NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Buddy Guy worked driving a tow truck and as a maintenance man. He's played clubs for tips and cut records for nothing. He wrote songs for which he got no credit or royalties. His guitar graces dozens of classic blues records anonymously; on one, Buddy Guy is credited as Friendly Chap.
He's also been recognized as an all-time great, whose licks influenced everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Eric Clapton. At 75, he continues to perform and owns one of the biggest blues clubs in Chicago. He's just published an autobiography, and he joins us in just a moment.
Blues musicians, how do you make a living? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, Robert D. Kaplan on America's role in the bitter rivalry over one of the most strategic, richest and most contentious places on Earth: Vietnam, China and the South China Sea. But first, blues man Buddy Guy joins us from our bureau in New York. With David Ritz, he's the author of "When I Left Home: My Story," and it's an honor to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.
BUDDY GUY: Thank you for having me.
CONAN: Now, you moved up to Chicago from Louisiana as a young man, couldn't find work. You ran out of money. The way you describe it in the book, there's a day you decide to swallow your pride and call your dad to ask for money for a train ticket home. Tell us the story of what happened then.
GUY: Well first of all, I was the oldest boy, and my mother had a stroke, and I would do anything not to call because I didn't want her to get upset. She would be very upset about me being that far away from home and needing money to come home. So I avoided calling her.
By the way, it was a lot of pay phones then we used because the phone at the house was in my name. And if you put the - borrowed a dime to put it in the phone and got a collect call, the dime kicked right back out, and I couldn't even get anybody to loan me that dime because a good friend of mine wrote a record, the late Fenton Robinson(ph), wrote a blues record about that, "Somebody Loan Me A Dime," (unintelligible).
CONAN: But that day you ended up going to a club, the 708 Club.
GUY: Yes, in Chicago, that's the address of the club, 708 East 47th Street in Chicago, Illinois.
CONAN: And what happened that night?
GUY: Well, Otis Royce(ph) was playing, and this stranger just walked in and held me by the hand like a little two-year-old and just pointed at Otis and say: I got a little (unintelligible) man, and he said bring him up. And I went up and did a couple of Jimmy Reed and Bobby Bland song, further up the road, B.B. King "Sweet Little Angel." And it was all - it was 99.9 black people listening to blues at that time.
And the owner of the club was a white guy, and him and his wife was on their way out the door, and all I saw was that, and whatever they said, they left - they picked up their receipts, and they left word, say I don't know who that is, but hire him.
GUY: Somebody called Muddy, and Muddy Waters, his house is still - they're living about six blocks away. And he drove in, and before I left Baton Rouge, they told me be careful because you get mugged in Chicago, not in Baton Rouge. And I didn't know they called Muddy Waters the Mud. So he slapped me upside my ear, and I was ringing, and he said that's the Mud. I said oh, I said, well what they mean by getting mugged.
CONAN: And Muddy Waters then, you haven't had a square meal in about three days.
GUY: Going on three days.
CONAN: You're sitting in the backseat of Muddy Waters' car and share some salami sandwiches.
GUY: Yeah because we all used to drive tractors and chop cotton and that stuff don't spoil if you put it in 98 or 100 degrees, hang it in a tree so the ants wouldn't get to it too fast. So I still love it. Every time I talk to somebody, I got some at my house in the refrigerator now.
CONAN: There's another club I wanted to ask you about, and this was a place called Silvio's, and you said Howlin' Wolf liked to play there at 7 o'clock in the morning.
GUY: No, that wasn't Silvio's with the 7 o'clock in the morning.
CONAN: I apologize.
GUY: It was a kind of a jazz club called a trocadero, which was a half a block from Theresa's. And when I got there, and I saw jazz, I was trying to learn everything I could by listening because I don't read. I can't hardly read my name. So I went down to Theresa's. She kicked me out. I went back one week there and proved that I could play the Bobby Blain(ph) and the Jimmy Reed. And she cursed me out and asked me why didn't I play like that.
And I said that wasn't me. She thought another guy was me. And that's when we started the blues Blue Monday at 7 o'clock in the morning because, you know, we - at that time, we had a lot of people working 24/7. We had a stockyard in Chicago that employed 100,000 people 24/7 and the steel mills. And all of that's gone. We don't have that anymore.
CONAN: No, but they got off work at 7 o'clock in the morning.
GUY: And there was drinking. There wasn't no drugs on the street. The only way you had a way of getting high, whiskey, beer or wine.
CONAN: And that's, Howlin' Wolf said the tips were best at 7 o'clock in the morning.
GUY: Well, I finally learned that if you had a dollar, a dollar and a quarter, you wouldn't buy the wine. You would give your two friends 75 cents, and you'd go play a solo and tell them throw a quarter, and make sure you get my quarter back, and start the rest of the people at throwing quarters. And that's the biggest pay we would get in a day's time there because no musician wasn't making $8, $10, $12 a night. The best we would do is like $3, maybe $4.
With the tips, I went up to $7 or $6.
CONAN: Let me ask you about another. You mentioned Theresa. You describe her in the book as a mean-looking woman wearing a dirty apron with a Billy club in one pocket and a pistol in the other.
GUY: Well, she was the club owner, and she was the bouncer. And back in those days, darn near every customer knew, you know - you knew everybody. You know, very seldom strangers walked in the club. So, you know, if you got unruly, she had the Billy club. (Unintelligible), she never did hit me with it, but I know a couple of musicians, she says closing time, and she had told him that - let her have some money, and they would have had to borrow some stock in the club.
And a great guitar player played with Muddy a long time named Sammy(ph), and he would get drunk as a fish and go to sleep, and he was in the booth sleeping, and she says it closing time, and he woke up and said you can't tell me that, I own a part of this club. She just bust him on the knee with that Billy club and told him to get out.
CONAN: And she might have looked mean and sometimes acted mean, but she also lent you $160 once when your guitar got stolen.
GUY: Yes, she did, but...
GUY: But trust me, she got it back.
GUY: Because I played many nights and they get nothing but a bottle of whiskey. Matter of fact, my first time visiting back to little Baton Rouge, she would give a bottle of whiskey every Sunday instead of paying you. And I took all that back down, and my older sister was still drinking then, all of my - a lot of my uncles were still living. And they saw me get off the train, and I said I brought it back to you, here. I didn't have any money, so here's the whiskey that I collected every Sunday night from Theresa.
CONAN: There's - you needed that new guitar, you needed a guitar because you'd gotten a bite from your first record company. We're going to play a clip from a tune that you recorded. That first session is called "Sit and Cry."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SIT AND CRY")
GUY: (Singing) Oh, I've got no one to have fun with since my baby's love had been done with. Well, I don't know what to do. I sit and cry and sing the blues. Well, no one to call me sweet names...
CONAN: And interesting to listen back to that after all this time and some interesting lessons you learned in that session.
GUY: Oh yes, that was my first one, you know, and I - to be honest with you, when I left Baton Rouge September 25, 1957, I didn't ever think I was good enough to be asked to come in the studio to record. I wanted to watch the greats, you know, Muddy, Wolf, Walter, Sonny Boy, and I could go on to (unintelligible).
And I woke up, and there I was. I'm like saying - I had to pinch myself and say is this me, you know. But that was the great Otis Royce, Willie Dixon, the great drummer Odie Payne. You know, Otis is still living, but he had a stroke. But most all of those guys are passed on now.
CONAN: But if you looked at the credit for writing that song, it would say Willie Dixon.
GUY: Well, I think he did write that one. It was a few more when I went to Chess that I had a pleasure of finding out what writing was all about because every time I would go in with a song, they would say let Willie hear it. And he would hear it, and his response was that's a pretty good song, but you don't have a punch line.
And I said what's the punch line? And when you say she don't love me, just say she didn't love me. And when it came out, it was like Buddy Guy and Willie Dixon or Buddy Guy and John Doe or whoever else, Billy(ph) the kid. They had a lot of people. And I didn't know what was going on at the time. There was a lot of us didn't go...
I used to - I normally tell you that I really think Elvis would have lived a little longer, but he found out the Colonel was making more money than him.
CONAN: Colonel Tom Parker. Yeah. We're talking with Buddy Guy. We want to hear from other blues musicians about how you make a living, 800-989-8255. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Brian's(ph) on the line with us from Ypsilanti in Michigan.
BRIAN: Hey gentlemen, hey Buddy, it's a pleasure to talk to you. I'm a bar owner. I own the Taproom Bar in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and I play blues every Thursday night, and a lot of the tunes are yours, my man. So thanks for playing.
And I just want to know how you get so much dynamics out of the band. Whenever you play with a group of guys, you get them roaring one second, and the next minute, they're as quiet as a mouse. Is that on purpose, or how did that happen?
GUY: It's on purpose. I learned that from watching Muddy and them. Sometimes you need to - you know, I didn't learn nothing from a book. I didn't learn nothing in school. I learned by look, you know, being quiet, keep your ears open and listen. You know, and sometimes dynamics helped me because I have to be trying to hear what you played and keep it in my brains and my mind and go home and try to find it.
The best way to explain that, I explained it to, you know, this young man. I'm pushing for (unintelligible) he just turned 13 years old, little Quinn Sullivan. And I say, you know, if you listen and shut up, you know, a fun example. You know, I'm not married now. I was married twice, and I'm divorced.
And we used to get to arguing, and all of a sudden, I would shut up, and one of my ex-wives would say: You're not going say nothing? I said that's the only way you end it.
CONAN: Brian, thanks very much for the call, good luck with the bar.
BRIAN: Thanks, you guys.
CONAN: Buddy Guy is with us. More of your calls in just a moment. As we go on our way out to the break, we'll listen to a little Buddy Guy's "First Time I Got the Blues." It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIRST TIME I GOT THE BLUES")
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Our guest, Buddy Guy. We're talking about his new autobiography, "When I Left Home: My Story." The blues took my life and turned it upside-down, he writes, had me going places and doing things that, when I look back, seem crazy. The blues turned me wild. They brought out something in me I didn't even know was there.
You can read more about a day in the life of Buddy Guy in an excerpt at our website. Go to npr.org. Blues musicians, how do you make a living? 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. And you can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. And click on TALK OF THE NATION.
And Buddy Guy's with us from our bureau in New York. And I wanted to ask you about another piece of music. This is not one of yours. This is by the great John Lee Hooker. And I wanted to ask you - when we come back, we're going to listen to it - what role this song played in your life.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOOGIE CHILLIN'")
JOHN LEE HOOKER: One night I was laying down. I heard mama and papa talking. I heard papa tell mama: Let that boy boogie-woogie. It's in him, and it's got to come out. (Singing) And I felt so good, went on boogieing just the same.
CONAN: "Boogie Chillin'." And Buddy Guy, that was the first record you had?
GUY: Yes. That's the first record I ever bought. That's the first one I could afford, matter of fact. I think that 78 cost about, what, 63 cents or something like that, from Randy's Record Shop out of Tennessee. You had to order it through the mail out in the country where I was born, there.
CONAN: And you learned to play the guitar by playing that song over and over and over again on a two-string guitar?
GUY: I had - I think I had figured out how to get one more string on it. There might have been three on it. But what I did, my sisters and brothers made my mother and father run me out of the house because I sounded like a bunch of bees. You know, you couldn't play nothing. And I went out in what you call - we used to - our only heat was wood, you know, and I called it the woodpile.
I went to the wood and gathered the wood for to make the fires, and my mom and them, they cook on the wood stove. And I dozed off to sleep with that guitar, and I woke up, and I heard myself hitting that note - not as good as John Lee was hitting it, but I said, oh, I found it.
But I was afraid to move my fingers, because I thought I would never find it again, and I think I played it about six hours. I went to every first cousin I could find, which was miles away, to make sure they heard that I had found it.
CONAN: Let's get some more callers in on the conversation, now. Let's go next to Greg, and Greg with us from Hot Springs, Arkansas.
GREG: Hi. How are you all doing today?
CONAN: Good, thanks.
GREG: It's an honor to be on the phone with Mr. Guy, because I have huge respect, a very good man. I had an opportunity to play his club a couple years ago, and he was very gracious to us. I was just glad they told us he was there after we played. I don't think I probably would have been able to play. So...
CONAN: A little intimidating.
GREG: You bet. Very much so, when you have a living legend like that. We'd opened up for Lonnie Brooks, but Mr. Guy was very gracious to us, and I appreciate that.
GUY: Thank you.
CONAN: It's interesting, throughout the book, you describe running into various musicians, B.B. King, and saying you were intimidated to see that he was in the audience, certainly Muddy Waters and various other people, as well. You're very modest about talents that other people praise to the skies.
GUY: Well, you know, when I - you know, B.B. King had never played Chicago. I went there in '57, and they brought him in '58, and I was in that 708 Club, up there playing his records. And I had recognized him before I left Baton Rouge, because I would go see him. He'd come through there once a year. And I said, is that who I'm thinking it is? And I said, I don't have anything to play. I better go straight back to Jimmy Reed, because I think that's B.B. King and Muddy Waters watching me. And it was.
And I came onstage and tried to avoid him, and he called me. And we've been friends ever since.
CONAN: One of the things he said was: I make this sound like crying, bending the guitar string. He said to you: I can't do the slide-guitar bit. But I can make them bend. And you've got that, too. And you told him: Yeah, I stole it from you.
GUY: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I tell him that every time I see him now. Matter of fact, I tell all the other great guitar players, I say hey, man. Do you have a guitar with two B's on it? And I really have one with two B's. And he looks at me: Oh, Buddy, you don't have to do that. I say, yeah, man, you know, actually I was picking cotton out by a machine. We didn't have a machine.
And I say, you know, I was getting to the point where I could buy a guitar until you made "Three O'Clock in the Morning," then I had to buy the guitar like you do a car, on time.
CONAN: There's another point much later in the book, and you're talking to Eric Clapton, and he says: Buddy, you've got to put out a new record. I've already stolen all your old licks. I need new ones.
GUY: Well, this is - matter of fact he - the record I love most by him is "Strange Brew." When I was talking to him, I said man, you've got some licks that are out of this world. He said, yeah, you should. They're yours.
CONAN: Let's get another caller in on the conversation. Let's go to Ryan, Ryan with us from Salt Lake.
RYAN: Hey, Neal. Hey, Buddy.
RYAN: Ryan Helm(ph), here in Salt Lake. Good to hear from you. I'm your emcee whenever you come to town here at Red Butte and Deer Valley and whatnot, 32 years of playing the blues on the radio. And over those years, I've noticed in trying to do what I can to promote blues musicians coming through town, putting them up even at my house to let them save a little money, I've really noticed lately that it's a struggle for touring musicians.
Aside from things like festivals during the summer, which always seem to have a good audience, the Blues Cruise is always sold out, premiere clubs like yours, Legends in Chicago, get the crowds. But the little clubs that get strung up across the country are really struggling, and musicians are having to travel a lot longer distances at a lot higher overhead to sustain themselves. I'm just wondering what your opinion is about the state of the average touring blues musician across the country, trying to make the bread-and-butter gigs.
GUY: Well, I think it's a little rougher now than it was on me, but if you hear what I had to go through, what Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf and them, you would tell them they're doing fine, because we used to have to take a hotdog man and feed me, Junior Wells and half of the band, and driving through there.
When I first come through Salt Lake City, I was almost out of gas, and we scrapped up enough to make it all the way. We was going to San Francisco, from Chicago to San Francisco, no stop in Denver, no stop in Salt Lake City. And I'm, like, I wonder why don't they stop me here. At least I could go to sleep and somebody would probably give me a hotdog.
But, you know, if you come up through what you're telling me where they're coming up through now, they'll know how to appreciate it if you make it. Now, I was in Australia about 35 years ago and watching television, and they said, you know, athletes, musicians, whatever, I don't care how good you are, only 5 percent going to make it.
I probably wouldn't have sold my guitar because I love it too well, but you have to look at it like that way. You got - I had a girl working at my club, and she say Buddy, I got a student loan, and I'll be 57 years old when I pay it off. I said then ain't nobody going to want to hire you, because you're too old to work. So, you know, music is kind of the same way, man. If you love it, stay with it. If you don't - these are some of the hard things you - I think you should go through so you can appreciate it one day if you do make it.
RYAN: Sure. Well, good work, keep up the road miles. You can stop by my house anytime. I'll set you up with a hotdog or steak or whatever you want, man.
GUY: Now, I'm going to tell you like I tell my guitar companies now. The guitar companies give me my guitar, my strings, my picks. When I needed them, they didn't give it to me. So what you do, you encourage a young man, another guitar player, to help someone that don't need - that need the help right now. I used to need it. I think I can buy my own picks now, and I'd rather for them to give it to the people that you're talking about now. Because when I came through there in 1968, I would've stopped at your house and ate that hotdog. But right now, I want you to give it to those young guys you're telling me about.
RYAN: I still do, doing my best to keep it alive here over...
GUY: If you need any help, I'll help you do that.
RYAN: Right on.
CONAN: Ryan, thanks very much for the call.
RYAN: Thanks, you guys.
CONAN: Buddy Guy mentioned Junior Wells. This is a very productive and famous relationship that they enjoyed for many years, and I think they still get together from time to time.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE T-BONE SHUFFLE")
BUDDY GUY AND JUNIOR WELLS: (Singing) Tell me what the reason. You keep on teasing me. Oh, just tell me what the reason...
CONAN: That's Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, "The T-Bone Shuffle." What made that partnership so successful?
GUY: You know, bless his soul. He passed away. We used to talk about everything, man, some things people probably don't even hear. We even talked about death, who'd go first and who goes second and who knows. But Junior and I was more close in age than it was Muddy, Wolf and Walter and them. And I don't know. It just happened, we wound up with the same manager in 1970. And the Rolling Stones invited us to open the show for them out of their whole tour in 1970 through Europe.
And he was having a problem with his band, which he always did have a problem with the band because Junior would fire the drummer right in the middle of a big concert, with no extra drummer waiting. 'Cause we had -the manager, which was Bonnie Raitt's boyfriend when she was, like, 17, 18 years old - Dick Waterman, great guy - and they brought me a picture back from Oakland, California, why he had fired the drummer and made Dick Waterman play the drums, and Dick had never sat down behind a set of drums in his life.
CONAN: Here's an email...
GUY: I see Dick once in a while. I make him laugh about that now.
CONAN: Here's an email from Lee(ph) in Memphis: On the "Monterey Pop" DVD is an extended video of Buddy playing there. This was in the summer of 1967, and Jimi Hendrix, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and many others played there as well. What was it like for a real Chicago blues man like yourself to see and hear all of those young guys doing what you had been doing for years?
GUY: Well, you know, it's always, so far as I'm concerned, it's not enough. You know, as I said, I didn't learn nothing from the books. And whoever pick up an instrument - trust me, I don't just listen to guitar players. You know, I tried to steal licks from my drummer if I can, the late great Below(ph) who played all the drums at Chess on all the shuffles(ph). I used to look at him and say, man, what was that lick you played? Because he would triple up. He could snap those wrists and play a lick like that, and him and I used to play by ourself when we were making about 50 cents or 75 cents a night.
And you'd have a friend come too. Matter of fact, Howlin' Wolf or Sonny Boy would come by and say, I've come to give you a boost. Don't nobody know who you are. I'm going to drink up that 75 cents on a bottle of whisky. So I said, well, give it to him, you know? Just to be in the same house with him. You can have my 75 cents anytime.
But Junior and I clicked after the '70s with the Stones. He had a band problem, and I had a band I could control. And we had the same manager, and we thought it would work better by him and I playing together. And I think it did to a certain point, but we still didn't bloom like we thought we would.
CONAN: Hmm. Buddy Guy with David Ritz, the author of "When I Left Home: My Story." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
I wanted to ask you about an earlier period in your career, and that's when you developed an act. You describe yourself as a bit of a wild man. You'd always start out playing in the alley outside. Your amplifier would be on the stage, and then you'd come into the bar. You'd never sit down. Guitar players in those always sat down. You'd jump up on a table and do wild stuff. There was that Buddy Guy - you'd play with your teeth, behind your back, that sort of stuff - and then there was the Buddy Guy who would play at Chess Records as a sideman.
GUY: Only for the blues guys, you know? Actually, most of that stuff you heard me do at Chess (unintelligible) rehearsal. They would be there with their band at rehearsal and call in someone. I don't recall the names, some of the great guitar - much, 10 times better than I could play. But they never would take a lesson from Muddy Wolf, Walter, Sonny Boy.
When they got in the studio, they play it like, here's my chance to let the world know who I am because I'm going to run over Muddy Waters. And I never felt like that. And they say, well, even (unintelligible) one day said, if you want to played right, call Buddy. And I would go in there, get in the corner and I guess you knew what an MF is. Everybody was an MF - to jazz, to blues, everybody.
So I was on the corner one morning. They would always make the sessions like 6:00, 7:00 in the morning because they wanted them to come in from those 4:00 and 5:00 clubs, half-drunk, set a big bottle of whisky on the piano and say, all right, do it to me. And I would be playing awful loud, and they'd say, cut, cut, cut. Hey, you, MF, and I wouldn't look up. And they would come out of the engineer room and punch me on my shoulder, say, I'm talking to you. I'd say, I thought my name was Buddy. And within three to six months, when they say MF, I answered.
CONAN: That was the world depicted in that movie, "Cadillac Records," with...
CONAN: ...Beyonce. They didn't have you in it, but they had a lot of the other guys in it. Did you see the movie? What did you think of it?
GUY: Well, after they brought the tapes to me - I don't know if they put it in there because I haven't seen it yet. Because, you know, one of the brothers are still living. It was Phil Chess and Leonard Chess. Leonard died. Phil is still - I heard they didn't go to him for no kind of information, but they did come to me and said they wanted me to sing the Muddy Waters version of "Forty Days and Forty Nights," and I did. And my records company insist on doing it, and I - because they told me that they didn't have any money left. Beyonce took all the money. I said, wait. Why do you come to me after she took the money? Come to me before she take it all.
CONAN: And your club, Legends, how's that doing?
GUY: You know, it's doing better than you would think, because it's downtown. I forgot how many years that was. Five, six, seven, eight years ago, they passed this law about DUI and then smoking. And some of the fans, even in sub-zero weather, they want to run outside and smoke, come back. Well, there ain't that many left, so I guess I can't holler because, you know, we - earlier the guy was talking about this club there, and we were driving cross-country with Junior Wells and myself. We could work - get around in a little blues clubs. We did it in Chicago. It was a circle. But you come to Chicago now, if I close my club, I think you got three left.
CONAN: Well, it's a very different world today. Buddy Guy, thank you for sharing your story with us.
GUY: Thank you for having me.
CONAN: Buddy Guy's book with David Ritz is called "When I Left Home: My Story." He joined us from our bureau in New York.
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