Photo: Guy’s Grammy-nominated album Heavy Love.
Fittingly, our itinerary begins at Legends, a crossroads of the blues past and present. Behind the bar loom paintings of the local blues pantheon — Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter — and guitars used and inscribed by Clapton, Vaughan, Carlos Santana, Gatemouth Brown and Derek Trucks. Beneath the glass countertop are snapshots of B.B. King, Duane Allman and Lightnin’ Hopkins, as well as Chicago mainstays such as John Primer and Johnny Young.
The museum-like feeling of the place is a quality true to Guy’s intent. “Blues clubs are like blues musicians: an endangered species,” he says. “But without clubs, where’s the next Muddy Waters or Eric Clapton gonna be heard? Without clubs, you wouldn’t be talking to me now. If I was just walkin’ down the st reet , you wouldn’t know I could play guitar. It was because I went into those clubs and the word-of-mouth came out that there was a new guy who could play some wild guitar.”
With that in mind, we leave Legends and head five miles south to East 47th Street. These blocks, depleted now, were once the throbbing heart of Bronzeville, with department stores, restaurants, pharmacies, two dozen shoe stores and everything an aspiring blues musician could desire. “There were music stores selling 45s, 78s, instruments,” Guy recalls. “You’d say ‘How much for that harmonica?’ and they’d say, ‘Give me what you want, just get it out of the way.’ When you went out, you never did make it to the club you set out to. Walking down the street, four clubs on each side, all the doors open, hearing the music, going in to listen. Next thing you know, it’s four in the morning.”
As he talks, Guy lingers outside a two-story red brick building, its windows covered with plywood. This used to be the 708 Club — named for the address that remains alongside the shuttered door — where a young Guy ended up after those three famished days in 1958. Another musician had brought him to the club for a sort of cutting contest. Desperate to make an impression, Guy strutted along the bar counter as he soloed, a trick he had learned from watching Guitar Slim; on his Stratocaster, he played the kind of single-note runs he had modeled after B.B. King’s but with a sharper, rougher edge. Someone ran down the block to find Muddy Waters at another club. Waters was so impressed upon hearing Guy that he bought him a salami sandwich.
“Magic Sam” Maghett helped open the doors of Chicago’s recording scene to Guy, who signed with Cobra Records, where he cut his early sides. He eventually moved to the legendary Chess Records label, where, for seven years, he backed up Waters, Little Walter, Willie Dixon, Koko Taylor and Sonny Boy Williamson, among others, and started a decades-long partnership with Junior Wells, another Waters sideman and protégé. (Their band recorded for Delmark Records, another Chicago label, rather than Chess.)
The Chess recording studio, unlike the 708, is still open and operating at 2120 S. Michigan Ave. — an address so iconic, the Rolling Stones titled a song for it. The building no longer functions as a studio but rather as a museum and education center called Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation, run by the cultural organization founded by the late bluesman. Climbing the stairs to the second-floor gallery where he cut so many records, Guy recalls the first time the Stones showed up — must’ve been about 1963, he figures — and how at first glance he thought the longhairs were girls. He remembers the day Leonard Chess, the label’s mercurial owner, ordered him to stop recording a Willie Dixon song called “That Same Thing” because Chess was giving it to Muddy Waters. (Guy’s consolation prize was “My Time After Awhile.”) Though Guy left the label in 1967, he had been close enough to the Chess family at one point to make a mojo — the charm, usually made of some herbs in a small flannel satchel, that was immortalized in Muddy Waters’ “Got My Mojo Workin’ ” — for Chess’ teenage son Marshall.
In leaving Chess, Guy liberated himself as a musician. The label thought his style was too edgy and reckless for its core market of transplanted Southerners and earnest college kids. Too late, Leonard Chess realized what Buddy Guy already knew — that the vast audience for the Stones, Cream and Hendrix craved the slashing style and over-the-top showmanship of Buddy Guy. It was Guy, after all, whom Hendrix first saw playing guitar behind his back or with his teeth, slithering through the crowd with a 100-foot cord — more tricks Guy had picked up from Guitar Slim.
From Toronto to Montreux, Switzerland, to Austin, Texas, Guy toured incessantly through the late 1960s onward. But he kept his base in Chicago and actually deepened his attachment in 1972 by becoming part owner of the Checkerboard Lounge on East 43rd Street. Along with another nearby club, Theresa’s, the Checkerboard kept the blues vibrant in its South Side home, even as clubs were popping up in the affluent, white neighborhoods of the North Shore. On one famous night in 1981 at the Checkerboard, the stage rocked with Guy, Wells and Waters along with Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones.
Even after Guy lost his share in the Checkerboard in 1985 in a dispute with his landlord, he stayed in the club business. He opened the original Legends in 1989 in what was then a precarious section of town, just south of the Loop. In the club’s 20 years there, and in part because of it, the South Loop caught a wave of revival. So when Guy’s lease expired on the original Legends, which he rented from Columbia College Chicago, Chicago mayor Richard Daley got involved to keep the bluesman in the area. The current Legends, which opened in June, is just a block from its predecessor. In true Chicago fashion, you can feel the floor vibrate when the El rumbles past.