If the late B.B. King was the King of Blues music, Buddy Guy is the crown prince of Chicago blues. Feted at the White House and at Kennedy Center, festooned with countless honors and Grammy awards, featured in national newspapers and magazines, the guitarist/singer at age 79 enjoys an abundant schedule of lucrative concerts worldwide. The city of Chicago put up an honorary street sign on the block by his premiere downtown tourist club, Buddy Guy’s Legends.
Since he arrived from Louisiana in 1957, Guy’s showmanship has dominated many a stage. He certainly has paid his dues. But now his reign is contested. Larry Taylor, a blues and soul singer from Chicago’s tough West Side who boasts a musical lineage going back to the Mississippi Delta, is challenging Buddy to an on-stage band duel, a “Big Blues Battle.”
Taylor, 60, oldest son of of the late singer Vera Taylor and guitarist Eddie Taylor, said he decided to call out Buddy Guy for failing to recognize not only himself and his family, but the whole baby boom generation of Chicago African American blues men and women. Guy has repeatedly told Rolling Stone magazine, “I’m the only one out here now,” since B.B King’s death last year.
Taylor says Buddy’s words belittle the his generation’s musicians, who learned directly from the founders of Chicago blues and have been playing professionally 30-40 years. When interviewed about passing on the music to future generations, Buddy repeatedly skips over Taylor and his peers to bring up the name of Quinn Sullivan, his own teenage guitar protege. Not only is Sullivan white; he’s from Massachusetts, not Chicago.
What’s behind Buddy’s failure to promote Chicago blues artists a generation younger? Larry Taylor says it may be simple music rivalry.
“I know that my stepfather, Eddie Taylor Sr. and Buddy didn’t like each other. Buddy was jealous of talented guitar players. So it seems he doesn’t want to promote any of our family.” As of this writing, no picture of any member of Eddie Sr. and Vera Taylor’s distinguished blues family appears among the blues wall of fame in Buddy’s club, though the club often hires Larry’s brother Eddie Jr. to play acoustic lunch and dinner shows.
Larry himself has played a few shows in Buddy Guy’s Legends, but despite repeated asks, the club hasn’t booked him since 2009. Since fans from around the world come to Chicago looking for blues musicians, the lack of a downtown club booking can seriously hamper one’s career.
Larry Taylor’s name may not be as well known yet as that of Buddy, who’s been promoted by British rock stars since the 1990s. But he’s well qualified, with Howlin’ Wolf’s drummers as childhood mentors. Eddie Taylor Sr. himself, Larry’s stepfather, was mentored by Memphis Minnie and Robert Jr. Lockwood. As the main session guitarist for VeeJay Records, the elder Taylor recorded and played with Jimmy Reed and John Lee Hooker, and insistent boogie rhythms have been copied by guitarists worldwide.
As a 20-something, Larry played drums in Eddie Taylor’s band until Eddie’s death in 1985. He’s played with several dozen Chicago blues and soul heavyweights including Junior Wells, Tyrone Davis, Son Seals, A.C. Reed, Big Moose Walker, Johnnie Taylor (no relation) and Honeyboy Edwards.
While he doesn’t play guitar as Buddy does, Taylor says he’d be glad to play the drums on stage as part of the battle. He sings in front of his own band, which features talented West and South Side friends on guitar, bass, and horns. Taylor howls like Wolf and funks like James Brown, rhythms convulsing his sharply dressed, wiry body. Deploring “museum blues,” he invites young and old of all ethnic backgrounds to enjoy his energetic blues.
“Let the audience decide whether my act or Buddy’s is their favorite,” says Taylor. “I want a fair fight.” He brags, like a prizefighter: “Musically I know I can beat the pants off Buddy. He wants no part of me on the stage.”
Taylor says in an open letter on his facebook page, “I’d like to see Buddy do something for his people for a change. Like promoting and helping young Black youths, male well as female, to set up a foundation to learn blues music first hand. To have third and 4th and 5th generation blues people.”
Taylor points out that the blues is part of African American culture, so it will never die. But he explains that if his generation of musicians doesn’t get in front of people and make a living, younger people will not get the encouragement to learn and play and carry the tradition.
“I’m telling him, ‘Buddy, you can’t take this with you.'”
What if Buddy refuses to answer Taylor’s challenge to a #BigBluesBattle ?
“It’s just like prize fighting. I keep calling on him til he comes out of his little corner,” Taylor said. “He’s the rich downtown prince. I’m the hungry guy from the West Side, the little man with the big voice. We’ll see who’s tougher. Who’s got the real blues.”