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Buddy Guy: Brand new bag

Blues legend still hides new tricks up his sleeve

He's one of the greatest blues guitarists ever, a showman with a supple touch and fiery vocals. His influence on rock is immeasurable. Artists such as Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Jimi Hendrix have all pointed to Buddy Guy as a major inspiration. But when it comes to basking in the glory, the elder statesman humbly defers.

"A lot of guitar players won't be honest with you about, 'I did this, I did that. You look at me.' I'll tell you the truth: I didn't do nothing. Everything you see me do, I got it from somebody else," Guy says. "Any award I ever achieved in my life, including being inducted into the Hall of Fame, belongs to someone like Guitar Slim or Lonnie Johnson."

His fluent style wanders widely, incorporating the pantheon of blues that came before him. But for the first time in his career, Guy plans to release an album full of all original material this summer. Titled Skin Deep, it's scheduled to arrive in stores July 22, just eight days before he turns 72. Don't expect a preview, however, when he performs May 30 at the Atlanta Botanical Garden.

"I just want it to be a surprise, because it's 100 percent new material," he says of the upcoming release. "I'm not redoing anybody's old stuff."

It's certainly a new twist for Guy, who has spent a career praising the legends who influenced him. He formed his style as a teen in the late '40s and early '50s, after artists such as B.B. King, the theatrical Slim, and the versatile Johnson impressed him in concert.

"When they introduced B.B. King, he pops out on the stage and picks up his guitar and starts playing these beautiful notes. When they introduced Guitar Slim, he came in the door on the shoulders of another man with a 150-foot guitar cord, and I said to myself, 'I want to play like B.B. King and act like Guitar Slim," he says.

Before long, he was on his way to Chicago where he quickly established a reputation with his repertoire. "Word got out that this cat is playing Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, T-Bone Walker ... And that's what you hear in me," Guy says. "Everything that's crossed the threshold."

He ended up playing sessions on great Chess blues albums from the '60s alongside legends, because he was willing to subordinate his ego – unlike some of his peers.

"There were guitar players who could play rings around me, but when they got a chance to go play with Muddy they said, 'Now it's time for me to show my stuff.' But Chess Records owner Leonard Chess and Muddy wouldn't let them do that," Guy says. "I was like, 'Man, I'm in school; I'm gonna take my lessons."

While they squelched Guy's creativity in the studio by telling him what to play and how to play it – specifically, not so loud – they couldn't control him live. On stage, his roaring, incendiary playing and theatrical guitar antics appealed to a younger generation. Like many blues artists at the time, it was England that embraced him most. In turn, he taught them to love the Fender Stratocaster.

"When I first met Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton, they told me they didn't know about the Stratocaster because they didn't know it could play blues," he recalls. "They thought the Stratocaster was just made to play country and western."

Chess would later call Guy into his office and apologize, pointing to Hendrix and Cream and saying, "'That's the fucking shit you've been having here, a long time ago, and we were too fucking dumb to listen to you,'" Guy recalls. By then, the horse had left the barn and he would have to wait another quarter century to truly get his due.

After a 15-year studio hiatus, during which he was forgotten by many, Clapton invited Guy to play Royal Albert Hall with him. That show led directly to a deal with Silvertone Records for 1991's Damn Right, I Got the Blues. It won a Grammy, beginning a run of releases that produced four more Grammys and established Guy's eminence.

But he views the upcoming release of Skin Deep as the culmination of his career. "I've "been trying to record it since I first started picking up a guitar," he says, revealing his plan to tackle cultural relations in his first album of all original material. "I haven't felt this good about a CD in a long time."

music@creativeloafing.com