There is a point deep in the fiery funk of 'Best Damn Fool,' the lead-off song on Buddy Guy's new album, when he spontaneously pays tribute to one of the blues forefathers.
It's the perfect moment, one that bridges a key point in the music's history with the purely contemporary sound of an artist who still plays with urgent enough passion to secure Grammy nominations.
Just as he's ready to dig into the song's last guitar coda, you can hear Guy deep in the mix say, 'This is how Muddy did it.' And then his Strat emits a series of slurred runs that mimic one of Muddy Waters' signature sounds, a combination of pure emotion and technical prowess.
Along with B.B. King, Guy is one of the only living bluesmen who has the authority to call on Waters spirit as the bridge between the blues past and its present. When Guy came up from Louisiana 50-some years ago to try and make it as a musician, Muddy Waters took it upon himself to help out the young, inexperienced and literally, hungry, musician.
'I was on my third day without food and that's when Muddy Waters gave me a salami sandwich,' Guy said in a phone interview, noting that Waters found him forlorn and slapped him upside the head by way of introducing himself.
His willingness to help out a younger musician helps explain why Guy has long played with, and taught, artists like Eric Clapton (who has said he considers Guy one of his favorite guitarists), Derek Trucks and Robert Randolph. All of them play on Guy's latest disc, the exceptional, Grammy nominated 'Skin Deep.'
'That is one of the things that will carry you the rest of your life, and by the time [Waters] died he was one of my best friends.'
He spontaneously imitated the noise his mentor used to make on stage to when he launched that run on 'Best Damn Fool.'
'He used to blow his lip like that, bllurrrrr,' Guy said, laughing.
In an early-morning phone call, the 72-year-old is friendly and animated, his voice still carrying a Louisiana lilt. On a tour that will bring him to the Stranahan Theater Thursday, Guy said more than a few times that his goal is simply to spread the gospel of the blues.
His message is generous and, like the title track of his new album, one of inclusion. The song is based on a childhood friend, a white boy Guy played with on hot summer days and nights. He said they would hold a light to their skin at night and see the color of the blood running through their veins. In the segregated South, they had been told that there was 'black blood' and 'white blood,' he said.
'You can see the red blood in both hands. He used to look at me and I'd look at him and I'd say, Why they tell me you have white blood? It's all red,'' Guy said. 'We knew better.'
Then one day when they were about 11 or 12, his friend stopped coming over. For a long time, Guy thought that he'd done something to anger him. Years later, the man caught the guitarist at a show when he was in Louisiana and told Guy that his parents had forbidden him from playing with a black boy, and he had lived with that shame and wanted to apologize.
Guy said they both cried, and now they have a pact whenever he plays Louisiana that involves sharing a bottle of spirits.
'Every time I go through town he shows up and makes sure he drinks out of the same bottle as me because we didn't used to be able to drink out of the same fountain.'
When he went to Chicago in 1957, Guy was in his early 20s and had been playing around Baton Rouge. He was quickly adopted by the established Chicago bluesmen Magic Sam, Waters, Freddy King and from 1960 to 1967 he was on the influential Chess label, where he carved out his early reputation as both a guitar gunslinger and a showman.
He remembers seeing B.B. King for the first time and being moved by his technique and emotion. At the same time, Magic Sam blew him away by making a dramatic entrance into the club already playing, thanks to a 150-foot guitar chord.
'I used to walk into clubs in Chicago and I knew I couldn't play as well as these guys,' Guy said. 'B.B. wasn't a showman, he didn't have to be. The first time I saw B.B. King and he came up on stage, I cried. Man, I wanted to play like B.B., but I definitely wanted to act like Sam.'
Now, an important part of Guy's act is walking out into the audience while playing one of his signature polka dot Fender Strats, a routine that he said is pretty much expected.
His career waxed and waned over the years, and some of his albums in the '70s didn't match the fire and passion of the Chess sides. Despite being idolized by younger players like Eric Clapton, Robert Cray, and Stevie Ray Vaughan, prior to the 1990s Guy was in the blues wilderness with a reputation but no contract.
Then in 1991 he recorded 'Damn Right I've Got the Blues' on the Silvertone label, winning a Grammy and seeing his career reach a second act that hasn't slowed down. He often tours on package shows with King, another elder bluesman with a great new album, and 'Skin Deep' features a potent mix of various blues styles.
Playing live is how Guy spreads the word.
'That's the only way we're taking the blues to people. B.B. won the Grammy (for last year's 'One Kind Favor'), we were in the same [Grammy] category, they don't even play him very much anymore.
'That's the price you pay as a blues player, but nowadays if you're young and good looking you don't have to play the guitar well anymore.'
Buddy Guy plays Thursday at the Stranahan Theater and the show begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are $26.50, $34.50, and $43. They are available at the Stranahan box office, 4645 Heatherdowns Blvd., by calling 419-474-1333 or at www.ticketmaster.com.
Contact Rod Lockwood at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6159.
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