Every January, Buddy Guy holds a month-long residency at Buddy Guy's Legends, the blues club he owns in Chicago. The 76-year-old Guy plays four nights a week with a roster of national touring acts like Lil Ed and the Imperials. Most of his shows sell out well in advance. But Guy's annual January stand is a misleading measure of the state of the blues these days. Legends is now one of just a handful of blues clubs left in a city once renowned for them, and the audience for Guy's music has changed dramatically—instead of the thriving black working class that filled clubs like Legends in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s, Guy finds himself playing for an international crowd.
"Actually, 60 or 70 percent of the customers are from other countries," he says. "It's unbelievable. Sometimes I wonder what the hell is going on."
It's a lot different from the scene he found upon arriving in Chicago from Louisiana in 1957, toward the end of the golden age of Chicago blues. Back then, the city had dozens of clubs, filled with now-legendary musicians like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Otis Rush, and Elmore James. A wave of black migration from the South after World War II had brought the acoustic Delta blues up north and plugged it in for a new urban audience, and the city responded.
"When Muddy Waters and those great blues players was alive, you could play seven days a week and not play at the same club," Guy says. "And now, with my club, you might have three or four more that are still open. ... Wasn't nobody making a lot of money back then, but it was thousands and thousands of clubs, and all of 'em was going at 5 o' clock in the morning. You had those shifts working at those 24-7 steel mills and stockyards getting off at 7 or 8 o' clock in the morning. I remember we used to play Blue Monday—start playing at 7 in the morning, and you couldn't get in the joint."
Even then, though, the greatest of the Chicago bluesmen were unknown to most of America. Segregated clubs and race-based record-company marketing created a black entertainment network that thrived on its own terms but remained largely invisible to the mainstream industry until it was brought back here by the British Invasion.
"There was a television show called Shindig in the '60s, and they was after the Stones," Guy says. "They agreed to come if they could bring Muddy Waters. And they said, ‘Who the hell is that?' Mick got offended and said, ‘You don't know who Muddy Waters is? We named ourselves after one of his famous records.'"
Guy was one of the biggest beneficiaries of the wave of notoriety that followed the success of British groups like the Stones, the Who, the Animals, and the Yardbirds, who all played covers of blues hits from the '40s and '50s. Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimi Hendrix all praised Guy's explosive electric style as a primary influence. (Guy names the flamboyant Guitar Slim, known for his flashy suits and playing guitar above his head and behind his back, as one of his biggest inspirations.) After more than a decade of slugging it out in the Chicago clubs, Guy was finally a star. He was also a generation younger than Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, and positioned to take advantage of the opportunity.
"Clapton and Hendrix and Stevie Ray [Vaughn] and them revived the blues," he says. "The Stones. Because white America didn't know who B.B. King and Muddy Waters was until the stones came back here and started telling them it was nothing new they was doing. Rod Stewart and all of them was doing the stuff we had been doing all the time. But when the British started doing it, they started turning up those amps and the world started listening. A lot of black people was listening to it, but that was as far as it went. When the British started playing it, it opened up the door for all of us."
Guy's not optimistic about the future of the music he's played for most of his life. He's among the last of his generation, and while the tradition won't die out when he's gone, it won't be the same.
"I can give you my opinion from where I'm looking at," he says. "I'm a blues player and been one, I guess, all of my life. It's kind of cloudy, if you understand what I'm saying, because they don't play it on the radio hardly anymore. ... Now, during the summertime, you play some outdoor festivals and you do see some kids, 7, 8, 9, 10 years old, and they don't know who you are. If you had a record being played two or three times a week they might have heard of you, but that's obsolete now, because you can count the radio stations that play the type of blues we play two or three times a week. If they do, it's 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning on a Saturday night or something like that. What kid is up at 3:30 in the morning listening to blues?
"It's scary. But I've dedicated my life to it, and I don't know nothing else to do, man. But some people still love it, because otherwise I wouldn't still be out there, me and B.B. or whoever's still left, making a decent living at it."