, just as long as some new unexpected musical moment happens. I've seen him stop a song dead in its tracks and start another one the minute he feels it ain't getting him there. Nothing pat about his shows. This ain't no by-the-numbers blues review. And when he finds that shining moment, all of us along for the ride start purring like kittens. The other thing I've noticed is the wild emotional ride he takes himself on while he's playing. The anger, the evil, love, joy, sadness and sex are all right up there in plain view. It actually has scared me a couple of times. Almost like staring into the eyes of a killer. There's no mistaking it when you see it. Too much truth. He'd make a lousy lawyer.
So it was with some anxiety that I committed to having Buddy appear on my bi-weekly radio show on XRT called The Eclectic Company. I wasn't sure which Buddy I was going to get. The possessed gunslinger? The soul shouter? The quiet, shy Buddy? Then there was the aspect of performing a couple of songs together on the air. Would he rip me a new one? For some reason all this stuff swam through my mind the night before the taping. Realizing I hadn't picked up my Dobro in a while I decided to spend a little time before bed warming up my hands and soul so that tomorrow I wouldn't have to introduce myself to my own guitar. My son was playing his guitar in the other room, so I decided to invite him in and teach him how to play the blues, as I needed someone to play off of, unaware of the rare poetry this moment would resonate just ten hours later when the next person I'd be dueting with was Buddy Guy.
I showed up at 9:45 in the morning at the station, fifteen minutes before the very prompt Mr. Guy walked through the door. As it turned out, all my worries were for naught. Buddy was as kind and polite a man as anyone I've ever talked to. His life was an open book full of insider stories on those early days of Chicago blues as well as his growing up in the poor and often cruel South of the last mid-century. This is neither a man basking in his own good fortune of recent years nor a bitter warrior of the unheralded past. He is the last great ambassador of a historic time and place in our American history and has accepted the role of setting the record straight with truth and generosity. His stories were funny, tough, to the point, and sometimes a little sad.
We spoke on Little Walter for a while after playing one of his early Chess sides. Buddy recalled how before Walter, no one had ever electrified a harmonica and had made it wail and cry like him. How he had single handedly changed the instrument forever. At this point in the conversation Buddy's voice was filled with emotion. He went on to say that it seemed a crime that the Hohner Company (harmonica maker) had never made a harp under his name or acknowledged his contribution to the instrument at all. At this point, I realized if I didn't change the subject soon Buddy would probably burst into tears, so we moved on. As our conversations continued, I began to realize how tough it is to be in Buddy's position. He's more like a widower than a conqueror. You can hear the sadness in his voice when he speaks on a musician from his past that couldn't hang on long enough to finally get the recognition they deserved. So few colleagues left. So few conversations now that a nod or a wink will suffice. No more inside jokes amongst fellow travelers. Just prot&eacute;g&eacute;s like myself, waiting and hanging on every word.
We played a couple numbers together and in his true gentlemanly form, Buddy gave me the solos. Dig that!
In closing, I thanked Buddy for being my guest on the show. I told him that my birthday was in a couple of days and that this was the best present a boy ever had. He asked me how old I was going to be. &quot;Forty-six,&quot; I said. He said that when he was out with Muddy back in the day, he was the young one. On his birthdays the old guys would ask him how old he was and he would tell them. He then said to me, &quot;Now I'm going to tell you what they used to tell me: Forty-six? You're still wet behind the ears.&quot;
(The Eclectic Company radio show with Buddy Guy can be heard at 10pm on Tuesday, January 10th on 93.1, WXRT or streamed at 93xrt.com)