LETTSWORTH — Blues star Buddy Guy thought performing at the White House was the pinnacle of his career. Saturday afternoon, at the unveiling of his Mississippi Blues Trail marker on La. 418 in Pointe Coupee Parish, he changed his mind.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve been around the world,” Guy told an audience that included friends, family, musicians Jimmie Vaughan and Kenny Neal and state and local officials from Louisiana and Mississippi.
“And there are some things that make you feel like you’re on top of the world, including me playing in the White House,” he said. “I thought playing in the White House was my favorite thing, but I think coming home is the best.”
Guy acknowledged that the weather for his Mississippi Blues Trail marker unveiling ceremony wasn’t hospitable. Asked to address the crowd and “tell everyone the way it is,” Guy’s response drew a laugh.
“Maybe you shouldn’t tell me to tell you the way it is,” he said. “The way it is is wet and cold. But I want to thank everybody who had nerve enough to stand out in this kind of weather to honor this day.”
Despite the cold and light rain, the atmosphere at the ceremony was unmistakably warm.
“They got me out of Louisiana,” Guy said, “but you’ll never get the Louisiana out of me.”
Guy’s previous honors can fill a house: Seven Grammy Awards; 14 Grammy nominations; 37 Blues Music Awards; the National Medal of Arts; Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award; Billboard Music Awards’ Century Award; Kennedy Center Honors; and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Guy’s newest honors — the Mississippi Blues Trail marker and naming of La. 418 in Lettsworth Buddy Guy Way — have special resonance for him. The marker is the 201st such installation and 16th outside of Mississippi.
A Friday press conference in Baton Rouge previewed Saturday’s event in Lettsworth.
“All the awards I got, there’s nothing more exciting than what you guys are giving me here,” the Chicago-based singer-guitarist said then.
“I want to thank all the wonderful people who are making this possible,” said Guy, 82. “My mother told me, ‘Those flowers, give them to me so I can smell them. I’m not going to smell them when they’re on the casket.’ When I found out they was going to give me something, I said, ‘Give it to me so I can see it. Don’t wait till I’m gone. I want to look at it.’”
Serendipitously, Guy received his latest Grammy nomination Friday morning. His nominated album, “The Blues is Alive and Well,” features guest appearances by three of his many well-known musician fans, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones and Jeff Beck.
Guy is a blues hero admired by many stars, including Beck, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, John Mayer and the late Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. One noted fan, Jimmie Vaughan, joined Guy at Friday’s press conference in Baton Rouge and on Saturday at the Mississippi Blues Trail marker unveiling in Lettsworth.
“I’m a guitar player from Texas and a big fan of Buddy Guy,” Vaughan said Friday as he sat beside Guy. “When I started trying to play, when I was 12 or 13, I discovered Buddy Guy. Pretty quick after that I wanted to be Buddy Guy. I had all of Buddy Guy’s records. Still do. I’m honored to be here to honor Buddy Guy, my favorite guitar player.”
Through the decades, Guy’s famous fans have often acknowledged their admiration for him and joined him on stage. Guy credits young British musicians of the 1960s, especially the Rolling Stones, with boosting his career and the careers of other African-American blues artists.
“Until the British come back here playing the blues, white people didn’t know who Little Walter (Jacobs) was,” he said. “And it opened the door for B.B. King, Ike and Tina Turner and everybody. It gave a big lift to the music. That’s when America found out who Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, T-Bone (Walker) and B.B. King were. Now you know.”
Guy grew up in a sharecropping family in Pointe Coupee. He recalled walking barefoot to elementary school so his one pair of shoes would last longer. He spent the little money he had playing the juke box at the one juke joint in Lettsworth.
“I dropped my last three nickels just to hear John Lee Hooker play ‘Boogie Chillen’ or Lightnin’ Hopkins or Muddy Waters,” he said. “Now you’ve got to be 21 to get into a juke joint. Back there at that juke joint, you could go in crawling before you learned to walk. If you wanted to hear some music, you could.”
Guy built his first musical instruments himself, using rubber bands and wire stripped from his mother’s window screen. He obtained a real guitar later, a gift from a friend of his father’s, when he was living with his sister, Annie Mae, in Baton Rouge.
In 1957, after working as a maintenance man at LSU, the 21-year-old Guy boarded a train in Hammond bound for Chicago. Many of the blues artists he admired were there.
“I was going there because they told me that the wages up North were a little higher than they were at LSU,” he said. “If I got a job at another college or university like this, I would make a little more money. But they forgot to tell me the cost of living was higher. So, I just got stuck in Chicago. And I learned how to play guitar, I guess, good enough for somebody to say, ‘You can probably make it.’ ”
His visits to the White House and the unveiling of a Mississippi Blues Trail marker in Lettsworth, Guy added, are among the greatest moments in his life.
“Because this is a dream come true,” he said. “I told the presidents, three of them, this is a long way, from picking cotton to picking the guitar in the White House.”
Asked if he’s considered “slowing down,” Guy responded: “What’s that? I was born on a farm. You don’t slow down on a farm. You know, I guess I’m blessed to be hanging here a little longer than some of my friends who are no longer with us. We used to talk about this. ‘Who stays here longer?’ ‘Who goes first?’ ‘Don’t let the blues die.’ I might feel like that (slowing down) in another year, but right now I feel like I should keep doing it.”