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©AP / Buddy Guy
© AP / Buddy Guy
Buddy Guy: Blues Odyssey

The veteran guitarist traces his journey from Louisiana to Chicago to become an electric blues titan

By Alan Light
Special to MSN Music

"A lot of people have the blues and don t even know they got it," says Buddy Guy. "But just keep living and you ll figure out what we been talking about. Some of these people with top jobs, now they know about being laid off, or what foreclosure means."

Buddy Guy has been playing the blues for six decades, and shows no sign of slowing down. At age 75, he has written a new book, titled "When I Left Home," which chronicles his lifetime as a musician -- and the moment everything changed, when he left Louisiana for Chicago in 1957. He soon found himself in the middle of the city's unparalleled blues community, juggling session work for the Chess label with his own performances in the cutthroat local clubs, where he was perfecting the high-flying, razor-sharp guitar skills that would influence rockers from Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton to Stevie Ray Vaughan and John Mayer.

Rolling Stone ranked Guy as the 30th-greatest guitar player of all time. He has won six Grammy awards and 23 W.C. Handy awards (more than anyone else), and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But as "When I Left Home" documents, he sees himself as the product of two different worlds: the rural Louisiana where he grew up, and the do-or-die Chicago scene, where he befriended guru Muddy Waters, argued with Willie Dixon over song copyrights and played alongside giants like Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson.

"I learned how to play for the love of music, not the love of money, because it wasn't there when I taught myself how to play," he said during a recent conversation at a Lower Manhattan Barnes & Noble. "My mother used to sing a spiritual called 'I'm too far gone to turn around now.' I don't know nothing else to do now -- because they got machines picking cotton, so I can't go back down and do that again!"

MSN Music: Writing and playing the blues is always very personal. What was different about telling these stories in a book instead of writing them in a song?

Buddy Guy: My biggest record was "Damn Right, I Got the Blues." I have a pool table in my club in Chicago, but I can't even push the ball in with my hands. And this guy who had beat up on me said, "Give me the beer I won; I beat you out of that beer." And he said, "You gonna play some blues now?" And I said, "You damn right, I'm gonna play some blues." And I thought, "Oh, now what did I just say?" I noted that down and wrote a record about it.

You write a song sitting in a restaurant in an airport, whenever you hear somebody got a problem. And it's not always sad -- sometimes you hear people talking about the good times. When you hear B.B. King talk about "I got a sweet little angel, I love the way she spread her wings," that's not sad!

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In every interview I've ever read, you talk about the date you headed to Chicago: September 25, 1957. What did you think you were getting into?

My mother had a stroke, and she had five children -- I don't know how in the hell they fed us. You eat to live and live to eat where I came from. If it didn't rain, we had to go drink water out of the creek. So I was working at LSU in Baton Rouge, and someone told me I could go to Chicago, work at a college up there and make two or three times the money, and I could help my family better. I was the oldest boy and I had to be a man after my momma took on that stroke.

I got on that train, and I said, "I'm going, but if things don't go right, I'll be back" -- not thinking I'd be sitting here answering your questions about being a professional musician. Because they had so many great guitar players in Chicago, I should have sold my guitar when I got there. But I thought, I'll just sit back in the corner and see if I can learn a little more. I never did find that job at the college, but I woke up being asked to make a record after some strangers found I could play a little, and got introduced to Muddy Waters. And from then until he died, we was the best of friends. So my career as a professional musician is accidental. I didn't plan nothing.

In the book, you talk about dividing yourself into two kinds of guitarist, playing one way in the studio and a different way as the wildest live performer in Chicago.

Well, first -- and I still have this at my house -- whatever the chart was instead of Billboard, the top records on that chart were Walter, Muddy, Sonny Boy and Howlin' Wolf. So Chess wasn't looking for nothing new -- it was like, "I got a pocket full of money; if I get any more, I got nowhere to put it." So when I would go in there and turn my amplifier up, they would curse me out, say, "Don't nobody want to hear that, with that kind of feedback," and stuff like that. I would say, "OK, I'm a student anyway, I'm trying to learn and I'm playing with Muddy, Wolf, Walter, so it's time for me to shut up and listen." That went on and on until the British guys started making big records out of what I was trying to show them.

One morning, the late Willie Dixon came by my house and said "Leonard Chess wants to see you." I thought, "Oh, my God, now I won't make any more sessions with those guys." He said to put a suit on, and I said, "Why do I wanna put a suit on, when I know I'm fixing to get fired?" So I put a blue suit on and went in there, and Leonard Chess put on a record -- I don't know if it was Hendrix or Eric or whoever -- and he bent over and told me to kick him. He said, "I want you to kick me in my behind, because you've been trying to sell us this stuff ever since you came here, and we were too dumb to listen."

You mention Willie Dixon, who doesn't come off so well in the book: He was part of your learning the hard way about the business of music.

Well, I think Elvis would have lived a little longer if he hadn't found out that the Colonel was making more money than him. So many great blues players died in Europe because they were so mad at Chess and the other record companies that was taking all their money from them. You can go kick the grave, but Leonard Chess is dead and gone. You can't hurt him, so you can just get an education like I got and don't make that mistake again.

I do wish the book spent more time on your recent history, when you've made some of your most interesting music and stayed so active in the blues community.

My main thing now is a lot of radio stations and television don't recognize the blues anymore. Once I thought that it was because the lyrics we were singing were a little strong for the young generation -- until hip-hop came out, and then I had to think of something else.

Now I'm just trying to educate. I got little Quinn Sullivan, who's 13. I met another kid, 11 years old, another little one playing the harmonica. They all look like they should be putting on a diaper, but when you hear them play, you'll say, "I don't want to talk to Buddy no more."

What do you tell someone so young, just starting out and trying to learn?

He better learn now, before he finds out what a girl is! They'll make you put the guitar in the corner and come see what they're talking about. I was born on a farm and there wasn't but two girls there, and my grandmother said they were my first cousins, so I had a lot of time for the guitar.

But really, whatever instrument, you need to spend as much time with it as you can. The first song I learned to play was [John Lee Hooker's classic] "Boogie Chillen," and my sisters and brothers ran me out of the house because they were tired of that noise. I slept with the guitar, and when I woke up, I had clamped my fingers in that position. The next house over was five miles away, and I just started walking. I said "I got to let somebody see this, because if I move my fingers I'm never going to find this again." I did it for about six hours, my fingers was bleeding, but I finally did learn "Boogie Chillen." So you got to keep it in your hands.

Alan Light is the co-author of Gregg Allman's best-selling memoir "My Cross to Bear." A regular contributor to MSN Music, he is the former editor-in-chief of Vibe and SPIN magazines. He is the director of programming for the public television concert series "Live From the Artists Den," and contributes frequently to The New York Times and Rolling Stone. Alan is a two-time winner of ASCAP's Deems Taylor Award for excellence in music writing.

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