Buddy Guy's Rhythm & Blues is a rarity in an age of singles and EPs. It's a double album, 21 all-new tracks deep, which the bluesman fully expected his label to want pared down to one disc.
"I was going to meet the top guy from RCA, and I'm thinking he's going to give me a pink slip," recalls Guy. Instead, RCA signed off on the album, which has racked up favorable reviews since it was released in late July. "I'm like saying, 'Oh, thank God.' If we can get a little airplay, hopefully I can sell more CDs and keep the blues alive a little longer."
Guy and his longtime friend B.B. King are the last of the true blues greats who are still actively recording and touring. Even at 77, Guy is still energetic and passionate, performing more shows than many musicians half his age.
"I've dedicated my life to the music," says Guy, whose playing is revered by the likes of Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan. "The late Muddy Waters, Little Walter, the late Junior Wells — I could go on and on — we used to sit down and talk and be having a shot of whiskey or wine, and we would be joking and laughing about it. 'If I leave here before you do, you had better not let that goddamn blues die.'"
A native of Louisiana, Guy moved to Chicago in the late '50s and was signed to the city's legendary Chess Records, home to blues giants like Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Little Walter.
While Guy played on albums by the label's leading artists, he was unable to convince owner Leonard Chess to embrace his own high-charged, hard-edged style. A decade with Chess yielded just one album, after which he began a more productive relationship with Vanguard Records.
In the decades since, his albums have been released on nearly two dozen labels. It wasn't until 1991, when Silvertone Records released his comeback Damn Right, I've Got the Blues, that the bluesman earned what would be his first of five Grammys.
With Rhythm & Blues, Guy has managed to deliver one of his best albums to date. There are hard-hitting rockers like "Justifyin'" and "What's Up With That Woman," touches of country blues on "I Could Die Happy," even horn-driven jump blues — a style Guy has not often recorded —on "Well I Done Got Over It" and "Poison Ivy."
There are also guest appearances by mainstream acts like Kid Rock, Keith Urban and even Aerosmith, as well as the much-celebrated young bluesman Gary Clark Jr. But it's by no means certain that will translate into radio airplay.
"The radio stations have almost completely quit playing blues, man," mourns Guy. "It's not like it was in the '50s, where if you played two or three good licks, somebody knew about you. We had all of the AM stations, and the disc jockey could play what he wanted. You could take him a demo and he would play it. Well, you don't get that now."
But there's still the road, where Guy surveys a half-century of originals alongside songs by old friends.
"I don't go there saying I'm going to drive Damn Right, I Got the Blues down your throat. You might want to hear Slippin' In. Or you might want to hear me try to do some Muddy Waters."