Buddy Guy’s new release, Rhythm & Blues, is a rarity in an era where EPs and singles are becoming popular formats to release new music. It’s a double album, 21 all-new tracks deep.
Guy and his producer Tom Hambridge didn’t go into the project expecting it to have such an epic output of music. Guy says he and Hambridge were excited about the material and just kept recording, ending up with well over what would fit on a single LP. Though they believed in all of the tracks, they weren’t so sure the idea of a double album would fly with Guy’s label, RCA Records.
“I was going to meet the top guy from RCA and I’m thinking he’s going to give me a pink slip,” says Guy.
Guy says he thought RCA would accept just a single album and have him hold some of the other tracks for a future album. Instead, RCA signed off on the double album.
“I’m like saying, ‘Oh, thank god,’ ” Guy says. “I can’t wait to see what’s going to happen. If we can get a little airplay, hopefully I can sell more CDs and keep the Blues alive a little longer.”
Introducing the Blues to more fans and breathing life into the genre is a topic that Guy brings up several times during our interview. It’s a mission he has (consciously) been trying to fulfill for more than two decades now.
“I’ve dedicated my life to the music,” he says. “The late Muddy Waters, Little Walter, the late Junior Wells, I could go on and on … we used to sit down and talk and be having a shot of wine or a shot of whiskey, and we would be joking and laughing about it. ‘If I leave here before you do, you had better not let that goddam Blues die.’
“Muddy Waters, he didn’t let me or a lot of us know that he had cancer,” Guy continues. “I kind of got it from the grapevine. And Junior Wells and I were in a little club, the Checkerboard Lounge (in Chicago), and I said, ‘Man, we’ve got to go out there and see him.
Let’s call him and see.’ We rang him up and he cursed us out and said ‘I ain’t sick, just don’t let the Blues die.’ I remember that precisely.”
A week later, Waters died. Guy continues to do his part to stay true to the pact.
Guy may be 77 now, but he doesn’t act anywhere near his age. He’s energetic and passionate about Blues and is doing more shows this year than many musicians half his age. Guy and longtime friend B.B. King, though, are among the last of the major Blues stars from the post-World War II wave of Blues artists still alive and working regularly.
A native of Louisiana, Guy began his career in earnest when he moved to Chicago in 1957. There he was signed by the legendary Chess Records, home to the likes of Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Little Walter.
Already an accomplished guitarist, Guy was recruited to play on numerous albums by the label’s leading artists, but struggled to get label co-owner Leonard Chess to embrace the high-charged, hard-edged type of Blues he wanted to record.
Guy’s tenure with Chess ended in 1967, when he moved to Vanguard Records. But he went through the ’80s without a record deal. He was eventually signed by Silvertone Records, which released the Grammy-winning 1991 comeback album, Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues. He has recorded regularly ever since.
Guy may be enjoying some of his greatest popularity now, but he sees the future of Blues being less certain than it perhaps has ever been. He feels one of the big challenges facing the genre is the lack of radio play.
“The radio stations have almost completely quit playing Blues, man,” Guy says. “It’s not like it was in the ’50s. There weren’t as many guitar players. If you played two or three good licks, somebody knew about you and we had all of the AM stations and the disc jockey could play what he wanted. You could take him a demo of something and he would play it. Well, you don’t get that now (for) Blues.”
Blues artists also don’t have the extensive network of Blues clubs that once existed.
“In the early days we had the little Blues clubs all over the country and in Europe, where you could go and hopefully be seen and make a little name for yourself,” Guy says. “In the last 20 years, 30 years, all of those small Blues clubs have disappeared.”
Guy is doing his part to keep the Blues going by touring extensively and bringing his music directly to the people. He also makes a point of touting young Blues talents, talking up Gary Clark Jr., who guests on the song “Blues Don’t Care” from Rhythm & Blues, and a 14-year-old guitar phenom, Quinn Sullivan, whom he first saw play when Sullivan was just 9.
Those who see Guy’s energetic live show might get excited enough about the Blues to check out other Blues artists of the present and past. Guy tries to cater to his audiences from night to night by not working from a set list.
“I go to the stage and you can hear people,” Guy says. “They’ll call out a song, I’ll look at my band and say, ‘Let’s do it.’ That’s why I’m here. That’s why this particular fan came to hear me.”
“I listen to the audience,” he continues. “I’m going to give you the best that I got, whatever I do.”
BUDDY GUY performs Friday at Riverbend’s PNC Pavilion with George Thorogood & the Destroyers.