You should know why it’s important to see blues guitarist Buddy Guy perform at the Clyde Theatre without me having to tell you.
Guy is one of the last living Chicago bluesmen — one of the artists whose music helped fuel the British Invasion.
Guy said he is fulfilling a mission given to him by other blues greats, now deceased. The objective: Keep the blues alive.
“We all used to sit down and talk,” Guy told Forbes. “We’d be laughing and drinking over a shot of whiskey, man. We knew one day, one of us was gonna leave the others here. My late friends, Junior Wells, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, all of ’em would say things like that.”
Guy’s stage shows are legendary.
In the early days of his career, the Louisiana-born Guy was “a man who did splits, jumped off amplifiers, played guitar with his teeth, played behind his back, played using drumsticks, played with one hand while taking a drink with the other, kicked over music stands, strolled deep into an audience to do his extended solos, and practically invented rock stagecraft,” according to Dan Duke of The Virginian-Pilot.
Guy, 82, has slowed down a bit, but not as much as you’d think.
He admits that he was plagued by stage fright as a younger person.
“I was so shy as a kid that when the teacher would call me up to recite … they almost had to spank me,” Guy said.
Guy performed his first professional gig with his back to the audience and got fired for it.
Unlike jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, who later performed in a similar position as a way of showing the audience what role they played in the music-making process, Guy was just scared.
Luckily (if problematically), liquid courage came to the rescue.
“Well, a friend gave me a glass of wine, and I been turned around ever since.”
Guy has grown immeasurably in self-confidence since then, but his nightly ritual hasn’t changed.
“When I hit the stage,” he said, “I have to have a glass of wine.”
Guy’s gonzo stage persona came about because he was worried that his playing alone wouldn’t be enough to satisfy patrons.
“I always feel like someone will hate me tonight,” he said. “(I want them to say), ‘I didn’t like him, but he gave me everything he had.’”
Guy’s endangered musical species status was brought home to him when his friend and collaborator, B.B. King, died in 2015.
“When B.B. passed away,” he told the Chicago Tribune, “I kind of woke up and said, ‘I’m the last one here.’ It’s a little scary.”
A song that the men performed together makes Guy feel like King isn’t too far away.
“B.B. King and I did a kind of gospel song called ‘Stay Around a Little Longer,’” Guy said. “As the record was closing out, he said, ‘When I’m pushing up daisies don’t forget, you’re still my buddy… .’”
Whenever interviewers want to discuss Guy’s influence on modern music, Guy tends to steer the discussion to King’s influence on modern music.
“I could talk to you for six months on B.B. King,” Guy told the Montgomery Adviser. “B.B. King sent the price of a guitar, an acoustic guitar, from $5.95 to ... hundreds,” Guy said.
“I’m talking about five dollars and ninety-five cents, you could order through a catalog. And when he made ‘Three O’Clock in the Morning,’ the price of a guitar went so you almost had to buy it like you buy a car, on time, if you wasn’t making any more than I was making on that farm.”
One magazine had King in the fourth or fifth slot of the top 100 guitar players and Guy said that isn’t right.
“He should be one for a long time,” he said. “Because I don’t care what rock guitarist you find squeezing those strings with all of those special effects, punching buttons and getting all these different tones, (King) was shaking his wrist and getting all of the tones before we knew what it was all about.”
King kept performing until the very end, he said, even though his health struggles sometimes affected his performances.
Guy said he shares King’s drive and commitment to entertaining, but he also worries about a day when he can no longer do everything he thinks he should do on stage.
“You owe people the best that you got,” he said. “If I keep living and can’t produce enough to make somebody happy, then I’ll begin to feel that I’m not giving you your money’s worth. So that’s crossed my mind. But people look at you as you get like that and say, ‘I don’t care, I just want to see you play the guitar.’”
Guy never uses a set list because he wants to play what audiences want to hear.
“My eyes and ears are open when I go to the stage and play because that’s why I come to play, for the audience who thinks enough of me to come out and listen to me,” he said.