Bluesman Buddy Guy Honored by the Kennedy Center

Broadcast of Kennedy Center Honors tribute airs on CBS

Buddy Guy
Buddy Guy

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Buddy Guy ends his recent autobiography, When I Left Home with these words: “I’m believing that the blues makes life better wherever it goes-and I’ll tell you why: even the blues is sad, it turns your sadness to joy. And ain’t that a beautiful thing?” Indeed it is. And for a giving the world about six decades worth of sadness converted to joy, the guitarist and singer was recognized earlier this month in a star-studded gala event at the Kennedy Center that included a reception at the White House, a red carpet entrance and a tribute show taped for broadcast in prime time on CBS on December 26 at 9 p.m. EST. The other Kennedy Center Honors subjects this year included David Letterman, Dustin Hoffman, Natalia Makarova and Led Zeppelin.

The Kennedy Center Honors gives equal billing to its honorees, although this year the gifted and influential dancer Makarova must have felt a bit like bassist Darryl Jones on tour with the Rolling Stones, pushed to the background, not necessarily because of talent but rather because of fame, an inarguable factor. Indeed the comedian and TV host Jimmy Kimmel referenced it when he said that almost everyone on the stage and up in the honoree box wanted to get to know David Letterman, except “the dancer,” at which point the camera cut to an ashen-faced Makarova, who had to wonder how her long career in dance would lead to becoming the punchline for a comedian.

But famous is famous and that’s that. As one of the most important electric blues guitarists in modern music, Guy was in the interesting position of being a major influence on fellow honorees, Led Zeppelin, in particular their guitarist Jimmy Page. And that made for a tricky use of Jeff Beck, who was a peer of Page, but, like so many of the British rock guitarists in the mid to late ’60s, an acolyte of Guy’s. Beck ended up saluting the more elder of the two, and introduced his salute performance with a short speech of thanks to Guy for, amongst other things, saving him from “the constraints of the automotive industry.” He then proceeded to play the type of edgy, screaming and note-bending blues guitar that both he and his hero have become famous for. In their soulful version of “I Would Rather Go Blind,” Beck was accompanied by the relatively unknown but well-received blues belter Beth Hart, whose performance, thanks in part to a drowned out introduction and in part to her lack of celeb stature, had much of the older and affluent audience looking through their programs for identification.

Also paying tribute to Guy were singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman who sang “Hound Dog,” a double pairing of Texas blues-rock guitarists Gary Clark, Jr. and Jimmie Vaughan, and of course Bonnie Raitt, who told JT that she used to open for Guy and Junior Wells before her fortunes turned and she then had them open for her in front of young rock audiences. Raitt performed two songs, including the first song she ever heard Guy on “My Time After Awhile,” with an impressive house band and then closed out the Guy tribute with all her fellow saluters, taking turns on vocals and guitar solos on “Sweet Home Chicago.” Actor Morgan Freeman hosted Guy’s segment with both an in-person short speech as well as narration of a video piece. Freeman, who like Guy came from Mississippi, credited the Chicago transplant with bringing “gutbucket” blues to the world.

For his part, Guy just beamed during the performances and tributes dedicated to his life and music. It was a beautiful thing.