Chicagoans of the Year 2013: Buddy Guy

Blues guitarist; owner, Buddy Guy’s Legends

Photo: Jeff Sciortino; Hair and Makeup: Heather Schnell/Ford Artists

Musician

Blues guitarist; owner, Buddy Guy’s Legends

Few people possess the power to make a president sing. But in February 2012, when Buddy Guy stepped up to the microphone at the White House, launched into “Sweet Home Chicago,” and beckoned Barack Obama to join him, the president did. Then the veteran bluesman grinned his famous grin and let his Fender Stratocaster sing into the night—as he has most every night for six decades.

The 77-year-old Louisiana native moved to Chicago in 1957 for a simple reason: He wanted to learn from the best blues musicians in the country. “New York didn’t have what Chicago had,” Guy explains. “Boston didn’t have it. When I finally went to California, they didn’t have it. Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy [Williamson], Jimmy Reed, Memphis Slim—all those great guys were in Chicago. I said, ‘I don’t need to go nowhere else. Everything I’m looking for is here.’ ”

In those days the blues poured out of South Side bars as liberally as the whiskey, wine, and beer that served as the only cover charge. “A bottle of beer was 25 cents, but when Muddy Waters played, it was 35,” Guy recalls. “[During those evenings] I tried to copy every guitar player that I saw. I guess, in the meantime, I was learning something for myself.”


Invited by Chess Records to make his debut album in 1960, Guy soon became the one that others strove to emulate. Future superstars such as Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan dropped in to see the man some have called the best guitarist on the planet.

The old blues clubs may be gone, but Guy’s licks still soar at his 24-year-old namesake nightclub in the South Loop, where he performs each January (for 2014 tickets, visit buddyguy.com) and which he vows to keep open as long as he lives. “Buddy is our greatest surviving link to the incredible blues tradition of this city,” says Jim DeRogatis, music critic and cohost of the National Public Radio show Sound Opinions. “He was just the right age to learn at the feet of the masters. To have him here [in Chicago] and be able to watch him is magical. We should never take that for granted.”

While Guy has been showered with laurels in recent years—including a Kennedy Center Honors award last December—he is not willing to rest on them. This year brought the release of a tour de force double CD set, Rhythm & Blues, which features collaborations with rapper Kid Rock, country star Keith Urban, and members of the rock band Aerosmith. It includes “Meet Me in Chicago,” the kind of raucous number that has made Guy not only a blues titan but also an ongoing ambassador for his adopted hometown.

Who knows? Maybe President Obama will even sing a few bars the next time he’s in the city. If Buddy asks, of course.

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