Chicago blues legend Buddy Guy riffs on Chicago, receiving the Fifth Star Award, and what keeps him touring night after night at 80 years old.
When it came time to select the honorees for the third annual Fifth Star Awards to recognize the city’s greatest artists, blues icon Buddy Guy was "a natural," says Mayor Rahm Emanuel. "Blues is foundational music for rock and roll and R&B, and its home is Chicago," he adds. "Buddy Guy is a cornerstone of not just that era but that sound."
The legendary 80-year-old bluesman will be fêted on September 14 along with fellow honorees like photographer Victor Skrebneski, theater queen Jackie Taylor of Black Ensemble Theater, and comedy giant The Second City. The free ceremony at Millennium Park will feature live performances and video tributes.
As the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and seven-time Grammy Award winner prepares to take the stage, he chatted with Michigan Avenue about the future of the blues—and what keeps him coming back to tour.
On the early days: "It was Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Redding, and Magic Sam, and then I came in. That was it. Nobody knew who I was. A stranger told Otis I could play, and all he said was, ‘If he can play, bring him on up here,’ and I went onstage. That’s when someone informed Muddy Waters that I could play."
On continuing to tour at age 80: "I was born on a farm, and I was a sharecropper. You eat to live and live to eat, and you didn't have technology. Later in life I began to get paid, and every time I think ‘I sure am tired,’ I think about those days on the farm, whether you were tired or not you had to go work."
Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy.
What the Fifth Star Award means to him: "It means that the greats are no longer here with me. I didn't learn how to play my guitar by the book or by the school; I learned how by listening to T-Bone Walker, Muddy Waters, and those guitar players ahead of me—Guitar Slim, B.B. King, and all those people like that who are no longer with us. Every time I get an award, and I've got quite a few of them, I accept it for those guys. We used to joke about it before they passed away. We would talk about ‘[whoever] leaves first, don't let the blues die.’ So every time I get an award, I accept my award in honor of those people who should have gotten it long before I did."
Discovering the next generation: "I found a young kid named Quinn Sullivan. He walked out on the stage [about 10 years ago] in Bedford, Massachusetts. Dad had him by his hand. He was seven years old. I asked him could he play; he didn't get excited. He said ‘Yeah.’ I said ‘I'll call you up.’ I'll call any kid up if I see them with an instrument. I thought it was a joke. I plugged the amplifier back [in] because he was playing Clapton, Hendrix, B.B., me, or whoever. We started playing and he had never played with us before. I said, ‘Man, how did you learn this at seven years old?’ Whenever I get a chance, man, so nobody recognizes me and I want to hear some [music], I like to sneak in a place, slip in, and listen."
Buddy Guy and David Bowie.
On the future of the blues: "The thing that worries me is they don't play this kind of music on the radio [anymore]. If you don't have satellite radio, you don't hear Muddy Waters but once or twice a week, Howlin' Wolf once or twice a week, or old stuff like Big Joe Turner, John Lee Hooker. You don't hear it anymore."
Chicago love: "I came here September 25, 1957. You got migrating birds that get the hell out of here in September and go south, and I was coming north. They had told me how cold it would get here. I said to myself if I don't find a good job I'll probably go back to Louisiana. But I dealt with [the weather], because after I got a chance to see Muddy, Wolf, Otis, and Magic Sam play the blues I forgot about how damn cold it got, man, because all I wanted to do is watch those guys and look for a day job. I never found my day job back then but I got a chance to meet them all."
Photography by: PHOTOGRAPHY BY PAUL NATKIN