It’s one thing to marvel at the magnitude of an IMAX-size Rolling Stones in Martin Scorsese’s recent concert documentary, “Shine a Light.” But you’re dealing with an altogether more fearsome beast when Buddy Guy walks on, digs into Muddy Waters’ “Champagne and Reefer” and makes the ageless Stones sound more dangerous than they have in years.
For Guy, one of the last of the great Chicago bluesmen to electrify the rural Southern music of his youth in the late 1950s and `60s, such company is hardly new. He has long been championed by scores of rock pioneers, especially guitarists. The Stones picked up on him over 40 years ago. So did Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. A host of British players often outnumbered the American blues artists who were sometimes less than generous in acknowledging Guy’s influence - although Texas guitar star Stevie Ray Vaughan was a major exception.
But in conversation, Guy is as inward as his performance persona is extroverted.
He quietly, almost shyly, confessed he hasn’t seen “Shine a Light” but added that if the Stones and the audiences who see Scorsese’s film are pleased, then his job is complete.
“I never watch Buddy Guy,” said Guy. “That’s because I can’t learn nothing if I do. Now, I might be watching Mick (Jagger) and Keith (Richards) to see if I can steal some licks.
“When I came up, there were no Stones. There was no Clapton or people like that. I got what I do from Lightnin’ Hopkins and B.B. King. But I guess it’s the same thing. It’s just a hand-me-down. The British guys were listening to me while I was listening to B.B.”
At age 71, Guy is one of the few heralded bluesmen to live and work long enough to experience the fruits of his inspiration upon a subsequent generation.
But it almost didn’t work out that way.
After moving to Chicago in 1957 from his native Louisiana, Guy fell in with other bluesmen who had migrated from the South. Among them: Waters, Magic Sam and Otis Rush.
As the `60s progressed into the psychedelic era, Guy’s music - a mix of thick, jagged guitar frenzy and earth-shaking vocals that seemed as accepting of revivalistic gospel as of the blues - proved a major hit with the rock stylists of the day on both sides of the Atlantic.
But when he recorded for Chicago’s famed label Chess Records, Guy’s career was stymied.
Though Guy’s performance style had become more brazen and rockish, label chief Leonard Chess favored a more tempered blues sound from his artists and was said to have dismissed much of Guy’s music as “noise.”
Guy was signed to Chess Records for seven years.
Though he cut many singles there, he was allowed to issue only one album, 1967’s “Left My Blues in San Francisco.”
“These other blues guys like (Mississippi pianist) Eddie Boyd were so mad at Leonard Chess,” Guy recalled. “I remember telling Eddie, `Man, you’re madder than a dead man.’
“I mean, after Leonard died, what was I supposed to do? Go to his grave and say, `Leonard, you’re the cause of me not being who I want to be. I couldn’t get my music across because you wouldn’t let me record.’ I don’t think he would have heard me because he was dead and buried.”
The career renaissance - the payback, if you will - didn’t come until 1991. That’s when a comeback record hit stores with cameos by Clapton, Beck and Mark Knopfler and a title that seemed to summarize Guy’s professional life and times: “Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues.”
Today, what resonates most on the album, as well as on other `90s recordings that followed isn’t so much the guitar work. After all, Guy has yet to make a studio record that fully captures his volcanic performance sound.
No, what leaps out at you is his singing. Guy possesses a vocal style that has long and undeservedly played second fiddle to his instrumental prowess.
In short, his voice emits a collar-grabbing, soul-saturated, gospel fervent authority that is downright frightening.
“I grew up on a farm. We didn’t know what instruments were. Music was all in the voice. If you’re old enough to remember all the spiritual groups back then, like the first Five Blind Boys of Alabama, you’ll know that they didn’t have any instruments. These were guys with voices that sounded like instruments.
“Now I appreciate what you’re saying. But I don’t compare myself as a singer up there with B.B. or (Mississippi blues-R&B stylist) Little Milton. Those guys could just stand there and make you listen when they sing. Buddy Guy has to jump, shout and run out into the audience before I can get some attention. So I try to make my guitar and my voice coordinate and then just try to make people happy. That’s all I do.”
Honestly - and often, severely - humble about his talents, Guy is showing no signs of slowing down in 2008.
In July, just after his 72nd birthday, he will release a new album called “Skin Deep” that will consist predominantly of original music co-written with Nashville songsmith Tom Hambridge
“There’s a lyric on the new CD that sums up how I feel: `I know I’m not the best in town. I just try to be the best until the best comes around.’
“You see, nobody knows the real, true way the blues came about. We speculate about who did what, but who knows? We just took a little bit from here and there and, all of sudden, we all had our own thing. You appreciate it when somebody says something nice about what you do. But you just have to accept that and then move on, because, in the end, you still have to go out there and prove you can play a few licks.”