Recent benefits raised money for legendary guitarist Buddy “Bugs” Henderson, but all the love, greenbacks, and well wishes in the world couldn’t stave off the inevitable. Henderson reportedly died last night after a months-long struggle with cancer. He was 68.
Henderson grew up in Tyler and spent years performing in Fort worth clubs and all over the world, forging a reputation as a creative blues-rock guitarist who never hit the Big Time but worked his entire life as musician and established a cult following. His guitar style impressed contemporaries such as Eric Clapton, Freddie King, Johnny Winter, and Ted Nugent.
Fort Worth guitarist Buddy Whittington mirrored the feelings of many this morning when he expressed shock at Henderson’s death despite his publicized battle with cancer.
“I knew he was not doing well, but I had no idea it was going to be so quick,” said Whittington, who performed at a recent benefit for Henderson in Fort Worth. “He’s one of those guys that guys of my generation learned a lot from. Bugs learned it all from the masters. He used to hang around Freddie King. He played with B.B. [King] a little. Being the elder statesman that he was, Bugs was the most authentic quintessential Texas guitar player.”
Henderson’s music was a big part of my formative years as well, when I was a fledgling guitarist. I saw many of his shows in the 1970s and 1980s. The only time I’ve ever had a beer mug broken over my head in a bar fight occurred at a Dallas bar while I was standing about 10 feet away from a stage where Henderson was playing “Texas Ballbuster.” Many years later, I asked Henderson if he recalled a young kid getting knocked cold in front of the stage years before. He thought about it a moment.
“No, I just remember the girls,” he said.
Texas Music Magazine asked me to do a feature story on Henderson in 2009, and I visited his East Texas home in Jefferson, about 20 miles from the Louisiana border. A college intern was going to sit in on the interview, but the poor kid drove up to Henderson’s house and ran over his dog (named Lucky of all things). The intern felt terrible. Henderson went out of his way to comfort the kid and remained a gracious host to us for several hours.
We talked in “The Loud Room,” a spare bedroom where Henderson kept his electric guitars, a practice amp, shelves loaded with CDs and DVDs, and walls covered in mementos from a 40-year career as an axe master and longtime member of Buddy Magazine’s elite “Texas Tornado” Hall of Fame. He’s most often classified as a blues player, but rock, country, jazz, and pop guitar licks spilled willy-nilly from Henderson’s bag of tricks. He wasn’t bothered by the fact he never created a huge fan base outside of Texas and Europe.
“When I started out, all I wanted to do was play,” he said. “I never had any aspirations of having a reputation and playing all over the world or cutting, god, I don’t know, 17 or 18 albums, or any of that. I saw myself playing in a rock and roll band as a sideman and eventually I’d be doing some lounge gig sitting on a stool with a chick singer and a piano player, making enough money to get by.”
Henderson was a party dog for years but found sobriety later in life. In recent years, he was doing some of his best work in the studio and in live gigs.
Blue Music (2009) was among his best albums, although my personal favorite will always be At Last (1978).
Henderson grew up in East Texas and enjoyed a moderately successful stint as a teenaged guitarist for the Tyler-based Mouse and the Traps in the 1960s. One-hit pop wonder Bruce Channel recruited Henderson into a band that included Delbert McClinton, and they played regularly at The Cellar, the notorious after-hours joint in Fort Worth. The first time a young Henderson walked down the stairway to The Cellar’s front door, he was nearly bowled over by a customer who was running out and being chased by a bouncer waving a .45 pistol.
“That was my introduction to the place,” he said. “I went in and everybody was sitting on cushions and all the waitresses were in panties and bras, and they were playing jazz.”
Although customers often arrived high, club owner Pat Kirkwood tolerated no drug use on the premises and especially cracked the whip on musicians, who were expected to follow a list of rigid rules. Pity the musician who went astray. Henderson played for several years at Cellar locations in Fort Worth and Dallas and was noted for his blazing guitar work, but Kirkwood banned him from his clubs in the late 1960s after an amphetamine bust.
“He took it personal with me because when I started working down there I had a pretty squeaky clean reputation,” Henderson said. “Thinking back, I probably was pretty squeaky clean. He had even taken me aside and talked to me once about being a good influence on everybody and trying to keep everybody straight. When I got in trouble he really got pissed.”
More busts followed and Henderson found himself unemployed and desperate. He called Kirkwood, begged forgiveness, and asked for his job back.
“This is the kind of guy Kirkwood was: He said, ‘You can come back in if you come over to my house and play ‘Malaguena’ for 300 hours without stopping,’ ” Henderson recalled.
He didn’t get the job.
“I didn’t know ‘Malaguena’ that well,” he said with a laugh.
When The Cellar announced it would be closing for good in the mid-1970s, Henderson asked Kirkwood to let him play at the final reunion show. By then, the guitarist was gaining momentum as a solo performer.
“He let me in on closing night, and when I got up onstage he introduced me as Bugs the Junkie,” Henderson recalled. “Kirkwood was a hard case.”
Kirkwood was also correct. Henderson was a junkie.
“I don’t even like to give blood now but back then I was jabbing myself all over,” he said.
The 1970s were a blur, mostly spent playing around the Dallas-Fort Worth area. By decade’s end, however, his band recorded a monumental first album, At Last, live at the infamous Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin. His songwriting and reedy voice were still forming, but the sheer power of his playing left no doubt that Texas had another guitar hero.
“When we cut that album I had just started singing and I was aware of the fact I couldn’t sing,” he said. “The songs were built around long, huge guitar solos with me singing as little as possible.”
I was a teenaged kid wanting to be a guitar hero, and Henderson was the local guy whose playing excited me the most. Back in those days, Henderson looked like a junkie. His blonde hair, although receding, was long, stringy, and oily. Faded T-shirts, cut-off shorts, bare feet, and a motel tan were his stage attire. He made little effort to endear himself to audiences, preferring to let his guitar do the talking.
The 1980s, however, brought salvation. He kicked drugs and cigarettes, slowed way down on the booze, and paid more attention to his growing family.
Former Stratoblasters bandmate Jimmy Wallace recalled Henderson as the “most unfamous famous person” he ever knew.
“He had this God given talent that just drew people to him,” Wallace said. “It’s been an honor to get to play with him and for him to be a part of my life. I can’t express how much I’m going to miss him.”
Here are some of the quotes Henderson gave me during our last interview in 2009:
On being known as a blues guitarist: “I know I’m thought of as a blues guy and the blues is in everything I play but I’m not a purist blues guy, what Jimmie Vaughan calls the blues nazis. I’m not that and sometimes people get pissed off because we’re billed as a blues band and if it’s not that three-chord deal – which I have tremendous respect for and the guys who do that is fine, and we do some of that – but I can’t do that all night. I’m a compulsive button pusher when I’m in my car. I can’t listen to one kind of music, I’m just looking for good stuff.”
On never having a major label backer, millions of bucks, and private jets: “We had a shot once when I was managed by Showco. They managed me and Freddie King and John Nitzinger. They called me in one day and said we had a good shot at a record deal but we needed a singer. Literally this is what they said, ‘We need a skinny, good looking, lead singer to front the band.’ They brought in this kid who was skinny and a good singer, had long blonde hair and he learned all my songs and we did a rehearsal and it just sucked. He had no feeling for what we were doing and I said I just couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to get up and not be happy with what I’m doing. What we get paid for is all the other crap, the driving or the airplanes or whatever. I can’t stand it when I see musicians looking at their watches on stage. Why the fuck would you want to get off stage? That’s what it’s all about. That’s one reason we play such marathon sets. Since I got clean and sober there’s nothing for me to do on breaks anymore. That’s what I used to break for, we’d play a short set and then go out and get high or hustle chicks. I just want to be up there playing.”
On his early years of jamming with Fort Worth guitarist John Nitzinger when both used Fender quad amps – four JBL speakers in each – and ran them full blast even at rehearsal: “I’ve got hearing aids in now. I’ve suffered for it. I wear plugs when I play on stage now. I got my hearing checked about 10 years ago and the doctor said ‘You’ve lost almost all your mids in your right ear and a bunch of highs in your left ear.’ He said what you’re doing is like standing next to a jet engine. He said you need to get hearing aids and start wearing plugs on stage. That was hard at first, not playing but singing. But I couldn’t do without it now. We were in Wichita one night and got an encore and ran back up and I forgot to put em in and it was unbelievable. I hadn’t heard it in so long. I thought, man I can’t believe people sit out there right up front.”
On playing Europe: “That’s our biggest market. I can’t explain why it works over there and not over here. Over there we have tons of airplay, every show is sold out, we headline festivals. Even the clubs are like concerts, crammed all the way to the front of the stage. They know the words to my original material and sing along. At the end of the night they line up to get you to sign stuff. They have stuff I did still sealed in plastic, you know, session work I did in the 1960s for other artists, they’ve got it all. Its amazing. We drove to a gig in Austria once and there was a bunch of people who’d driven up from Sweden or someplace and they all had little flags with the titles to my songs on them and they were all standing out front. That doesn’t happen here.”
On his love for Fender amplifiers: “I’m just a Fender guy, not only because of the way they sound, but the light always comes on. I’ve had Fenders fall off stage, fall out of vans, and the light always comes on. You got to have that when you’re on the road.”
On having Eric Clapton sit in with him at a Dallas gig: “We were at Whiskey River and he was in town on tour and Showco was doing the sound and they brought him out to the gig. Those were what I call the Dark Ages of my life when everybody was doing drugs, Eric included. He was a hell of a nice guy. When I got him up there on stage, this was our gig, and I got Freddie [King] up there too and Eric came over to me and said, ‘We don’t have a chance,’ talking about being up there with Freddie.”
Finally, his advice to young musicians: “Get the money up front and don’t date the waitress.”