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The blues has always been a music form that’s found its proponents having a healthy respect of its roots and history, particularly with younger musicians being sure to pay homage to the elder statesman of the genre.
Many of those musical pillars have become names in a history book, be it Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf or the three Kings — Albert, Freddie and most recently, B.B., who passed away on May 14, 2015, at the age of 89.
And now Buddy Guy celebrated his 85th birthday last July 30. He remains one of the last pillars of the rich Chicago blues music scene that had the storied Chess Records as a cornerstone, and clubs providing a stage for yesteryear talents like Otis Rush, Magic Sam, Little Walter, Willie Dixon and Waters and Wolf.
To that end, last year PBS recognized Guy’s impact by releasing the documentary “Buddy Guy: The Blues Chase the Blues Away,” as part of the American Masters series.
And while Guy might be expected to enjoy his golden years kicking back, he’s instead embarking on a busy 2022 tour schedule — pandemic numbers and social distancing regulations permitting. He’s slated to play the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids on June 16.
But it’s all secondary to promoting the blues for this musical icon who was more than happy to participate in this project about his life and his first love — the blues.
“The way they treat the blues now, you don’t hear it on your big radio stations anymore,” he said in a recent phone interview. “Your big AM/FM stations don’t play blues hardly anymore. So whatever little I can do to help keep blues alive, I’m open for it. I’m ready to wake up in the midnight hours of the night to help keep it alive because without satellite radio, I don’t think you hear much of B.B. King no more.”
Throughout the hour and 23 minutes of this American Masters episode, Guy’s life proves to be a fascinating tale. The filmmakers trace the guitarist from his origins working the Louisiana fields his sharecropping family plowed, to the thriving 1950s Chicago music scene he arrived in with nothing but a guitar in his hand and the suit on his back. It was here that he got his first break, when Waters took the 21-year-old fret-bender under his wing.
“I hadn’t eaten in three days and a guy took me to the 708, a famous blues club on 47th Street in Chicago,” Guy recalled. “I went up and played a number with the late Otis Rush and somebody called Muddy Waters, who was living about five blocks away. He got out of his van and because he heard I was telling people how hungry I was, he brought me a bologna sandwich.”
Word of Guy’s guitar prowess got around, and after a brief stint recording a few sides for Cobra Records, Guy landed at Chess courtesy of Waters, who favored the young musician.
Soon he became an in-demand session player for the label’s stable of artists, while his tasty playing and over-the-top showmanship made him a favorite of Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton, as well as stateside guitar god Jimi Hendrix.
And while Guy’s personality is one of humility, he’s quick to acknowledge his abilities as well, particularly when asked what he thought about Hendrix the first time they met in 1968.
“You should ask what he thought of me, because he told me he came from a gig to come see me play because he’d picked up some things from me,” Guy said with a chuckle.
While blues may have fallen out of favor in the ’70s and ’80s, Guy experienced a comeback in the ’90s, beginning with the release of his 1991 album, “Damn Right, I Got the Blues,” his first recording in nearly a decade. Featuring cameos by Clapton, Beck and Mark Knopfler, the album is credited with kick-starting a blues rebirth.
Guy has released a steady stream of albums since then, won eight Grammy Awards, earned a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction and played for fellow Chicagoan, President Barack Obama.
Having never stopped touring, even during his lean years, Guy remains a regular presence on the road. And while he’s slowed down in recent years, his fire for playing guitar and spreading the blues gospel hasn’t waned. Following on the heels of the PBS film is “The Torch,” a documentary that dropped in March. It examines the guitarist’s ongoing influence on the blues and includes interviews with a number of musicians, including Carlos Santana and Susan Tedeschi.
As for what folks can expect from this living legend on the live stage, Guy promises prime rib in a world of Spam.
“Folks can expect the best that I got,” he said. “My dad told me this and I’ll tell you the same thing he told me before I learned how to play, when I was driving the tractor and plowing the fields in Louisiana. He said, ‘Son, don’t be the best in town. Just be the best until the best come around.’ ”