Artist Spotlight: Buddy Guy
Though now recognized as one of the greats of the blues and one of the best guitarists of all time, Buddy Guy didn’t find recognition or success quickly or easily. Years of scuffling while holding down day jobs filled a large stretch of Guy’s life, but slowly he found a place – as an regular session player at the legendary Chess label, as an influence on young British Invasion rock stars like the Rolling Stones who were inspired by American blues, as a partner with bluesman Junior Wells, as a guitar hero for several generations of players, and now as one of the veterans and legends of the blues.
Guy was born on July 30, 1936 in Lettsworth, Louisiana, the son of poor sharecroppers. Inspired by John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Howlin’ Wolf and especially Guitar Slim (who would be the model for his trademark over-the-top performing style), he made his first guitar out of wire that he stole from a window screen in his house. Then, after acquiring a real instrument, he began to play locally.
Guy moved to Chicago in the late ‘50s not to perform in the blues mecca, but to a better paying maintenance job to help pay for the care of his mother who had suffered a stroke. Finding no work and running out of the small savings he had, Guy was on the verge of heading back to Louisiana when a lucky break got him an opening at a blues club, an introduction to Muddy Waters, and soon regular calls for sessions at Chess Records. He would appear on tracks with Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Rogers, and produce and play on Koko Taylor’s signature recording, “Wang Dang Doodle.”
Sixties offered some new opportunities as the folk and blues boom of the era opened new doors in America. At the same time British bands and artists like the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton who were big fans of American blues, introduced American blues artists to European audiences. Another break came when manager Dick Waterman convinced Guy to give up his day job to work with Junior Wells. Still as the ‘60s gave way to the ‘70s and then the ‘80s, Guy was finding it hard to make a living in music.
Things finally changed with the 1991 album, Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues – a breakthrough recording that was his biggest hit and first Grammy-winning recording. Guy would go on to win five more Grammys and some two dozen W.C. Handy (now Blues Music) Awards, be inducted into both the Rock and the Louisiana Music Halls of Fame, and receive a National Medal of the Arts.
Buddy Guy with a live 1970 version of the first song he recorded on Chess, "First Time I Met the Blues"
A FEW KEY RECORDINGS
Over the years, Buddy Guy recorded for a number of labels – early on with Chess, Cobra, Delmark and Vanguard, and later with Alligator, JSP, Blind Pig, and finally, with his breakthrough in the ‘90s, on Silvertone. Key recordings include:
- Sixties dates on Chess (I Was Walking Through the Woods, I Left My Blues in San Francisco) and Vanguard (A Man and the Blues)
- Hoodoo Man Blues – his classic recording with Junior Wells
- The early ‘80s Alligator release, Stone Crazy!
- The breakthrough Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues
Buddy Guy’s website:
Buddy Guy on Tavis Smiley talking about his new autobiography
Buddy Guy with David Ritz - When I Left Home: My Story (Da Capo Press)
In general, there are few things more excruciating to read than a musician's biography or autobiography. The books often boil down to a dull litany of recording and concert dates, interspersed with the standard litany of biographical details. So it is an unexpected surprise and delight to find the new autobiography from Buddy Guy is anything but dull.
It was a long road from Lettsworth, Louisiana, where Buddy was born, to blues legend and it was a path that Guy nearly turned away from any number of times. He was the son of poor sharecroppers, growing up without electricity or indoor plumbing, picking cotton, getting a meager education. But his education in music started early, entranced as he was by the blues he heard from itinerant musicians who would pass through town, and then from records - starting with John Lee Hooker's seminal "Boogie Chillen," the record Guy says "did it" for him - and continuing with now classic tracks from the likes of Lightnin' Hopkins, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and Little Walter. Attempting to imitate the sounds he heard, Guy dismantled a window screen for strings for a homemade guitar, got his first real instrument when he was twelve, and eventually began to play at local gigs.
Guy likely would have been content to stay home and be a part-time musician. But, with his mother's stroke and the need for more money for her care, he made the decision to leave for Chicago, not to play but to find a better paying maintenance job. Work, however, eluded him and he was on the verge of giving up and going back home, when a chance encounter with a couple took him to the 708 Club, where he sat in with Otis Rush.
Though he describes himself as "a lost ball in high weeds" in his early days in Chicago, Guy was soon playing at some of the many blues clubs that dotted the Chicago landscape at the time and working for the premier blues label - Chess Records (though the label never really figured out how to capture the dynamic performances Guy was known for in the clubs and used him more as a session player, where he worked with a who's who of Chicago blues artists of the time) - and also briefly at Cobra (until the owner mysteriously wound up "at the bottom of Lake Michigan"). Around at the time of the folk and blues boom and when popular British Invasion bands like the Rolling Stones were praising the blues artists who had inspired them, Guy and others found a new audience in Europe as well. But as the '60s gave way to the '70s and '80s, the blues fell out of favor and Guy was back to day jobs to support himself and his growing family. In fact, he wouldn't really break through until the '90s with Damn Right, I've Got the Blues - his bestselling album and first Grammy-winning release. Five more Grammys and a host of other awards and accolades would finally, and deservedly, follow.
Guy's book largely focuses on his early days, as though, interestingly, nothing much of importance happened since he finally became successful - except of number of deaths - including Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, and his friend Stevie Ray Vaughan, which he chronicles with deep sadness. But Guy does paint a sharp picture of life in Louisiana. His beginnings in Chicago in particular are etched with a desperate, gritty clarity. His sketches of key figures - the endearing B.B. King, grasping Willie Dixon, complex Muddy Waters, and self-destructive musical partner Junior Wells - are highlights of the book.
Guy (and David Ritz, who's written books about Ray Charles, Etta James and Marvin Gaye, and helped capture the clear, engaging, steady and salty voice with which Guy speaks throughout the entire book) is a great storyteller. He also comes across as a clear observer (something he learned sitting quietly in Chess sessions watching events and personalities unfold around him), a surprisingly shy and modest man (though one suspects he downplays or leaves out a few things along the way) who has a unique perspective of one of the few remaining witnesses to the most important times and places in blues history. This may not be the definitive Buddy Guy story, but it's a thoroughly entertaining and engaging one. And it puts him in yet another rarified group - the author of a musician's autobiography that's a true pleasure to read. --Chris Heim
Buddy Guy at Montreux with his breakthrough hit, "Damn Right, I've Got the Blues"