Buddy Guy and other Chicago memories

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I figure it’s time for another musician’s tale, but this one takes place in Chicago about 25 years ago. South Side. Because if it hadn’t been for my experiences on Chicago’s South Side as the stereotypical struggling writer/musician, chances are I never would have wound up as a writer/musician in Detroit. Probably never would have ended up in Detroit at all, for that matter. It’s funny how life gets at this stage in the game;  you can look back over the road you’ve traveled and be able to identify specifically which unanticipated detours pointed you in the direction of where you find yourself at this present space in time.

There are no accidents in life, just unexpected adventures. 

So I’ll talk some other time about how I ended up in Chicago from Denver, Colorado, which is where I was born and raised. Right now my brain is starting to develop a coat of frost as I remember how damned cold it was when Dave and I were hustling down some un-remembered street to see Buddy Guy perform at the University of Chicago. Didn’t I just said it was 25 years, ago? All right then. 

To this day I have never in life been as cold in any American city as I was during the four years when I lived in Chicago during the early ’80s. I am convinced that wintertime in Chicago is specifically designed to not only strip the flesh from your bones but to strip spirit from flesh. Once you venture in one end of a Chicago winter, rest assured that you will come out the other end a changed and reformed individual. Maybe reformed for the best, maybe reformed for the worst, but no one can endure that amount of cold for that long without experiencing life-altering consequences.

So anyway Dave and I were walking. The bus had taken us as close to the performance hall as it could get us, so now we were on our own. The only up-side about the cold was that this was one of those blessed days when there was no wind. By this time my skin had thickened to the point where I could withstand most cold snaps with teeth-chattering bravado so long as I didn’t have to lean into that hawk.

Once inside the hall, we took our seats at the upper level and waited for the lights to go down. Dave had told me Buddy Guy was someone I needed to see if I truly loved guitar and was determined to make my way in the Windy City. A few minutes later the lights faded and out strolls Buddy, accompanied by his longtime friend Junior Wells, onto the stage. Buddy was wearing this gray suit topped off by a large pimp-style brown fur hat crowning his head, beneath which a cool and easy smile beamed out at the audience. His walk was just as cool as his smile, which I figured meant he was probably high. Nobody could walk in slow motion like that in a fast-forward world without the aid of controlled substances. Or some damned fine liquor.

After the applause had died down, and Buddy spent a few minutes chatting amiably with the audience, the bass drum exploded like a sonic boom and the band launched freefall into a furious blues number. I don’t even remember what the song was, only that Buddy’s guitar was making his amplifier growl and moan like an angry, chained beast. I had never heard anything like it – or at least I thought I hadn’t. It was a few more years before I made the connection between bluesmen like Buddy Guy and my all-time guitar hero Jimi Hendrix.

Several weeks after the show had ended I knew I had to make a pilgrimage to the Checkerboard Lounge, located on 43rd Street just off of King Drive, which was only a few blocks from where I was living in a rooming house on 46th and King. I’d heard Buddy held court over there with Junior Wells several nights out of the week, and it was a chance to see him up close and personal in one of those tight-fit, smoke-filled ‘hood joints, which was really the best way.

So one night I decided to walk myself up there and see what was what. This was back before you’d find too many white folks willing to hang out there, back when the club was populated with  a far more demanding, rough-edged neighborhood crowd that viewed Buddy not so much as conquering hero but as one of them. When Buddy played Checkerboard, he was playing at home.

Sometimes that can be a good thing, but not always. The night I decided to show up, after paying my door fee to a scowling brother who had probably been smoking the same cigarette for the past 20 years, I took a seat alone at the bar. A large-breasted middle-aged white woman with dark hair and matching cold stone eyes imbedded in make-up damaged flesh sauntered over and slid a napkin in front of me. Never asked me what I wanted, never smiled. Just took a long drag on her cigarette and stared, waiting for me to speak. I told her I wanted a wine. She stared a few moments longer, then turned away.

Real men order shit like a vodka tonic. Scotch on the rocks.

She brings my drink, stares while I count out my money, then walks away again. The band is pretty good, but I’m wondering where is Buddy Guy. About an hour later, in he walks wearing a glow-in-the-dark white suit with matching white shoes and a blood red satiny shirt. Got a woman on each arm (both of them trying to out-switch the other one) whom he calmly escorts to a table off to the side. A few folks call out his name, to which he smiled, but not enough to let you know he was anybody special.

About 30 minutes after that Junior Wells shows up, and he’s already drunk. A friend of mine who knew Junior pretty well told me he was actually a nice guy, but I swear he came off like the most ornery MF I’d seen in movies or real life that night. Cursing like curse words were bullets and his mouth the barrel and chamber. Naturally the big-breasted white woman loved him. Hugged herself all up on him as he strode behind the bar and commenced to talking shit about whatever. Gave me a look like “what the f–k you lookin’ at?” just for being alive, so I acted like I was looking around for my imaginary friend to show up.

By closing time, which I think was around 2 a.m. or so, maybe later, Buddy Guy had never bothered to grace the stage. After burning through a few numbers like a prairie fire with no water in sight, Junior Wells gently pleaded at least four or five times for Buddy to come on up and play, but Buddy had another kind of playtime on his mind. Plus I think he wanted the crowd to know it was good to be king, and being king means you do what you wanna do when and if you wanna do it. The end.

Personally I felt it was pretty screwed up, but then I’m not king. Fortunately I’ve seen Buddy any number of times since that night, both in Chicago and here in my beloved Detroit, where I have since learned that not all kings receive the recognition they deserve. Kings – and Queens – like the Butler Twins, Uncle Jessie White, Alberta Adams, Mr. Bo, and so many others. And then there are those who shone enough for all of us, like the late John Lee Hooker, the former auto worker who made his name in the rough-and-tumble bright lights of the once-upon-a-time Paradise Valley.

Here’s to the kings and queens who never got their crowns, and to rusted kingdoms buried beneath the sins of their past.

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~ by Keith A. Owens on April 19, 2007.

5 Responses to “Buddy Guy and other Chicago memories”

  1. […] Read more here… […]

  2. I attended The University of Vermont, back when to most black folk Vermont was a rumor! Buddy Guy and Jr. Wells were often playing on campus and around the state. BB King and Luthor Allison were other big stars from the blues world. I met Buddy at his Chicago club, and he was not that nice to me, but he didn’t stop grinning for the white people. When I mentioned Vermont he was nicer. I love he music but his love is white folk, not unlike others.

  3. JD,

    Unfortunately I think you’re right about Buddy. I’ve talked to a lot of folks who have had that exact same experience and who have drawn similar conclusions. It’s too bad because I’m a huge fan of his playing. Fortunately, BB King is nothing like that. Really wonderful person.

  4. I agree about BB and his band. An advantage of life in Vermont was when black stars came to town, they had no one but us few blacks to hang with. BB is all class

  5. […] topped off by a large pimp-style brown fur hat crowning his head, beneath which a cool and easy shttps://teamowens313.wordpress.com/2007/04/19/buddy-guy-and-other-chicago-memories/Buddy Guy&39s Legends on Centerstage Chicago – Buddy Guy&39s Legends …Buddy Guy&39s Legends on […]

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