Esteemed bluesman BUDDY GUY was raised in the South and has toured the world, but CHICAGO is the place he calls home. He takes us on a tour through his Windy City.
Photographs by Danny Bollinger
Carrying a suitcase and a Les Paul guitar, George “Buddy” Guy stepped off the diesel train and into the alluring unknown of Chicago. It was nearly midnight on Sept. 25, 1957, and he had just traveled 16 hours and 900 miles on the Illinois Central, from his home in Louisiana to this station platform at 63rd and Dorchester on the South Side. Just 21 years old, the son of sharecroppers, he had cut his first demo as a blues guitarist four months earlier. In his pockets was $600 he’d saved from his job as a janitor in Baton Rouge, La., and the address of a homeboy nicknamed Fat Man who had promised to put him up.
Guy walked to Fat Man’s kitchenette apartment at 4719 Kenwood, close to the heart of the black metropolis known as Bronzeville. That night and every night for the next few months, he slept in a chair until 5 a.m., when Fat Man went off to his day job as a cook and Guy was able to claim the bed. Guy paid no rent but went through his whole $600 kitty buying beer and whiskey for Fat Man and his friends. Worse, his Les Paul got stolen right off the stage of a club. Looking for steady work, Guy passed the test to become a Chicago Transit Authority bus driver, but he never got the job because he didn’t know the local alderman. At one point in early 1958, out of money and in debt over his new guitar, he went three days without eating.
Today, at age 74 and after more than half a century in Chicago, the naive, nearly destitute newcomer has grown to become the city’s musical ambassador. The celebrated bluesman is a five-time Grammy winner, an inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a businessman on a first-name basis with the mayor, and a friend and mentor to Eric Clapton; he was also a major influence on the late Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix. He owns and oversees Buddy Guy’s Legends, a downtown Chicago blues club — the third club he’s owned over the years — a pilgrimage site for blues fans from around the world.
Photo: The legendary bluesman at his club Buddy Guy’s Legends
“Blues is synonymous with Chicago, and Buddy Guy today really is the king of Chicago blues,” says Barry Dolins, the longtime coordinator of the Chicago Blues Festival. “Chicago has been that mecca ever since the Great Migration — black people from the South coming to Chicago and bringing their culture. Buddy is himself the product of that migration. And he parallels the development of Chicago blues by working as a sideman, getting a career and creating the greatest blues club that’s probably ever been in Chicago.”
As for Guy himself, he can sound at once humble, dazzled and proud about his trajectory.
“This so-called ‘being a legend,’ I don’t put that up on my shoulders,” he says in the morning quiet of his club. “I guess if you just hang around long enough and play, [you’re considered a legend]. I think of the blessings I achieved from the way I was brought up. My father was a sharecropper who probably never made more than $20,000 in his whole life, and there was a lady in England who paid me $100,000 to play an hour.”
Despite spending more than half the year on the road, hopscotching from continent to continent, he remains a devoted Chicagoan. He grows tomatoes in his backyard — collard greens, he explains, need more attention than his touring schedule sometimes allows — and he narrates an online blues tour for the Chicago Office of Tourism. And on this particular day, he provides a visiting reporter and photographer a guided drive through his Chicago, the place that made him and that makes him still.