Relay: Louder Than Words

Zach Zunis

    As I was walking up to the stage at the Heritage Park Amphitheater in Simpsonville, S.C., a few weeks ago, the butterflies started to make some noise in my stomach due to what was about to happen. The singer I play with, Janiva Magness, and I were about to go on right before Buddy Guy and B.B. King — the two bluesmen who have had the greatest influence on my guitar playing since I was a kid.
    The denim-covered “B.B. King Live at Cook County Jail” album was one of my very first records ever and Buddy Guy and Junior Wells’s “It’s My Life, Baby” continues to inspire me. I consider these two records the best urban blues records of all time.
    The hot and humid South Carolina sun was shining down on the stage, making the sweat pour even more, as we wear suits for every show. As I introduced Janiva, I mentioned that the last time these two were onstage together, B.B. was presenting her with the B.B. King Entertainer of the Year award in Memphis at the 2009 Blues Music Awards.
    Our set went well and afterward we went back to the dressing room and got dried off a bit and went right back out behind stage to watch Buddy do his thing. He came backstage walking a little slow, kind of like a 74-year-old man would do.
    Then his guitar tech handed him his guitar, a killer that looked like a Fender custom shop maple neck “Mary Kay” Stratocaster that was plugged into two Victoria 4-by-10 Blues Box amps similar to the Fender Bassman amps of the 1950s that he used to use. He then started walking like a much younger man, and after the first note he played he seemed all of about 30 years old.
    The show was amazing, especially when he brought the dynamics of the band down. Then I could really hear what first blew my mind when I was a kid listening to “It’s My Life, Baby” — those bended notes that are just a little sharp and add to the tension of the show.
    When it was B.B.’s turn, his band came out with a full horn section and all and started playing a couple instrumentals before bringing B.B. up.
    As the band was playing, B.B.’s handler was helping him off the bus and into a wheelchair to get him to the stage.
    I went immediately to the front of the stage to see B. introduced.
    He came walking out and sat down on a chair in front of two lab series amps that he has been using for years. The band started playing a fast jazzy blues shuffle, and it was on!
    B. started playing as only B. could, phrasing like a horn player and making Lucille (his guitar) sustain notes and hold them for what seemed like minutes at a time. I was so moved by the whole scene that I felt my eyes tearing up. But I kept it together and watched the rest of the show.
    It was incredible having this 86-year-old bluesman still make the hair on the back of my neck stand up as he played a slow blues and made every note count.
    It might sound crazy, but when I hear real blues, I still get that same feeling that inspired me in the beginning. I immediately become a kid again, and to think that someone pays me to do this is just as crazy.

    Zach Zunis, an advertising sales representative at The Star, is a professional musician who tours nationally and internationally with Janiva Magness.