July 30 will be bluesman Buddy Guy’s 83rd birthday. I was lucky enough to talk to the legendary singer-guitarist on July 28, 2015 — two days before his 79th birthday. So I figured I’d split the diff and resurrect our interview today. Enjoy.
Buddy Guy was born to play guitar. He still lives to play guitar. And according to him, he may very well die playing guitar. “Blues musicians don’t retire, they drop,” the singer-guitarist jokes down the line from New York City. “Some of ’em drop onstage. I don’t know if I’m gonna die onstage, but wherever I drop, I’ll probably have a guitar close.”
If Guy is feeling the years these days, no wonder. He’s still grieving the recent death of B.B. King — the latest in a line of friends and fellow musicians who have passed away. He’s worried about what those losses mean for the future of the blues, the genre to which he’s devoted his life. And when we spoke, he was two days shy of marking his 79th birthday on July 30 (“They comin’ a little too fast for me now,” he laughs).
All of that plays into his fittingly titled new disc Born to Play Guitar, out July 31. Like most of his recent work, Guy’s 28th album is nostalgic and personal, setting his autobiographical songs and volcanic fretwork against stomping Chicago blues that lets you know the ex-protege of Muddy Waters and partner of Junior Wells is far from losing his edge. Or acting his age.
One day after sitting in with The Roots on The Tonight Show, the multiple Grammy winner — whose soft-spoken humility contrasts with his bigger-than-life public persona — called up to talk about clean living, finding new notes and his love of polka dots. The highlights:
Now that we’ve lost B.B. King, you’re kind of the elder statesman of the blues. Does that make you feel a greater sense of obligation to carry the torch?
Yes it does. I started to feel that way after we lost Muddy and Howlin’ Wolf and Junior Wells. We kind of grew up together as a family. And we knew these days was comin’. We used to talk about who might go first. And we all said that whoever outlived the others had to keep the blues alive. The last words Muddy Waters said to me were, ‘Just make damn sure the blues don’t die.’ And I promised him, and all of them, I would do my best. So I’m left with that load on my shoulders. And it’s up to me to carry it until somebody comes along to take it off of me.
You never seem to stop touring — you’ve played 65 shows already this year. How do you keep it up? Don’t tell me it’s clean living.
You know, it is clean living. When I get tired, I don’t want nothing to drink. And I been quit smoking for almost 30 years. People like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, they was laughing at me. Janis, Jimi, Jerry Garcia, all of them was laughing at me when I would say, ‘I can’t keep up with you guys.’ I would say, ‘I’ve had a few drinks and I saw the most beautiful girls in the world, and now it’s time for me to go to sleep so I can wake up and look at ’em again tomorrow.’
But all the travel must be tough at your age.
Well, I was raised on a farm in Louisiana. And I walked behind a mule from sunup to sundown, like my parents. My dad passed at 56 years old, and my mother was 63. So don’t let nobody tell you hard work is good for you, because if it was, they would still be living. But now, every time I feel tired, I think, ‘How can I complain about a bus ride or a plane ride when my mom and dad worked the field from sunup to sundown and still didn’t have nothing?’ I’m not sleeping outside. I can’t complain about nothing. I’ve been blessed.
Do you feel you’re still learning on the guitar or do you think you’ve got it down?
There ain’t no such thing as getting it down. If you feel like you’ve got it down, you’re going at the world backwards. I can go and hear somebody and I’ll hear a note that makes me say, ‘I’ve been playing the guitar this long and I never found that note.’ So you never get too old to learn. Even though when you get old it’s hard to improve because your brains ain’t what they used to be.
What is the secret to your success?
You know, if you tell somebody you love ’em, you could lie. But if you show somebody you love ’em, you can’t lie. And when I go to the stage, I give you everything I’ve got to the best of my ability. I give you the best of Buddy Guy. And that’s like a good meal; if you eat it and it tastes good, you’re coming back.
Why do you have polka dots on your guitar and your clothes?
When I left Louisiana in 1957, my mother had just had a stroke. And I lied to her so she wouldn’t worry. I said, ‘I’m going to Chicago. I can make a lot more money, and send you more money. And I’m going to buy a polka-dot Cadillac and drive back down here.’ I knew I wasn’t never gonna get no polka-dot Cadillac. And she passed away, and I never got a chance to explain it to her. So I got them to make me a polka-dot guitar so I could always remember her. I owed that to my mother. Now I’m the polka-dot man. And I’ll have them for the rest of my life.