Buddy Guy’s life’s journey took him from a sharecropper’s shack to the White House.
The shack was in Pointe Coupee Parish on a plantation near Lettsworth. The rural, isolated life that his family lived was hard, but Guy was a happy child. He wanted to be in the cotton fields alongside his daddy and the big people.
“Didn’t know anything else except the land and the sky and the seasons and the fruits and the fish and the horses and the cows and the pigs and the pecans and the birds and the moss and the white cotton that we prayed came up plentiful enough to give us enough money to make it through the winter,” Guy remembers in When I Left Home: My Story, his autobiography.
The first music that touched his heart, Guy continues his book, wasn’t made by man. “It was the music of the birds,” he says. “They was singing in the morning and singing at night.”
In the typical fashion of musically inclined youngsters in the rural South, Guy built an instrument that resembled a guitar, made from two strings attached to a scrap of wood via hair pins.
Guy didn’t get a real guitar until about a decade later. That acoustic Harmony model is now part of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s collection of music artifacts. Guy grew up to be a blues singer-guitarist who influenced generations of musicians, including Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix.
The recipient of many honors and awards in the past 20 years or so, Guy’s recent recognition includes the Kennedy Center Honors. His fellow honorees were Dustin Hoffman, David Letterman, Led Zeppelin and ballerina Natalia Makarova.
A gala ceremony took place on Dec. 2 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama joined the honorees in the presidential box of the Kennedy Center Opera House for an evening of performances that recognized the honorees’ artistic achievements. A White House reception preceded the performance.
Guy performed at the White House in February 2012 for a concert dubbed Red, White & Blues. The Obamas — who lived in Chicago, the home of the blues, before their move to Washington — and invited guests watched a concert featuring Guy, B.B. King, New Orleans’ Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, Jeff Beck, Gary Clark Jr., Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks.
“This is something so special,” Guy said of the White House concert. “I just close my eyes and say, ‘Thank God.’ ”
Guy was living in Baton Rouge, earning $28 a week as a custodian at LSU, when he decided to move to Chicago. He left via train on Sept. 25, 1957, thinking he could play music at night in the city, but never thinking he’d have career in music.
Life in Chicago was tough but Guy found a mentor in one of the city’s blues stars, Muddy Waters.
“Man,” Guy told The Advocate in 2008, “I was on my third day without any food when Muddy Waters gave me a salami sandwich.”
Guy got musical work in Chicago clubs. He also played for sessions at Chess Records, backing Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson. Guy made of his own recordings for Chess in the 1960s but his greatest fame was yet to come.
Guy’s long-time-coming breakthrough came in 1991 with his album, Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues. Subsequent years saw him receive multiple Grammy awards and, in 2005, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“Nowadays the young people play for the love of money,” Guy reflected in 2008. “When I left Louisiana, I was playing for the love of music. But people who get the success overnight, if you notice, they don’t enjoy it like we did, because we had to go through so much stuff for it.”