Buddy Guy takes nothing for granted. Never has. He knows the distance between where he started and a 2012 show with B.B. King and Mick Jagger in front of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle.
As he says, “It’s a long way from picking cotton in Lettsworth [Louisiana] to picking guitar at the White House.”
His memories of growing up in a house that had no indoor plumbing are still vivid at 78 years old, including the time he made his first guitar out of window screen wire and tin cans.
He knows how much had to happen before he came along, too, which may be why he won’t take credit for his six Grammys and, most recently, his Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award, which he received in February, ahead of his show at Sunset Center Friday, April 3.
“I got quite a few awards that I’m very proud of, but when I get them I look up to the good lord above and say, ‘Thank you, but this is not my award,’” Guy explains in a gravely voice. “‘This award belongs to Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, [Mississippi] Fred McDowell and all those people I learned something from.’
“I learned so much from those guys. I didn’t learn how to play nothing in school. Muddy took me under his wing.”
That education came in the early ’60s, when he worked as an in-house session guitarist at the Chess Records recording studio.
“I got a chance to play with Muddy, Wolf, Little Walter,” he says. “It was heaven to me. I share all my awards with the ones up in [heaven], and when my day comes, I hope I can get up there and play with them again.”
While Guy may not be interested in getting credit, he certainly deserves it for bridging the once-sizable gap between blues and rock-and-roll. In his 2012 autobiography When I Left Home: My Story, he credits some of his earliest influences, including Lightnin’ Hopkins, B.B. King and Lightnin’ Slim, who inspired him to fuse showmanship and technical prowess.
The late-great Stevie Ray Vaughan explained it best: “Guy plays from a place that I’ve never heard anyone play. Buddy can go from one end of the spectrum to another. He can play quieter than anybody I’ve ever heard, or wilder and louder than anybody I’ve ever heard.” Vaughan reportedly added his own bit of musical chronology, saying, “There wouldn’t have ever been a Stevie Ray Vaughan without Guy.”
There also may have never been a Hendrix, a Clapton or a Page. While Muddy is known for electrifying the blues, Guy took the amplified art into experimental territory, employing feedback, heavy string-bending, fuzz and aggressive single-note solos that screamed rock and roll from a mountaintop high above a still-recognizable bedrock of traditional W.C. Handy 12-bar blues.
“Buddy Guy was to me what Elvis was for others,” Eric Clapton told Musician magazine in 1985. “He changed the course of rock-and-roll blues.”
Guy brings up one day in particular as a defining moment for him, and eventually for music history: Sept. 22, 1957, the day he took a bus from Baton Rouge and landed on Chicago’s famed West Side.
Praise, honors and notoriety followed, though it didn’t motivate Guy much.
“If I play a note that makes someone smile, I always think to myself, ‘I made you forget your problems for a minute.’ That’s what keeps me going, man,” he says.
Guy says he feels that way because of how he was raised: to love everybody, whether they loved him back or not.
“My parents told me that, day after day, and I found out that they was telling me the truth,” he says. “When I started playing music I found out that if I hit some pretty good notes, I can make you smile even if you don’t like me.”
He has an arsenal of stories that summon more smiles. When he first came to Chicago, he noticed the blues musicians had a whole other way of talking to each other.
“Everyone called each other some of the most profane names that ever walked, and I wasn’t used to it,” he says. “Someone would yell, ‘Hey you, [mother fucker],’ from the studio’s engineering room.”
Guy would look around the room, confused, until someone tapped him on his shoulder and said, “I’m talking to you, MF.”
“Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf would walk into the bar and say ‘hello MF,’ never ‘hello Buddy.’”
The nicknaming marks one Muddy habit that Guy hasn’t carried on. Mentoring young guitar phenoms, though, is a tradition he has happily kept intact.
“What Muddy did for me, I think I owe to the next young players that are coming up,” he says.
Quinn Sullivan, now 16, is a rising blues guitar protege and one of several kids Guy’s worked with over the years. Guy is also known for putting new guitars in the hands of underprivileged kids.
In that capacity he likes to pass on his favorite piece of advice to the youngsters, something his parents used to tell him as a kid: “Don’t be the best in town, just be the best until the best come around.”
Guy’s still waiting.
BUDDY GUY and DANIELLE NICOLE BAND 8pm Friday, April 3. Sunset Center, San Carlos at Ninth, Carmel. $59-$79. 620-2048