We might not know who Buddy Guy is today if he’d made a phone call in 1958.
And by “we,” I mean, “the world.”
Guy had moved from Baton Rouge to Chicago and things hadn’t gone well.
He was broke, hungry, homeless, and cold.
As he walked the streets one night with his guitar slung over his back, he thought about calling his family and asking for money to buy a train ticket home.
Before Guy could find a payphone, a man asked him if he could play the guitar he was holding.
Guy answered that he could.
“Who in the hell he was, I don’t know,” Guy told the Grand Rapids Press.
The man took Guy to the 708 Club, where he joined Otis Rush onstage and blew everyone away, including Rush.
Upon exiting the club, Guy was accosted by another man.
“All of a sudden, a guy gets out of a red ’58 Chevrolet station wagon, slaps me, and says, ‘I’m the Mud,’” Guy told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. “When I was in Louisiana, they told me, ‘Take care in Chicago, because you might get mugged.’
“My ears were ringin,’ and when I heard him say, ‘I’m the Mud,’ I thought, ‘Uh-oh. This must be what they meant by getting mugged.’”
The man was no mugger. He was blues guitarist Muddy Waters.
A Salami Sandwich
Waters gave Guy a salami sandwich and, thus, his career was launched. Christened with a salami sandwich.
“…I was telling people how hungry I was ’cause I was going on my third day without any food,” he said. “Muddy brought a salami and a loaf of bread over and made me eat it, made me sit down, and took me like a kid and said, ‘This is it, we need you here.’ When they heard me play, that was the end of the road then.”
Guy will perform on October 16 at the Honeywell Center in Wabash.
Despite being noticed by such illustrious musicians, it would take more than 30 years for Guy to become more than an underground sensation.
Setbacks and Success
In the early to mid-1960s, Guy recorded for Leonard Chess at Chess Records despite Chess’ oft-stated aversion to his music.
Guy preferred a loud and dirty style of electrified blues. Chess was not a fan.
“I would turn the amplifier up and get feedback,” he told the Montreal Gazette. “(The label owners) used to run me out of the studio, saying, ‘Get outta here. Don’t nobody want to hear that noise.’”
It wasn’t until young British musicians, mostly white, began copying Guy’s sound and making a lot of money that Chess saw the error of his ways.
“He put on the Cream record and said, ‘You’ve been trying to give us this stuff all your life and we were too dumb to know.’ He bent over and told me to kick him,” Guy said. “I felt like doing it, too.”
Jimi Hendrix came to one of his shows with a tape recorder.
“I didn’t know who he was,” Guy told the Bergen County Record. “My manager kept screaming, ‘That’s Jimi Hendrix!’ and I’m going, ‘Who?’ Then Jimi came up to me and said, ‘I hope you don’t mind. I’ve been stealing licks from you.’ I said, ‘OK, man, I don’t care.’”
Guy said he bears no resentment to British Invasion artists. They acknowledged their influences and brought attention to them.
It wasn’t until Guy released the album Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues in 1991 that he became an international phenomenon in his own right.
Keeping His Head Up
In 1989, Guy opened his own Chicago blues club called Buddy Guy’s Legends as a way of giving some other cold and hungry bluesman a leg up (and, perhaps, a salami sandwich).
“Where’s the next Otis Rush, Muddy Waters, Little Walter goin’ to be heard?” he said. “You don’t go to a town and walk around the streets and knock on doors. We all got discovered in the clubs.
“There are very few blues clubs surviving, and I just want to keep something that Chicago owns,” Guy told the Daily Beast.
“Blues is not being played on the radio anymore. These young people don’t know nothing about it. Why would you want to be like Buddy Guy? My own children didn’t even know who I was until they turned 21 and saw me play. They said, ‘Dad, I didn’t know you could do that.’”
Guy said he nurses no grudges, not toward Leonard Chess or anyone else who has ever underestimated him.
“I learned my lesson from Muddy, Willie Mabon, all of them,” he said. “They were all angry men. Now they’re dead men. If you sit there and say, ‘Leonard Chess screwed me,’ go to his grave and kick it. He’s not going to care.”