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Guitarist Buddy Guy conveys his craft to the next generation, and the next...

By Brian Blair

AUGUST 10, 1998:  There's no greater crime than hearing pseudo-blues guitarists like Ian Moore and the interchangeable phenoms Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Johnny Lang receive airplay while Buddy Guy searches for avenues onto the airwaves. Sure, flash wins out over substance, but Guy possesses both in vast quantities. After all, it was Guy who inspired Jimi Hendrix's on-stage antics.

Moving from his plantation home in Louisiana in 1957, Guy made his way to Chicago, where blues music was being defined. Playing alongside Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, the guitarist developed a flair so overpowering that early producers asked him to tone it down while recording. Guy, who turned 62 last week, has returned with a new album, Heavy Love, that is just as powerful as the music he made for Chess Records 40 years ago. Critically acclaimed and firmly entrenched at No. 3 on Billboard's Blues chart (behind Shepherd and Lang), Guy's newest offering features a mix of traditional blues and r&b influences that may finally be getting him some of the recognition he's due.

FWW: Heavy Love showcases several different styles. Did you intentionally set out to prove your range, or was that just the natural result of your song choices?

Guy: Well, first of all, I've been trying to do an album like this for some time because, if you really stick to blues, you can count the radio stations playing it now. I've got children who have been very disappointed and didn't know who I was until they turned 21 and walked into a blues club. They said, "Dad, my God, I didn't know you could play," and they cried. My records are not being heard like everybody else's records. What I'm trying now is to maybe strike the right note or sing the right thing or have the right beat, so, some of these stations will say, "Wow, I gotta play that."

Why did you choose to work with Johnny Lang on this project?

He opened 18 shows for me about three or four years ago and I like the kid. Anytime a kid come up playing blues at that age, man, and I can be around them, flashbacks come. I didn't get my guitar at that early age but you can look back and say, "Wow, I wish someone had let me on the show when I was like 20," but I never got that opportunity. So, somebody that's playing the music I love so well is welcome with me.

Do guitarists like Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd have the life experiences to play blues at such a young age?

Yes. A lot of people think you have to live it or experience all of it, but if you love that thing you learn it just like going to school and taking mathematics. If you learn it, you can do it and that's what these kids are doing. They fell in love with it and they're playing it and I'm very proud of them. I just wish we had a few more come along.

Guitarists like Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton have all cited you as an influence on their playing. Doesn't that, in effect, make you the father of modern rock guitar?

I don't look at it that way because, if I look at it that way, I have to look back and say where I got mine from. B.B. [King] is still around and I've played a lot with Muddy and (Howlin') Wolf and all these great guitar players and we all got it from someone. Some of the people they got it from didn't make names for themselves with Chess Records and so on but they gave me a big lift.

One of the first people to take an interest in your guitar playing was Muddy Waters. What did that mean to you?

Oh, man, I have no explanation for that because I could talk to you for a month about what that meant to me. When he asked me to make a record behind him, there wasn't no such thing as a blues guy getting a gold record then or a Grammy. So, I figured I had a Grammy [Guy has four Grammys to date] and a gold record just by Muddy Waters asking me to play.

How has your audience changed since then?

Back then, it was 99-and-a-half percent all black and now it's vice-versa.

What led to that change?

I haven't the slightest idea. I don't know if it's got something to do with the exposure of a black man's blues to a white man's blues. Eric Clapton made an album a few years ago called From the Cradle and he played Muddy Waters, Freddie King and Eddie Boyd and it went to the top of the charts. You go back and get the original version of "Five Long Years" by Eddie Boyd and a disc jockey won't even think about playing it.

Could part of it have been that when you were starting out there was still a lot of segregation?

Yeah, there was but, I must say, I left Louisiana and white stations were playing Lightnin' Hopkins and Mahalia Jackson on the same station. Nowadays, you turn on one of the big stations, you've got six to eight records that the disc jockey come on in the morning and plays. Soon as he goes off, he hands the same set of records to the next jockey and he does the same damn thing. You never hear a Muddy Waters sneak in there, even when he was alive.

Where is blues headed?

Good question. I hope it's not headed to extinction. As long as I'm around, I'll always play some and hopefully I can hit the right notes, so, it will carry on to another Johnny Lang or Kenny Wayne Shepherd or some other young person who come up and say, "I like it" and wants to stick with it.

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