The Kennedy Center

Buddy Guy


(Bluesman, born July 30, 1936, in Lettsworth, Louisiana)

"By far without a doubt the best guitar player alive." That's Eric Clapton's take on Buddy Guy, a titan of the blues. For more than 50 years, Guy has been an invaluable American treasure, linking a proud but often underappreciated American musical past with a new generation of master musicians destined to keep the blues alive. Guy belongs to an era that pioneered the blues, working alongside such legendary figures as Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Koko Taylor, B.B. King, and Little Walter. Yet he's been a tremendous influence on virtually everyone who's picked up an electric guitar in the last half century, including Clapton, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Slash, ZZ Top, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and John Mayer.

For his blistering vocals and electrifying guitar playing, Buddy Guy has won six Grammy Awards for both contemporary and traditional blues, a testament to a remarkable career that includes such classics as "Sweet Home Chicago," "Mustang Sally," "Stone Crazy," and "Let Me Love You Baby." "Buddy Guy," says Jeff Beck "transcended blues and started becoming theater." In 2003, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts for his extraordinary contribution to the blues. Billboard honored him with The Century Award and he's won no fewer than 23 W.C. Handy Blues Awards/Blues Music Awards.

In 1936, he was born into a sharecropper family in Louisiana. Earlier this year, he performed at the White House for the President of the United States. Although that long journey was neither easy nor direct, it was perhaps inevitable for a man often called the Greatest Living Electric Blues Guitarist.

It all started in 1958 with a train ride to Chicago to hear people like Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters and to make the rounds of the many clubs that offered young musicians a chance to get on stage and play. His unique style and showmanship drew the attention of club owners and record companies. The famed Chess label signed him up, and there he became a house guitarist for the company, playing on studio sessions with Waters, Wolf and others. He was frustrated, though, by the label's indifference to his own music, which the bosses found loud and aggressive, alarmed by his pioneering use of distortion and feedback. Ironically, what America rejected, the British rockers of the ‘60s absorbed wholeheartedly, and the transatlantic fertilization became the foundation for a whole sound. "Buddy Guy was to me what Elvis was for others," observed Clapton. "He really changed the course of rock and roll blues."

Guy eventually switched to the Vanguard label, where he launched a memorable lifelong, boundary-breaking partnership with harmonica player Junior Wells. The duo produced several seminal albums, including 1972's Buddy Guy and Junior Wells Play the Blues, produced by Eric Clapton, Ahmet Ertegun and Tom Dowd. They also became major stars on international tours throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s.

It was also Clapton who gave Guy the opportunity to take his career and reputation to a whole new level when Clapton asked Guy to join him for the final three nights of an all-star concert series at London's Royal Albert Hall in 1990. It was the perfect showcase for Guy's fierce style--loud and aggressive, fusing traditional blues with rock, soul, and jazz. The concerts led to a contract with Silvertone Records. In 1991, Guy recorded Damn Right, I've Got the Blues. It won the guitarist his first Grammy Award, his first gold record, and the impact it had on a whole new generation of artists was a game-changer in the history of American music. "Without Buddy Guy, the blues, not to mention rock as we know it, might be a heckuva lot less interesting," declared Guitar magazine. Other landmark albums followed, including 1993's Feels Like Rain and 1994's Slippin' In.

In 2005, Jon Pareles in The New York Times noted: "Mr. Guy mingles anarchy, virtuosity, deep blues and hammy shtick in ways that keep all eyes on him…he loves extremes: sudden drops from loud to soft, or a sweet sustained guitar solo followed by a jolt of speed, or a high, imploring vocal cut off with a rasp. He is a master of tension and release, and his every wayward impulse was riveting." Earlier this year, Buddy Guy said to NY1, "You know, I've dedicated my life to music and in a few minutes when I go to the stage, I forget who I am. I just want to see who I am makin' smile." The answer is: everyone.
Buddy Guy