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Buddy Guy

Buddy Guy poses for a portrait to promote the latest installment of the PBS biography series, “American Masters” in 2021 at his blues club Buddy Guy’s Legends in Chicago.

Shafkat Anowar/AP

How blues legend Buddy Guy made his indelible mark on Chicago

The blues legend is cruising into retirement with a headlining set at Chicago Blues Fest this weekend. But his influence on the city, and the genre, is undeniable.

If you happened to be at the corner of Wabash and Balbo at 11 p.m. in early February, you would have seen a small crowd gathered around an 87-year-old man with a beaming smile. Nattily attired in a black fedora and a peach-colored suit, he was bending the strings on his Fender Stratocaster.

“Looking good, Buddy!” a fan called out, as the legendary bluesman stepped back inside his nightclub, Buddy Guy’s Legends. Guy paused at the bar to take a shot and then headed back onto the stage where he continued to deliver joyful, searing and sometimes astonishing noises with his guitar.

“I can tell you what,” Guy told the crowd that night. “I’m giving you everything I’ve f------ got.”

That’s just what Buddy Guy has been doing ever since he arrived in Chicago from his home state of Louisiana on Sept. 25, 1957, a date he has called his “second birthday.” And even though he’ll turn 88 on July 30, Guy — who still calls the Chicago suburbs his home — plays guitar with the energy, enthusiasm and inventiveness of a musician many years younger.

Still, he’s taking a step back from extensive touring. In a big get for the city, Guy will headline the Chicago Blues Festival on Sunday in Millennium Park. But given that he launched a “farewell” tour last year, it could be one of his last big concerts.

“Anyone who has never seen Buddy Guy before, this is the time to do it,” said Brother Jacob, aka Jacob Schulz, a Chicago blues singer and blues history aficionado who hosts a show on the Buddy Guy Radio internet station. “He really puts on a masterclass during his performances, and I think they get better and better every year.”

“He’s a guitar hero,” said Carlos Tortolero, a music programmer for the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. “It was imperative to book him at this stage of his life and his career — to ensure that Chicagoans are afforded at least one more opportunity to see him at the Blues Festival.”

But, Tortolero added: “I don’t think Buddy’s ever going to stop playing.”

‘I thank God my daddy loved the blues’

A child of sharecroppers in the tiny community of Lettsworth, La., George “Buddy” Guy grew up with church hymns and a love of birdsongs, but he didn’t hear any music on a radio or a record player until he was 12 — when his family finally got electricity.

Buddy Guy Postcard

A postcard of Buddy Guy in his youth.

Courtesy of the Chicago Blues Archive

“But our first piece of electrical equipment, a beat-up used phonograph that played 78 records, changed everything,” Guy (who wasn’t available for an interview) recalled in his 2012 autobiography, When I Left Home, written with David Ritz. “I thank God that my daddy loved the blues and wanted to hear music when he came out from the fields. I thank God that my daddy had this one record by John Lee Hooker called ‘Boogie Chillen.’ That’s the record that did it.”

Buddy became obsessed with that 1948 song. He requested it over and over again when musician Henry “Coot” Smith showed up in town with a two-string guitar. “We saw Coot every Christmas,” Guy recalled in a 2012 interview with WBEZ’s Tony Sarabia. “He would go from house to house with the guitar, and they would drink up a gallon of wine and a case of beer. … I sneak in and get his guitar while everybody’s knocked out with the wine and beer and try to figure out what I had saw him doing.”

Guy’s father later paid Coot $4.25 for his guitar, buying Buddy the instrument that would change his life.

‘I don’t know who that is, but hire him’

When Guy got off a train on the South Side in 1957, the 21-year-old hoped to find work as a custodian. He also had a guitar — by now, he’d upgraded to one that actually had six strings — but little hope that he’d be able to make a living as a musician. “I never did find a job, and I got kind of broke,” Guy told Sarabia.

Buddy Guy at Legends circa 1990s

Buddy Guy at Legends circa 1990s.

Courtesy of the Chicago Blues Archive

A passerby saw Guy carrying his guitar on the street one night, he asked him to play. He was so impressed that he took Guy over to a blues club called the 708. “He drug me to this famous club — the building’s still there, 708 E. 47th St.,” Guy recalled in the 2012 interview. “Otis Rush was on the stage. And he called me up and I sang ‘Further On Up the Road’ and I think a Jimmy Reed song. And the club was owned by a white man, and he was on his way out the door and he left word. He said, ‘I don’t know who that is, but hire him.’ ”

Older bluesmen played sitting down, but Guy stood up and walked around his guitar. He gained a reputation for wild performances, making entrances into a club from out on the street via a 150-foot cord that connected his guitar to the amps inside — a trick he’d learned from watching a concert by Guitar Slim in Baton Rouge.

Guy had come to Chicago in the hope of seeing Muddy Waters play the blues. And now Waters was coming to see Guy playing at the 708. When Guy was hungry, Muddy fed him salami as they sat in his cherry-red Chevy station wagon. “He kept feeding me that salami and telling me I could play the guitar,” Guy wrote. “He’d just sit there and smile while I played. That smile was better than the few dollars [708 owner] Ben Gold was giving me.”

Buddy Guy 1990s

Buddy Guy gained a reputation for his lively performances around Chicago.

Courtesy of the Chicago Blues Archive

‘He didn’t so much play the music, he unleashed it’

Guy didn’t have any hit records early in his career, but his live shows attracted much attention — winning him fans as far away as London, where he headlined a show on Feb. 25, 1965, with Rod Stewart and Eric Clapton in the audience.

Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy

Buddy Guy headlined a show in 1965 where he caught the attention of Eric Clapton. Here, they perform together at a benefit concert in 2001 for the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Beth A. Keiser/AP

“When Buddy played the Marquee Club in London in 1965, I saw an amplified bluesman for the first time,” Clapton said in Donald E. Wilcock’s 1993 book, Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues: Buddy Guy and the Blues Roots of Rock-and-Roll. “He was the epitome of it all,” Clapton continued, “and he really changed the course of rock-and-roll and blues. He gave us something to strive for — the way he dressed, the way he moved, the way he expressed himself.”

In Guy’s memoir, the bluesman recalls jamming one night with Jimi Hendrix in New York circa 1967. According to Guy, Hendrix told him, “You’re one of my teachers.”

Meanwhile, Guy was playing guitar as a session sideman for Chicago’s Chess Records, but label owner Leonard Chess saw no value in making records to showcase the noisy, unrestrained electric blues of Guy’s live performances. “They weren’t ready for the feedbacks and the amplifiers turned up,” Guy told WBEZ in 2012.

Later, when rock bands had hit records echoing Guy’s style, Leonard Chess realized he’d been wrong. “He sent Willie Dixon to get me,” Guy said in that 2012 interview. “And he bent over when I got there, said, ‘I want you to kick me behind, because what you’ve been trying to play for us, we thought it was a lot of noise, and it’s booming.’ ”

But by that time, Guy was ready to move on to other record labels. However, it would be years before he found a level of success as a recording artist that came close to matching his stellar reputation and influence as a live performer.

“When I first met Buddy, he … had recently gotten off a tour with the Rolling Stones. And he was back at Theresa’s, playing down in the basement for 75 people,” said Bruce Iglauer, the owner of Chicago’s Alligator Records, which has released two albums by Guy.

As a young man, Iglauer was blown away by seeing Guy perform at Theresa’s Lounge, 4801 S. Indiana Ave. “He didn’t so much play the music as he unleashed it,” recalled Iglauer, who praised Guy’s gospel-tinged tenor vocals as well as his famous guitar playing. “He reached for notes that most mainstream blues guitar players would not think to play. He … does what’s called overbending, where he’ll actually bend the note sharp and then bring it back to where it’s supposed to be, which creates great tension and impact.”

BUDDYGUYTIME-06XX24 3.jpg

Buddy Guy originally opened legends at 754 S. Wabash Ave. in the South Loop; it’s been at 700 S. Wabash Ave. since 2010.

Jim Vondruska/For the Chicago Sun-Times

‘He is Chicago’

Guy finally had a commercial breakthrough with his seventh studio album, 1991’s Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues, which won him a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues LP — the first of nine Grammys he has collected, including one for lifetime achievement. Guy would go on to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and receive the Kennedy Center Honor for his lifetime contribution to American culture.

Meanwhile, he was also making his mark on Chicago as a venue owner. After running the Checkerboard Lounge, 423 E. 43rd St., from 1972 to 1985, Guy opened Legends at 754 S. Wabash Ave. in the South Loop in 1989; since 2010, it’s been located at 700 S. Wabash. Every January, Guy plays a string of a dozen or so concerts at his home venue, drawing legions of his faithful fans.

“Sometimes, when I play his club, he’ll come onstage,” says Chicago blues singer-guitarist Toronzo Cannon (whose new album, Shut Up & Play!, comes out Friday from Alligator Records). “The fact that Buddy Guy remembers me is a gift to me — that I’m doing something right.”

BUDDYTIME-06XX24-6.jpg

Blues artist Toronzo Cannon was inspired by Buddy Guy’s “in-your-face-type blues.”

Peyton Reich/Chicago Sun-Times

When Cannon was starting out as a blues musician in the 1990s, he was inspired by Guy’s guitar playing. “His music was in-your-face-type blues, and that’s what I liked,” Cannon said. “It was whatever was coming out of his soul through his hands.” And the presence of Guy’s venue made him approachable. “The fact that he was that close, where you can actually talk to him, is very cool,” Cannon said.

“Buddy Guy, in my opinion, is an embodiment of Chicago blues,” Brother Jacob said. “I mean, he is Chicago. The number of artists that he’s influenced throughout the years, it’s massive. And he’s still influencing newer artists who are learning about his music and picking things up now.”

Guy’s show at the 2024 Chicago Blues Festival will be the first time he’s played at the festival since it moved from Grant Park’s Petrillo Music Shell to Millennium Park in 2017.

Back in 1989, he played at the fest with Otis Rush, the same musician who’d welcomed him onto the stage for his very first Chicago club performance three decades earlier. At the end, the crowd clamored for more, even as festival officials shut down the event for the night. As Guy left the stage, he talked for a few minutes with Richard Steele of WBEZ, which was broadcasting the festival live.

Buddy Guy - House of Blues

Many musicians have been inspired by Buddy Guy’s live performance style.

Julie Jacobson/AP

“I said, ‘I don’t want to let Chicago down,’ … because Muddy Waters, two weeks before he passed [in 1983], he said, ‘Son, don’t let the blues die,’ ” Guy said.

“I’m self-taught, you know, and some of the things I play, … I feel them,” Guy continued. Then he shared with Steele the instructions he’d given his backing musicians that night.

“I said, ‘If y’all play good, I’ll make ’em holler.’ ” It’s a safe bet that Guy will again make Chicago holler this weekend.

If you go: Buddy Guy headlines the Chicago Blues Festival on Sunday at 7:45 p.m. at Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. The Blues Festival runs through Sunday at Millennium Park (201 E. Randolph St.) and the Ramova Theater (3520 S. Halsted St.). Free.


Robert Loerzel is a journalist based in Chicago.

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