Buddy Guy and B.B. King are still doing what they do best: singing the blues 

The Buddy and the King

The Buddy and the King

Few songs better summarize the extraordinary careers and lengthy friendship of icons Buddy Guy and B.B. King than the recent single "Stay Around a Little Longer" from Guy's latest, Living Proof. The tune highlights their still-formidable voices, technique and determination to champion the blues — despite industry indifference and their audience's aging. When they insist that they want to "live a little longer" and "won't ever stop playing the blues," their performance makes the lyrics ring as true and inspiringly as a spirited rendition of "The Old Rugged Cross" or "Blue Moon of Kentucky."

Guy and King continue to deftly balance embracing the present and celebrating the past. Guy appeared on Leno last month, where he delivered a piercing version of "74 Years Young" and joked about wearing Air Jordans for his grandchildren ("They were sneakers with a hole in them to let the air in"). His entire album has an autobiographical twist, with tunes like "Where the Blues Begins" (with Carlos Santana), "On the Road" and "Living Proof." Each piece is a gritty testimonial to Guy's durability and perseverance. 

The album also has strong Nashville ties, with drummer Tom Hambridge serving as producer and either principal songwriter or co-writer on all 12 selections. Other Nashville and Memphis participants include Reese Wynans, Wendy Moten and The Memphis Horns, while Colin Linden (also a fine blues guitarist, vocalist and songwriter) served as engineer. "Living Proof" has also been the best-selling LP of Guy's career, giving him a Top 50 release (it peaked at 46) after 25 previous albums and more than 50 years on the blues circuit.

King, who's played an estimated 15,000 shows over 50-plus years as a touring professional, still handles nearly 200 dates a year. He hosts a weekly show on satellite radio (on the Sirius XM channel that was renamed B.B. King's Bluesville in his honor three years ago) and has a string of successful clubs in Nashville, Memphis, Los Angeles, New York City, Florida and Las Vegas. But for those who would claim he's placing more emphasis these days on being a brand than music, his 2009 release One Kind Favor was a spectacular trip down Memory Lane, with superb 21st century stylings provided by ace producer T-Bone Burnett. 

King revisited prime influences, doing exuberant, joyous versions of compositions by T-Bone Walker ("I Get So Weary"), Lonnie Johnson ("My Love Is Down") and Blind Lemon Jefferson ("See That My Grave Is Kept Clean"). He also included covers that might be expected (John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf, Big Bill Broozny) and others that might seem strange (Oscar Lollie, "Shifty" Henry) to those unaware of his enormous musical knowledge across a wide idiomatic span. That quality is reaffirmed when he reminds listeners and interviewers of two names that get forgotten whenever his favorites are cited: Frank Sinatra and Django Reinhardt (he notes Sinatra's "In the Wee Small Hours" as a particularly special album). The Sinatra impact can be heard in his immaculate enunciation and phrasing, while Reinhardt's facility and dexterity are reflected in the rapid-fire solos that were staples on such King classics as My Guitar Sings the BluesLive at The Regal, Blues N Jazz, Live at San Quentin, Live and Well and Completely Well.

Both Guy and King are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and listed among Rolling Stone's "100 Greatest Guitarists" (Guy at No. 30, King at No. 3). Guy's rollicking single "Stone Crazy" was picked as No. 78 among Stone's "100 Greatest Guitar Songs," while King's "The Thrill Is Gone" is a Grammy Hall of Fame recording. King has won 15 Grammys, The National Medal of Arts, Kennedy Center Honors and Presidential Medal of Freedom, as well as a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Guy has also received the National Medal of Arts, plus Billboard's Century Award for distinguished artistic achievement and the title of "Greatest Living Electric Blues Guitarist."

Yet while each has certainly put his stamp on the modern guitar vocabulary, they have significant differences in approach. King is a magnificent vocalist whose earliest experience came singing in the gospel choir at Elkhorn Baptist Church in Mississippi. His playing utilizes a shimmering vibrato, flowing string bends and a marvelous sense of timing and drama, which punctuate his mellow, alternately soothing and aggressive delivery. Guy, whose musical introduction came via a two-string diddley bow in Lettsworth, La., has a rougher, grittier sound that was shaped during his days in Baton Rouge clubs and modified later on Chicago's West Side in spirited battles with Magic Sam and Otis Rush. Guy's playing has always been loud, with rapid, sometimes abrupt shifts in volume, imaginative uses of distortion and feedback, unusual tunings and a surging, attacking quality that defined blues-rock long before anyone even thought about the term.

Guy and King have also survived the status change of the blues among black audiences. Blues have gone from the popular music of the day to a minority art form, now mostly appreciated by those 50 and older — who still remember the days when Guy and King appeared in Jefferson Street clubs or were heard late-night on WLAC. Today, their greatest champions are the white musicians who absorbed their albums and studied their licks in the '60s: Eric Clapton (who has played, recorded and toured with both), Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and the late Stevie Ray Vaughan. The duo now mostly appears at festivals and in arenas and auditoriums rather than the honky-tonks and dirt-floor clubs where they toiled in obscurity during their early professional years. Other than King's blues channel, the only radio stations that air their music are NPR or college stations doing specialty shows, plus a handful of Americana outlets with more extensive playlists. Thankfully, though, Nashville's WVOL-AM 1470 plays a healthy amount of blues on weekends as part of their Black Heritage format.

Still, King and Guy remain masters of the blues and giants of the guitar, and are doing anything but quietly looking toward the end of the road. Neither uses the word "retirement," nor has either been confined to the graveyard of the "oldies" circuit. Approaching 75 and 86 respectively, Buddy Guy and B.B. King have "plenty of songs to sing and stories to tell."

Email music@nashvillescene.com.


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