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Buddy Guy has influenced a generation of blues musicians

| Wednesday, May 10, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
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Buddy Guy

Some people say they have never heard the blues; perhaps, Buddy Guy says, they are just not listening closely.

It's there when someone loses their job or when a person can't pay this month's rent or mortgage, or come up with enough money to go to the grocery store. It's there when a heart is broken.

Blues, he implies, is the soundtrack of life. “It speaks to everybody if you listen to it,” says Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member who turned 80 last year.

When this master of the genre, who headlines a 7:30 p.m. concert May 14 at the Palace Theatre, Greensburg, speaks the blues, everyone listens.

Jimi Hendrix — who it is rumored once canceled a gig to go see Guy perform — Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimmy Page, Steve Miller, Carlos Santana, Eddie Van Halen and Robert Cray are among guitarists who have been vocal in their praise of Guy, who grew up picking cotton on a Louisiana plantation with his sharecropping family.

“I left picking cotton to pick the guitar,” he likes to say today.

It wasn't accolades that were on Guy's mind when he arrived at his new home in Chicago that memorable September day in 1957 to try to begin a music career.

He acknowledges, though, that his induction into the Rock Hall of Fame decades later (Eric Clapton gave his induction speech in 2005) meant, “I was in good company.”

At the time, Clapton remarked, “Buddy was for me what Elvis was probably like for other people. My course was set, and he was my pilot.”

“I guess I never dreamed of that when I went to Chicago,” Guy says. “When I was inducted I accepted it as an honor of the people I learned from — Muddy Waters and others.”

His first appearance at Chicago's famed 708 Club followed a set by Otis Rush. Before giving him any musical tips, Muddy Waters provided a very hungry Guy, who was thinking about returning to Louisiana because he was not making a living, with salami sandwiches.

He remembers early “guitar battles” twice a week with artists like Rush and Magic Sam. He likens it to watching a boxing match.

In the early 1960s, Guy was a first-call session player at Chess Records, backing Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson, among others.

Later, he and Clapton played with Stevie Ray Vaughan the night of Vaughan's death.

Guy is philosophical about it all. “We all learned from somebody. I copied somebody and they copied somebody else,” he says. “I'm just a student. Now I guess I'm the senior citizen, and somebody else the student with all these rock guys mentioning me. I didn't know somebody was picking me out to learn from.”

Part of what keeps music interesting to him today, he says, is that, “You're never too old to learn.”

He says he knows some musicians who seem to think “they know it all. But I'm not like that. I don't even think I have my own CDs at home. I'm still trying to learn from others. I can't learn from myself.”

Long past traditional retirement age in the real world, Guy plans to keep on learning and playing as long as he can. “I'd go crazy just sitting in the house not doing anything at all. Musicians don't retire. They just drop,” he says laughing. “As long as my health holds I'll keep playing.”

How many people in their 70s make the cover of Rolling Stone, as he did?

How many musicians his age are accorded a showcase in a major film, as Guy was in Martin Scorsese's Rolling Stones concert film, “Shine a Light” (2008).

Guy has received the music industry's highest honor — the Grammy Award — multiple times. He also is recipient of multiple W.C. Handy Blues Awards, the Billboard Magazine Century Award for Distinguished Artistic Achievement and the Presidential National Medal of Arts in 2003.

He is proudest, he says, to still be able to make a contribution to music. “God blessed me with pretty good health to still be out here,” he says. “When I see a little kid bouncing around in the audience when I play, I say to myself, ‘Maybe they will remember me.' ”

The blues, he believes, “needs all the help it can get” to remain in the forefront of the public. If people are exposed to it, he says, “Maybe they will say, ‘Wow! Let's explore it.'

“I may be able to cook pretty good, but if they ain't tasted it, I'm afraid (blues) will be an endangered species,” he warns.

He tries to remain ever vigilant in “letting the world know about the blues.”

“I want to wake up some people who are not aware of what the blues is. Long before rock 'n' roll there were all these different things — blues and jazz and spiritual music,” he says.

Guy says that while success came late to him, he hopes his life and career are an example for others. “I hope I set a good example for someone else going through hell and high water like I did. It can be done, better late than never. You have to believe in yourself,” he says.

Rex Rutkoski is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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