In his own words he’s “been around the world, everywhere is home. I’ve drank wine with kings and the Rolling Stones.” But despite the worldwide acclaim and accolades, Mr. Buddy Guy has been a proud citizen of the city of Chicago since 1957.
Like many other influential blues artists, Guy came up to the Windy City by way of the Great Migration and joined countless southern African-Americans that made the move to northern industrial cities. The Louisiana transplant was soon “adopted” by Mississippian Muddy Waters, played alongside Junior Wells, and did session work for Chess records with the likes of Koko Taylor, Howlin’ Wolf, and other big-name blues artists.
Guy’s frenzied guitar playing and electrifying live shows became the stuff of legend; with Eric Clapton citing Guy as his favorite guitarist of all-time. But while Guy was touring with the Stones and fans were queuing up for his music, Guy could not secure a major label deal during the 60s and 70s—ironically considered the heyday of those British “super bands.”
All this changed in the early 90s when Guy signed on with Silvertone and released the brilliant “Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues.” Following this landmark recording, the former session guitarist emerged as a major headliner, selling out concerts and festivals across the world. But it’s obvious that Guy’s sold on “sweet home Chicago” and hammered the point home when he opened his club, Legends, on Wabash in 1989.
Since then, Legends has been a “must-see” spot on the itinerary of blues lovers from all around the world. Guy’s month-long run of live performances at his club is always a huge highlight when “the Hawk” rears its ugly head during a Chicago January.
Through the years, Guy has racked up his share of honors including induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 6 Grammys, and a record 21 WC Handy blues awards. And on Sunday, December 2, Guy will be in the nation’s capital as he receives the prestigious Kennedy Center honor. Given annually for “exemplary lifetime achievement in the performing arts,” this award has been compared to a British knighthood. Dustin Hoffman, David Letterman, Led Zeppelin, and ballerina Natalia Makarova will join Guy in accepting this honor, which will be shown on CBS television on December 26.
Recognizing the significance of this event, the City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs arranged a special send off to honor Guy before he jetted off to Washington, DC. The event was held on Tuesday, November 27 at the Pritzker Center. Free tickets were offered to the first 75 fans that responded to a posting on the Chicago Blues Fest Facebook page. This “Cheap Thrills” reporter was lucky enough to receive a pair of tickets to attend this memorable tribute for one of Chicago’s favorite sons.
With dusk setting in and Chicago’s stunning skyline on brilliant display through the glass-filled room, the Blues Kids warmed up the crowd, and served notice that there’s a bright future for the blues here in Chicago.
A dapper Guy was ushered into the room by Mayor Rahm Emanuel who was flanked by WXRT DJ and noted blues aficionado Tom Marker. As the former White House Chief of Staff, Emmanuel noted that he has attended many Kennedy Center honor ceremonies. As he acknowledged his achievement, he also told Guy that he was sure to have a good time in DC.
While Guy is noted for being for being flamboyant and garrulous during his live performances, he seemed visibly moved and rather humbled as he spoke to the audience. He jokingly talked about seeing the geese flying south for the winter, just as he was moving north to Chicago. And in a nod to his adopted city and its rich musical tradition, Guy emphatically stated that Chicago is truly the only home of the blues.
Following his remarks, Guy returned to his front-row seat alongside the mayor as many noted blues musicians honored him by performing their renditions of Guy’s music. Wayne Baker Brooks served as the unofficial emcee as he welcomed many of Guy’s disciples to the stage. Harp-player Fernando Jones and legendary guitarist Jimmy Johnson joined the house band with “Everything is Going to be All Right” followed by “I Smell Trouble.” Big Head Todd was next up and did “Man of Many Words.” Eddie “The Chief” Clearwater worked the crowd with an instrumental version of “Mary had a Little Lamb” before teaming up with Brooks for a sizzling rendition of “Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues.”
A musical version of a Brooks family reunion was the next highlight as Ronnie Baker Brooks got on stage for “Leave My Little Girl Alone.” Patriarch Lonnie, soon joined his sons. Taking a page from Buddy Guy’s musical playbook, he cajoled many members of the audience to sing “Sweet Home Chicago,” including the soon-to-be Kennedy Center honoree himself.