In addition to Led Zeppelin, the other classic rock-related recipient of a Kennedy Center Honor during last night’s telecast was blues legend Buddy Guy.
Actually, to call him a “bluesman” (a term he himself doesn’t particularly like) is a bit limiting since his fiery guitar playing, flashy showmanship, and wailing singing makes him a crucial link between the blues legends like former Chess Records labelmates Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter and younger, often white rock acolytes like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Keith Richards, Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
In fact, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Guy found himself playing more often to white rock audiences and on bills with hard rock/psychedelic bands. And he would have some serious career downs before emerging as an elder, appreciated statesman of the music in his trademark polka dot shirts and overalls. He chronicled his life and career (with co-author David Ritz) this year in his autobiography, When I Left Home.
“When you sing the blues, you lose them…and ain’t that a beautiful thing,” inductor Morgan Freeman quotes Guy as saying before Tracy Chapman delivered a solid performance of Big Mama Thornton’s original version of “Hound Dog” (which he often played with the singer).
Next, new kid wunderkind Gary Clark Jr. and Jimmie Vaughan traded verses and licks on “The Things I Used to Do,” while a strong-voiced Beth Hart joined Jeff Beck for a moving “I’d Rather Go Blind” (even if she did sing “I’d rather be blind,” thus changing the whole meaning of the lyric).
But it took a fiery haired-and-sounding Bonnie Raitt to bring it home (much to the delight of a head bopping Barack and Michelle Obama) with – of course – “Sweet Home Chicago.”
Guy has owned a nightclub in Chicago – in different locations – for years, and it’s a pilgrimage spot for any blues fan who visits the city. More than a decade ago, I went and there – to my astonishment – was Guy himself sitting alone at the end of the bar. Hundreds of people in the club, and no one seemed to recognize him.
After watching for about five minutes, I went up and asked for a photo with him. Buddy kind of rolled his eyes and asked, drippingly, “Is there a flash on the camera?” I replied no, and we took a quick snap (which, sadly, did not come out).
However, Guy broke into a broad smile when I complimented him not on his blues records, but on how much my small daughter enjoyed his turn as the “King of Swing” on the children’s program “Jack’s Big Music Show.”
“Yeah,” he told me. “That was a lot of fun. Something different!”