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The Day Buddy Guy 'Left Home,' Bound For The Blues

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This interview was originally broadcast on June 5, 2012.

Guitar legend Buddy Guy has been called the bridge between the blues and rock 'n' roll, as well as one of the most influential blues musicians in the world. Guitar icons like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan and countless others use words like "legend," "master" and "greatest of all time" to describe him.

In his new memoir, When I Left Home, Guy describes what he calls his second birthday: the day he left his home of Louisiana for Chicago, the blues capital of the world.

Here, Guy tells NPR's Neal Conan about how he learned to play the blues, making his mark in Chicago, and why he thinks the hard things about earning a living as a musician make it all worthwhile.

Interview Highlights

On teaching himself to play by listening to "Boogie Chillen'" by John Lee Hooker

"That's the first record I ever bought. That's the first one I could afford, matter of fact. I think that 78 cost about, what, 63 cents or something like that, from Randy's Record Shop out of Tennessee. You had to order it through the mail out in the country where I was born.

"... My sisters and brothers made my mother and father run me out of the house because I sounded like a bunch of bees [practicing that song on a three-string guitar]. You know, you couldn't play nothing [on it]. And I went out to the woodpile ... and gathered the wood for to make the fires, and my mom and them, they cook on the wood stove.

"And I dozed off to sleep with that guitar, and I woke up, and I heard myself hitting that note — not as good as John Lee was hitting it, but I said, 'Oh, I found it!'

"But I was afraid to move my fingers because I thought I would never find it again, and I think I played it about six hours. I went to every first cousin I could find, which was miles away, to make sure they heard that I had found it."

On leaving Baton Rouge, walking into the 708 Club in Chicago and earning his first job

"I went up and did a couple of Jimmy Reed and Bobby Bland songs, 'Further Up the Road,' B.B. King 'Sweet Little Angel.' And ... it was 99.9 [percent] black people listening to blues at that time.

"And the owner of the club was a white guy, and him and his wife was on their way out the door, and all I saw was that. ... They picked up their receipts, and they left word, say, 'I don't know who that is, but hire him.'

"Somebody called ... Muddy Waters ... [who lived] about six blocks away and he drove in. And before I left Baton Rouge, they told me be careful because you get mugged in Chicago, not in Baton Rouge. And I didn't know they called Muddy Waters the Mud. So he slapped me upside my ear, and I was ringing, and he said, 'That's the Mud.' I said, 'Oh ... I see what they mean by getting mugged.'"

On touring life, for him then and for less well-known blues musicians now

"I think it's a little rougher now than it was on me, but if you hear what I had to go through, what Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf and them, you would tell [touring musicians now] they're doing fine because we used to have to take a hot dog and feed me, Junior Wells and half of the band. ...

"When I first come through Salt Lake City, I was almost out of gas, and we scraped up enough to make it all the way. We was going to San Francisco, from Chicago to San Francisco — no stop in Denver, no stop in Salt Lake City. And I'm, like, I wonder why don't they stop me here. At least I could go to sleep and somebody would probably give me a hot dog.

"But, you know, if you come up through [hard times] now, they'll know how to appreciate it if you make it. Now, I was in Australia about 35 years ago and watching television, and they said, you know, athletes, musicians, whatever, I don't care how good you are, only 5 percent going to make it.

"I probably wouldn't have sold my guitar [for extra money in tight times] because I love it too well, but you have to look at it like that. ... If you love [music], stay with it. ... [There] are some hard things I think you should go through, so you can appreciate it one day if you do make it."

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