Let's start with your earliest days as a young wannabe blues artist, starting with when you came to Chicago from down South.
I arrived at about 11:26 the night of September 25, 1957. For some reason I can't ever forget that. And at that point, I wasn't looking to be a musician. I wanted to meet, in my book, the giants of musicians, which was Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Jimmy Reed, just to name a few of them. They all were living here then. And I wanted to go to work, just common labor in the day, and go out in the night and see if I would learn how I was supposed to play by watching them.
My mother had had a stroke, and I was hoping to send money back down there. I got stranded; I'd never found a job. I really looked and looked - I was ready to do anything to help my family. I was too shy to sing, and I got stranded for three days with no food. Someone dragged me into the club while Otis Rush was playing, and I went up and played a number. And whoever owned the club said, "I don't know who that is, but hire him." And I went outside and was telling people how hungry I was, and someone said, "No way, man, the way you play that, you ain't got no excuse being hungry again. I'm gonna call Muddy."
Well, I was walking out the door, and someone in the aisle slapped me. I didn't know who he was; I didn't want to be bothered. He said, "I'm Muddy. I'm the Mud." And I said, "Oh, boy." "Boy, come on. I want to talk to you. Somebody said you're hungry." I said, "Oh, Jesus, I'm getting mugged." But it was "Mud" he was saying, not "getting mugged." He put me in the back of the car and made a salami sandwich and convinced me that I could stay and be a part of what they had invented in Chicago. So I got a chance to make records with them and got to know them, and here I am.
Did you know about these blues giants growing up down South? How did you first come into contact with the blues and with those artists in particular?
I'm a sharecropper's son. When we finally got a radio, at that time the radio station would play a spiritual record, country and western, or jazz, and Sonny Boy Williamson, and, later, John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters. Of course, when I got old enough to go into a juke joint, they had it on the jukebox. It was like five cents to play it, and that's why I come in contact with it.
Listening to your story, it seems that you were very fortunate: You came to Chicago at the right time; you met the right people. You also had the talent. But there were a lot of other aspiring musicians, American musicians, who were coming up from the South at that time, who struggled and struggled and wound up playing only maybe little clubs. But you walked right into that situation.
No, I didn't walk right into that. I went many days hungry. I just walked into that a few years ago. I still was going to small clubs, and I finally got a job driving a tow truck. And I would drive the tow truck from seven to five in the evening, wash the grease off of my hands, and go play the small club that night, because I loved my music so well. I didn't even dream of saying, "One day you might hit the right note and not have to drive a tow truck anymore." I didn't plan this; I didn't see this. Because after I played with Muddy Waters and Little Walter and all those guys, I thought I had to go right to bed. I didn't care about no record or nothing, and I just said, I met the guy I come here to meet. And that was high as I could go.
What I meant was, you met Muddy Waters. And you met Otis Rush. And you were brought to some of the best players of the time.
Oh, of course! I learned so much. Some of these people were better than me, ten times better than me. I won't say none of them was better than Muddy Waters, but some of them would challenge Muddy. But they were ignored. You know, it's just like going to college to be a football player. Some of them are great, better than the ones getting picked, but they never make it. I looked at it like that. I said, "Well, I know I'll never make it. I'll go to this club, watch this guy play, and then go to the next club." As a matter of fact, they were so busy at the clubs in those days, I lost track of the weekend. Because Chicago was like, seven days a week, all the stockyards were going, the steel mills, everything was like around the clock. I walked up to a stranger one day, I say "I like to go to church." And he says, "Son, this is Wednesday." I said, "Oh, my God, I've gotta go back and figure out when it's Saturday and Sunday."
One of the great duos, if you will, of the late Sixties was, of course, you and Junior Wells. How did that relationship start? And what went down between you and Junior?
The first time I met Junior, he asked me, Could I play? And I say, Yeah. And he asked me, Did I want to play in his band? He was one of those little mean guys, too, so he just give me the runaround. I said, "No, I think I better just leave this alone," because I'm the type of guy, if I accept a job from you, all you have to do is tell me what to do, and you don't have to come back and tell me no more unless you want me to do something different. So that's how Junior and I came together - he came to me one day and said, "I heard you, you can play pretty good, I want you to play on this "Hoodoo Man" album with me." No rehearsal, nothing. I just got up early that morning, and then we went in there and made the record. And we became good friends. But we didn't play together all the time. We started playing together in 1970. We had just finished going on tour throughout Europe as the opening band for the Rolling Stones.
Can you comment on Willie Dixon's importance to the blues? What he did, not just as a performer, but behind the scenes?
I would say Willie Dixon is one of the greatest blues writers that ever wrote blues music. I had the chance to kind of grow up under his wing myself. And some of the songs he wrote - most blues players who write songs write about everyday life, your life and other people around you. He had experienced some things that I didn't get a chance to see. And you can hear that in a lot of his songs. I know some of the rock groups did his songs. But the meaning of the song is what it is, what it explains to you, and then you can sing it as blues or whatever you want.
A lot of people who have admired and done research on Jimi Hendrix have written that Jimi considered you one of his principle influences. That he looked up to you - and other blues men, but particularly you - because of your showmanship. Did you meet Jimi back then, and do you know about that connection?
Yeah, I finally met him. I was always told, "If you never make New York, you never make it." And I finally got to a blues club there, I think it was 1967, and I was going wild as usual, and somebody kept hollering, "There's Hendrix, there's Hendrix." And I say, "Who the hell is that?" 'cause I really didn't know him at that time. And he was crawling up with a tape recorder and asking me, could he tape that? We became pretty close from that night on. And every time I went through New York or somewhere he would show up and we would jam together. I think he was the first one I saw use the wah-wah pedal.
Do you see Jimi Hendrix as a blues artist, as opposed to someone who was just interested in psychedelic rock? What are Jimi's blues roots, as far as you're concerned? What contributions did he make to the blues?
Jimi Hendrix was the Coltrane of modern music. And at one point in time he was similar to me. Nobody wanted to listen to it when you turn that amplifier up. The Chess people didn't, either. I found out later that this guy who produced my first record with Silver Tom came to New York and took Jimi to London because they accepted it there. And that's how he exploded. I think he played for Little Richard, and he hung around New York, and everywhere he would play, it was like when I was here: "Who's that?" But when he went to England - you know, the British people exploded blues more than Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and everybody else, because they accepted it as they were playing it and released it. Then it came back here, and the Chess people were saying, "Kick me, Buddy, because you've been trying to tell me this all the time, and I wouldn't listen."
When Jimi left and went to England, I heard a quote that he was just wild. I was wild, but I wouldn't use the effects and things like he was, because I figured if you couldn't get it out of your wrists or your fingers, I didn't want nothing else helping me. Which was a big mistake.
Let's jump to more contemporary times as we wrap this thing up. You played a big part in the whole blues revival of the 1980s. When you think of this blues revival, and you're one of the kingpins of it today, what do think of when you talk about, say, Stevie Ray Vaughan?
Stevie Ray Vaughan did to music what Michael Jordan did for basketball. I guess you have to be at the right place at the right time and play the right note at the right recording session. Stevie brought blues alive at crucial moments, so far as I'm concerned. Because they didn't explode B.B. King like that. I think every guitar player I know should have two Bs on his guitar - Stevie recognized the same thing. I'm telling you now, he brought so much to this music, it would take me longer than I got time to explain to you what he did for the blues. And one of the things that makes goose bumps come on me: Every time someone would ask him about it, he would go back and tell you, "Wait a minute, this is so and so's music." And white America was asking, "Who's that?" Which is the same thing they ask the Rolling Stones: "Who's Muddy Waters?' They was kind of embarrassed about it. I don't think Stevie was ever embarrassed. He let the public know, "This is Stevie Ray Vaughan, but I'm playing a Buddy Guy song, I'm playing a John Doe or whoever song. Something you never heard of. This is not Stevie's music. I'm playing what I heard from, and that's what we all do."
Last two questions. One is: Give me just a general description as to why Chicago became the home of the blues and why Chicago has had such a great history of the blues.
Chicago had the Chess Records, the Willie Dixons, the Muddy Waters, the Howlin' Wolf, the Jimmy Reed, the Sonny Boy Williamson, and they kept putting this stuff out. I got it somewhere in one of my scrapbooks that Chess Records had Jimmy Rogers, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, and Howlin' Wolf at the top of the list on Billboard then or whatever it is. And I guess, you know, the Chess brothers just had that thing, 'cause a lot of Muddy Waters' songs, Chess was just patting the drums - they didn't have all the technology they got now. They just went in there with a tape and a razor blade. If they didn't like stuff, they would take the razor blade and cut that out. Now you can punch a button and cut it out. And there were so many clubs, you could play even if you weren't recording - if you were good enough to play those ten records that they played most on the jukebox, you were in there. And that's what I'm trying to do with Chicago now. I can't let this go as long as I'm alive.
The last question is basically one that talks about today. B.B. King is widely recognized as a blues ambassador - in other words, he's one of those players who presents the culture and the history of the blues to people, and they understand it through his music and through what he has to say about the music. And more and more you're becoming that as well. Explain to me the importance of the blues, and why we need to continue to pay attention to the blues. And why you have taken on that role, like B.B., to be a blues ambassador.
Well, the blues music is important to me because once there wasn't a lot of different types of music, which have just been given names over the last thirty, maybe forty years. As of lately, you've got big radio stations - they call it classic - and some of the rock groups can go play a version Muddy Waters did forty years ago and they will play it on that station. You could hear a much wider range than you can on the radio station that would play Muddy after midnight or at three o'clock in the morning. You could play the rest of the music six days a week, but just play me a blues tune every seventh day on that radio station and let the young people know what classic is. 'Cause I got a car and it's very old and they say, "That's classic," so how come Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and T-Bone Walker, and half the damn records can't be played once a month or once a week and call that classic, too? Don't wait till somebody re-do it. The Stones, or Eric Clapton - anybody can play an old Muddy Waters song, they'll say it's on this station because it's classic. But the original version of that song - they're not going to play it on that station.
One of the Chess brothers said, after the rock groups start doing the blues, this jock was playing it, and he took Muddy's version and then the guy's stumped, says, "I can't play that on this station." Matter of fact, I went to my hometown, right after the blues come out. I was at a record store signing autographs and one of the guys comes and says, "I'm on the biggest station here, Buddy, and you're my favorite and I can't play your record." I would like to live long enough and hopefully one day play the right note so you can't refuse to play it on one of these big stations called classic. And if I get that, that's the gold record I want.
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