By Donald Liebenson
The first time Buddy Guy came to Ravinia, it was as an audience member to see George Benson. “I got there and they looked at me and said, ‘Buddy, we’ve been trying to get you for years!’” Guy recalled in a recent exchange for Ravinia magazine.
In 1999, the festival got him. “It took me a long time to get to a venue like that,” Guy reflected. “I’d play with Junior [Wells] in the early days at Navy Pier, or over by the lake with Stevie [Ray Vaughan], and I imagined those were the biggest places I’d ever play. But they finally got me and I’ve done quite a few shows there since then. I love playing Ravinia, man.”
This summer’s appearance on July 31 is a guitar geek’s fever dream. Guy is sharing the bill with Jeff Beck, who is making his Ravinia debut, and who counts himself as a Buddy Guy acolyte. Guy will have turned 80 the day before the performance, but the tireless guitar hero and blues ambassador is not resting on his considerable laurels. Two recent career milestones offer further reason to celebrate. He was conferred a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys in 2015, and last February he received his sixth recording Grammy for his album Born to Play Guitar.
“Buddy Guy is Chicago blues,” says Sherry Nash, director of external affairs for the recently opened National Blues Museum in Saint Louis. (Hey, when’s Chicago going to get one of those?) “[He] has a tremendous passion not only about the blues but about keeping the blues alive. Countless young blues enthusiasts continue to listen to [Buddy] to learn and that’s special to see them try to imitate him.”
In a written tribute to Guy on the Grammys website in anticipation of his Lifetime Achievement honor, Beck noted Guy’s primal influence as a musician not only on himself but also other guitar heroes, like Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. “His playing still blows me away,” he wrote. “I remember seeing him in the early ’60s and saying to myself, ‘I didn’t know a Strat could sound like that.’ … He transcended blues and started becoming theater. It was high art. … I know that my guitar wouldn’t sound half as good if I hadn’t heard his first.”
In the case of Tony Mangiullo, owner of Rosa’s Lounge, one of Chicago’s essential blues clubs, Guy’s influence was more profound. “He is the reason why I am here in America, and I am not a guitar player,” the Italian native said in a phone interview. Mangiullo, then a teenage drummer in a blues band, met Guy and Wells in Milan in the early ’70s. He had been drawn to Chicago blues through records and reading the lyrics. The Chicago blues sound, he said, “had a raw, alive spirit. It was never slick. It expressed raw, powerful emotion. Meeting [Buddy Guy and Junior Wells] was like putting the pieces of a puzzle together. I told them I wanted to come to Chicago to play the blues. I was 19 years old. Why would they even care; they’re playing in front of thousands of people. But they were so kind. Junior Wells gave me his address.”
On concert stages, in clubs—Guy’s own, Buddy’s Legends, opened in 1989—and on the road, Guy’s musicianship, showmanship, and mentorship has inspired younger guitar players who have since become blues masters in their own right. “Buddy’s club was one of the first places I had a regular job playing [when I started my own band],” noted Carl Weathersby in a phone interview. Weathersby, a Mississippi native (he and Buddy, who hails from Louisiana, bonded over nearby small towns their families had in common) whose family moved to Indiana when he was 8, was the lead guitarist in Billy Branch’s Sons of Blues band for nearly 15 years before striking out on his own. “I asked him lots of questions about running a band,” Weathersby said. “He’d say, ‘Don’t do this, try that, always be early—he gave me a lot of advice. He would sit in with us. Every time he’d do that, if you paid attention, you would start seeing how things should really go.” But Weathersby considers the best advice Guy gave him was to just be himself. “I consider myself a blues musician,” he said. “I’m associated with the sound and style that comes out of Chicago. But Buddy told me to just play and let others label it.”
If Chicago is home of the blues, then Ravinia is where the blues go to vacation each summer. This year will mark Buddy Guy’s 12th appearance at Ravinia. His electric blues is just one of the genre’s styles and offshoots represented each year on the festival’s schedule. Guy’s appearances alone have co-featured Susan Tedeschi—who has since become a veritable staple in her own right—Taj Mahal, George Thorogood, Jonny Lang, and Robert Cray.
But Ravinia’s commitment to the genre extends beyond Buddy Guy’s nearly annual appearances. The 2016 season alone also boasts Charlie Musselwhite (sharing a bill with the Steve Miller Band on July 2), the Chick Corea Trio (July 4), Sweet Honey in the Rock (July 11), and Bonnie Raitt (September 3).
For nearly seven decades, the festival has regularly featured legendary artists who color with the blues. The 1956 season boasted a who’s who of jazz and blues icons, including Dave Brubeck, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, and Duke Ellington. In 1959 the festival spotlighted “The Story of Blues” with a series of concerts featuring Studs Turkel and singers Clara Ward, Barbara Dane, and Brother John Sellers. August 5, 1970, a night that looms large in Ravinia lore, saw Janis Joplin take the main stage. B.B. King, who first appeared at the festival in 1969, returned to play Ravinia in his 80th year in 2006.
For those with limited opportunity to see the blues of the highest caliber performed live, Ravinia can be a gateway. On July 12, 1972, a Highland Park teenager eagerly arrived at the park to see his musical crush, Melanie, of “Brand New Key” and “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)” fame. (This writer will admit—it was me.) Minor surgery forced her to cancel. She was replaced by Howlin’ Wolf, whose six-foot-six frame, even seated, cut a formidable presence. This was an up-close and personal immersion into Chicago blues that led me to sample other artists, and my love for the music has endured far longer than my infatuation with Melanie (which ended when I heard Bonnie Raitt for the first time later that year).
For musicians, Ravinia’s blues concerts can also be aspirational, fellow Highland Park resident Chris Dougherty says. A transplanted Canadian, Dougherty lives blocks from the park and was moved to revive his dormant guitar playing after seeing artists like Keb’ Mo’. “I hadn’t seen that many blues artists, and I had never heard of Keb’ Mo’,” he said. “It was a fantastic experience. Now I buy Pavilion seats for someone like Buddy Guy. I understand technically what he’s doing, but then he does something I’ve never seen before. You want to be up close and see that.”
Next year marks the 60th anniversary of Guy’s move to Chicago. Rolling Stone magazine recently ranked him 30th among its list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time, and he has been given reverence and respect by rock royalty ranging from the Rolling Stones and Clapton to Jimmy Page and John Mayer.
“I was meant to be a guitar player,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 2009. But beyond his musical prodigy, his lasting legacy is an unstinting commitment “to do things right,” observes guitarist Donald Kinsey. An Indiana native who backed Bob Marley as a member of his band the Wailers, Kinsey got his start playing with his father, Lester, and brothers as part of Big Daddy Kinsey and Sons. Growing up, he listened to his father’s Buddy Guy albums, and later that band performed many shows with the now octogenarian.
“I admire him not just for his strength and determination and confidence as a musician,” Kinsey reflected, “but also as a gentleman and an entertainer. (Buddy and Junior) always made me laugh. They were always upbeat, and always seemed to have fun playing this music. My dad told me, ‘You watch him. He’s not going to stand still. He’s going to be moving around.’ It’s like that today; how does he still have the energy to perform the way he does?”
Donald Liebenson is a Chicago-based entertainment writer. His work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Los Angeles Times, and on RogerEbert.com. The first Ravinia concert he attended without his parents was Procol Harum in 1970.
Tickets for the July 31 performance of Jeff Beck and Buddy Guy can be purchased at Ravinia.org