Buddy Guy Opens Up About The Blues And His Decades-Long Friendship With Mick Jagger And Keith Richards

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Listen To This Eddie is a weekly column that examines the important people and events in the classic rock canon and how they continue to impact the world of popular music.

The first time I saw the Rolling Stones live and in-person was back in 2015 on their Zip Code tour. They skipped Chicago for that particular run — they had sold out the United Center three times over just a couple years earlier — and chose to play Summerfest up in Milwaukee instead. Being the massive fan I am, I was more than happy to make the drive up North to witness the spectacle of the self-proclaimed “The World’s Greatest Rock & Roll Band” in the flesh. Elsewhere on this particular tour, the Stones hosted a variety of divergent opening acts, from established draws like Ed Sheeran, Brad Paisley and Kid Rock to buzzed-about artists like Gary Clark Jr. and Grace Potter. For the Milwaukee show however, they brought out an old friend: Chicago blues legend Buddy Guy.

Where some of those other names on the itinerary may have been awed by the opportunity to share a stage with one of the biggest bands in music history, Guy took the gig in stride. The 78-year old f*cking owned the stage, ripping off savage guitar solos over all-time blues classics like “Damn Right, I’ve Got The Blues,” and “Five Years Long.” Later, when the Stones brought out the elder statesmen in the middle of their set to cover Muddy Waters’ immortal “Champagne And Reefer” — a number he played with them before on the Martin Scorsese-directed documentary Shine A Light — he all but stole the show, while playing circles around guitarist Ronnie Wood.

All that’s to say, Guy has a long and affectionate history with the Stones, one that stretches back to the early 1960’s, long before Mick whined about not getting any “Satisfaction.” So, it made all the sense in the world that he’d nab two of the members of that group to guest on his latest solo album, the wild and defiant, The Blues Is Alive And Well. Mick shows up, harmonica in hand, on the slow and simmering “You Did The Crime,” while Keith Richards goes toe-to-toe, not just with Guy, but also with one of the greatest guitar virtuosos the world has ever known, a dude by the name of Jeff Beck, on the explosive “Cognac.”

At 81-years old, it might be easy for the uninterested to dismiss Guy as a museum piece. The last living link to the storied history of Chess Records, and the original Chicago blues scene. This would be an egregious, unforgivable mistake. Despite his age, or maybe because of it, Guy is overflowing with piss and vinegar. His latest album finds the guitarist in a feisty mood, letting loose with fiery solo lines, and energetic vocals, many of which plumb deep topics like the inevitability of death — “A Few Good Years” — while others toast to the simple pleasures in life like a fine drink on “Whiskey For Sale.”

Recently I had the chance to talk to Guy about his new record, his long history with the Rolling Stones, and his everlasting affection for his father figure and guide through the Chicago blues, Muddy Waters.

Hey Buddy, how are you doing?

Oh, for an old fella I’m not gonna holler because, like I tell everybody, if I holler ain’t nobody gonna listen to me no way, so other than that I’m fine. How about you?

I’m doing fantastic, thank you for asking!

Well, alright.

So, you have a new album coming out that you called The Blues Is Alive And Well, and I’m curious to know if you think that’s true? Is the blues alive and well?

Well, as long as I’m around, that’s what I have to say. I’m working with some young people as I find them, which is very slim, but things don’t look good for blues now, because they do not play blues on your big FM stations. Before B.B. King died, I tried to figure out, did he know why they don’t play it no more? When we had all the AM stations you could take them a demo tape and the disc jockey would play it. And he didn’t have a program director speaking all over the country telling you what to play and what you better not play.

On the cover of your album you’re standing in front of a sign from Lettsworth, Louisiana, and I’m curious to know if you could tell me about what it was like to grow up there?

First of all, I didn’t have much choice. I was born and raised there [Laughs]. Matter of fact I was down there three days ago. I had to show my older sister, she stills lives down there near Baton Rouge, that sign. That sign and that house right beside it was a big grocery store. The Commodity Store. That’s where my dad would buy sacks of flour and stuff like that. But it was on the farm. My parents were sharecroppers. They eat to live and live to eat. My mother and father ain’t know what a bank even was. If you had five dollars you put it under the pillowcase on the bed and you could leave your door open for a month and ain’t nobody go into that house and take it. If they did, the neighbor a mile away would come up and tell you who did it.

On this album you got appearances from both Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. How did that process come together?

To be honest with you, they didn’t come to the studio to do that with me. If I put a track down, a producer might come in and take it to them, or they’ll come in when they have time. I do it all the time. As a matter of fact, I’m more comfortable doing that after hearing someone singing than doing it live, recording in the studio, because I can concentrate more.

Can you recall the first time you met the Stones?

They met me and they wasn’t famous! The first time I was in the studio — I think it was 1962 or maybe ’61 — I was doing a record called My Time After A While and the Stones came to Chess Records to do a demo. Muddy Waters had to help them bring their instruments upstairs… and they brought them in the studio and I’m fitting to get made because I’m saying like, ‘Man, I don’t want nobody in the studio now, I’m recording!’ Then they lined them up against the wall and I come to find out it was the Rolling Stones.

Jeff Beck is another acclaimed British guitar player on your album. Can you talk about what he does as a musician that sets him apart from other people?

I’ve been trying to figure that out ever since I met him man. I don’t know what the hell he do man, but he picks the hell out his guitar and he just got something. Him and Jimi Hendrix are just so creative man, I can hardly even explain what that is. But every time we have a conversation, he brings up the time he slept in a van to come see me play [when I visited England in 1965].

Can you talk about your relationship with the Fender Stratocaster? What drew you to that particular guitar in the first place?

One of the greatest clowns in guitar-playing history was Guitar Slim. I saw him with that and it was the first time I ever saw one. He played in New Orleans and made that big record “The Things I Used To Do” with Ray Charles. Ray Charles made all the arrangements and played that record for hire, and if you listen to it at the end of the song, you hear somebody say, “Yeah!” That’s Ray Charles.

You have a club in Chicago, Buddy Guy’s Legends Club, and it’s one of the few places in the city that pays homage to the city’s blues history. If you go to the South Side, Muddy Waters house is there, but it isn’t preserved at all. In fact, it’s pretty torn up. Do you think Chicago needs to do more to honor the legacy of the blues that was born there?

I’m working my butt off every day to get something off the ground. We finally got some answers the other day about a museum here, because Chicago should have had one before anybody else. When I went to the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame and came back, the Mayor asked me down to city hall to ask about it and said, ‘They should’ve put it on wheels and rolled it here.” And I said, “No, ya’ll should got have got it here in the first damn place!” Cleveland didn’t have the kind of musicians that Chicago came up with. Chicago came up with some of the greatest musicians that ever played. When I got here it was Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Jimmy Reed, Jimmy Rogers, Junior Wells, Otis Rush; I mean, everybody was here. They have a statue in Austin, Texas of Stevie Ray Vaughan man, and I had to raise hell for them to say something about Muddy Waters. Muddy Waters and Wolf and them made the Chicago blues what it is today.

Can you talk about Muddy and what he was like? What is your most vivid memory of him?

He would take a young person in like his own child. When I left Louisiana, they said, ‘Man, you’re going to Chicago? It’s not like Louisiana. You can’t sleep with your doors open. You gotta be careful cause you’ll get mugged.’ So I got busted and I was trying to get back home, but I didn’t want to call my mother because when I left she had a stroke, and I knew she’d faint if I tell her I got broke and didn’t have no money. So, I walked in this club and I played “Things I Used To Do,” and I come offstage and people was just romping like ‘Who was that?!’ And I kept telling ’em, ‘I’m just hungry.’ And a guy said, ‘Ain’t no such thing as you hungry and can play like that, somebody call Muddy!’ His house was at 43rd and Lake Park, and I was living at 4625 Lake Park, and the club was on 47th Street.

So, he got outta bed and into a red, 1958 Chevrolet station wagon — ain’t no way in the world I could forget that! — and when I walked out the club with my guitar, somebody pointed me out to him and all of a sudden I had a slap up on my ear and my ears was ringing. And all the fans standing out there was saying, ‘Oh, that’s the Mud!’ And with my ears ringing I thought, ‘Oh shit, I’m getting mugged! [Laughs]. So he said, ‘I’m Muddy Waters, I heard you were hungry.’ And I said, ‘Shit, if you Muddy, I ain’t hungry no more.’

You have this new album out, you’re constantly touring, you’re constantly at your club. How do you find the stamina and the drive to keep going?

I’m gonna be as honest with you as I can: I take a double shot of cognac and look out there and see a good-looking woman, I can play all night.

Well, I think that’s as good a place to leave it as any. Thanks for your time, and I have to say, you still play like a motherf*cker.

I like that, thank you so much.