Buddy Guy remains ferocious in concert, bending notes and wailing away on his Stratocaster.
By most any account, he shouldn’t be.
Guy turns 80 in three months, in a professional career that began in the late-1950s.
Yet, he still doesn’t show signs of slowing down.
Guy won a Grammy this year for best blues album, and his heavy touring schedule – which includes stops in London, Zurich, Paris and Tel Aviv – takes him to the Seneca Allegany Casino in Salamanca on Saturday for a show. He returns to the region July 29 with Jeff Beck to play the Marvin Sands Performing Arts Center in Canandaigua.
Guy’s career has been on a high note at an age when most have hung it up thanks in part to his collaboration with Amherst native Tom Hambridge. He’s been Guy’s producer, arranger, principal songwriter and occasional drummer for the past five albums, two of which won Grammys.
Guy remains a musical force despite outliving virtually all of his mentors and contemporaries who came to be significant influences on rock music. Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter and Lightnin’ Hopkins are gone. So, too, are Willie Dixon, Sonny Boy Williamson, Hubert Sumlin and Junior Wells.
Buddy Guy is the last of the great Chicago bluesmen still standing.
“I am reminded about it every day,” Guy said in a recent phone interview. ‘The people who read up know I had a chance to learn from these people, and I’m one of the last with that Chicago-style playing. I think that keeps me going.”
Guy’s success was hardly overnight. It took several decades before national recognition caught up with the adoration long lavished on him by guitar-slinging acolytes across the Atlantic. Musicians took notice of Guy’s torrid playing and showmanship despite Chess Records’ tight rein on his session work from 1959 to 1968, when he played behind the likes of Wolf, Walter and Williamson.
Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Keith Richards were among the British musicians in the ’60s enamored by Guy’s live playing. So was Jimi Hendrix, who as an American had to go to England to first gain popularity. Hendrix recorded Guy playing behind his back and with his teeth, something he would later famously do himself.
“I was just playing my guitar, and I didn’t know they were picking out my notes and sounds,” Guy said. “I didn’t know I was being recognized and noticed by people who became way more famous than I did. All of them play Strats now,” he laughed.
Guy is grateful to them for bringing his music to a wider audience. There were tour-opening slots with the Rolling Stones, and appearances with Clapton at Royal Albert Hall in London that led to a recording contract.
“All those British acts have done so much for black people,” Guy said.
But to them, Guy is musical royalty.
“(Buddy) inspired me so much in ’62 I never got over it,” Beck said onstage at a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert in Madison Square Garden in 2009, before introducing Guy onstage. “And I don’t think Jimi Hendrix did either, because you’ll see where Jimi came from.”
After jamming with Guy on “Let Me Love You,” Beck – considered by many to be his generation’s most inventive guitar player – dropped to his knees and bowed.
“Buddy Guy is by far and without a doubt the best guitar player alive,” Clapton once told Musician magazine. “If you see him in person, the way he plays is beyond anyone. … He really changed the course of rock ’n’ roll blues.”
Among the accolades Guy has received are the Presidential National Medal of Arts, the Billboard Century Award, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Kennedy Center Honors and a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award.
Guy has also earned seven Grammys and 28 Blues Music Awards.
Guy, a favorite of President Obama, coaxed the President to sing a chorus of “Sweet Home Chicago” at the White House in 2012, with a band that included Mick Jagger, Beck and King.
Such success would have been unfathomable when Guy moved nearly 60 years ago from a rural Louisiana town to the Windy City. He was one of millions of Southern blacks to migrate to Northern industrial cities.
While Guy worked as a session musician, it was in his live performances that he could really cut loose. He also would walk off stage and into the audience while playing, something he continues to do to.
“I got that from the late Guitar Slim in Chicago in 1957,” Guy said. “He had a 100-foot cord, not the wireless like we do now. When I came to Chicago, I felt I had to do something to get attention. They were all sitting in chairs with music stands in front of them, and I thought I better start walking on bars and things to get people to pay attention to me, and I got it.”
“When Buddy goes on stage, he takes no prisoners,” Hambridge said. “But when I got to know him, he was the sweetest guy in the world. He’s maybe shy, and quiet, just the nicest guy. There’s no ego.”
Hambridge marvels at Guy’s work ethic, whether it’s his live performances or willingness to give it his all in the studio.
“He outworks you. He says I’ll stay all night in front of this microphone if you need me to,” Hambridge said. “It’s the same when I watch him perform. He doesn’t want to leave that stage until he’s got you, and you feel that it’s been worth every penny. I think that just comes from a different time.”
Hambridge has also witnessed other musicians’ affection for Guy firsthand.
“I’ve been at the White House, before the Kennedy Center awards, where members of Led Zeppelin were saying, ‘Is there any possibility that we can sneak over to Buddy Guy and say hi?,’ ” Hambridge recalled. “Or when we opened for the Rolling Stones last year in Milwaukee. The Stones wouldn’t go onstage until they first had their pictures taken with Buddy and got to hang out with him. It was like watching kids meeting their hero.”
Hambridge said being around and getting to know Guy has been special.
“He’s the last lineage to it all. That’s it,. This guy played with Muddy, he recorded with Chess,” Hambridge said. “This is the guy that turned Led Zeppelin and Fleetwood Mac and all those guys onto the blues. They listened to this guy. And here he comes, walking out with a guitar. And he’s still standing.”
Guy has no plans to slow down, but keeps in mind seeing King, at the end of his career, performing the same song several times in concert because he couldn’t remember what he had played.
“If I go to repeating the same song four, five times a night,” Guy said, “I want them to remind me it’s time to hang it up.”
Guy, who owns Buddy Guy’s Legends music club in Chicago, where he does a January residency, still plans to make a lot of music.
His return to Western New York on Saturday prompted a Buffalo memory after playing a college show decades ago with Waters and Wells.
“When we got back to the motel, which I recall was on Main Street, we started shooting dice, and I thought the management was going to throw us out,” Guy said.
“We were so loud, and there was cursing, and the manager was sitting there in a chair. I went to apologize, and he said there wasn’t a problem. He said, ‘ I’m enjoying this.’ ”