By: Arlene R. Weiss
Eric Clapton has often praised legendary blues maestro Buddy Guy as the greatest guitar player alive. Now some seventy six years young, the influential Guy is still wowing audiences, releasing stellar new records and playing hundreds of live dates a year setting the stage afire with his testifying, soulful vocals, incendiary six string wizardry, and tornadic live performances.
Guy took this past year to lay down his signature Fender Polka Dot Strat guitar to write, “When I Left Home: My Story”, (along with Guy’s co-writer David Ritz), this amazingly rich and colorful, deeply insightful, and warmly jubilant, autobiographical document of his life and of the incomparable Guy’s lifelong love affair with the blues.
Guy’s storied career, along with the blues, has been hallmarked by peaks and valleys. After struggling in the 1950’s, Guy enjoyed a blues resurgence in the ’60s championed by the British invasion of rock bands, as well as the support of appreciative white audiences just discovering the wonders of the blues leading to prestigious worldwide tours and appearances on the festival circuit.
Guy’s career took a downturn in the ’70s and he didn’t even have a record label for the entire 1980’s. 1991 brought his signing and now two decade long fruitful creative relationship with London based Silvertone Records, several acclaimed albums, numerous lauded tours and performances, and a succession of prestigious awards including six Grammy® Awards, the Blues Foundation’s Keeping The Blues Alive Award, 23 W.C. Handy Awards, the National Medal Of Arts, and being inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame.
Guy divides his life story into three profound turning points in his life. Born July 30, 1936, in rural Lettsworth, Louisiana, to loving and encouraging parents, in “Before I Left Home”, Guy traces his early beginnings growing up in poverty in a shack without running water or electricity, laboriously picking cotton in the hot sun on a sharecropper farm while also first discovering the joys of music, the guitar, and the blues.
Next he continues with the date that forever changed his life, September 25, 1957, “The Day I Left Home”, taking the train to Chicago in search of a job and a better life, “All I had was a suitcase with a few clothes, my reel to reel tape with the demo song I cut at WXOK and my Les Paul Gibson guitar”.
The trilogy that is Guy’s life resumes, chronicling the decades long, often grueling, difficult, yet ultimately fulfilling and rewarding journey to success and validation, “After I Left Home” becoming one of blues’ and music’s most respected, esteemed, and influential artists, while also presiding as the proprietor of his own renowned Legends nightclub in his “Sweet Home Chicago”.
Guy prefaces and ends his tome discussing his appreciation of good food. The organically grown pure and natural corn, beans, chicken, and fish straight from the earth – an apt analogy and metaphor for the earthiness and purity of the blues, and to Guy’s continuous, hearty, appetite for life.
Like the zesty, spicy, mouthwatering jambalaya and cuisine of his native Louisiana, Guy fills his book with a buffet of delicious, tantalizing true tales bursting with an explosion of countless flavors, each and every one feeding and satisfying the reader’s imagination, while also whetting it for more.
Guy’s book’s one major flaw is that it stops short without offering deep insight into his successful last two decades since 1991, leaving the reader a bit unsatiated. Guy chooses to concentrate on his struggle and ascension through the blues ranks and directs his in depth spotlight onto the influential players and halcyon era that defined Chicago Blues in the 1950’s through the end of the ’80s. Perhaps this was Guy’s intention, and indeed the period he focuses on is the most fascinating, but a fourth chapter chronicling the last twenty years, his albums, awards, live shows, and the artists whose paths crossed his during this time period, would have made for a more satisfying and thorough document.
Guy’s astonishing gifts as an expressive storyteller, like the very blues he plays and sings, vibrantly recall the many legendary blues giants he proudly can call both friends and collaborative peers, how they all informed and influenced Guy in his playing and his craft, and all insightfully recalled with equal parts fondness and splashes of vinegar.
Guy has nothing but words of praise and affection for his four biggest mentors and lifelong friends, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and B.B. King, all who often took Guy under their protective wings while schooling him in the lexicon and life lessons of the blues. And something which Guy exuberantly discusses with great warmth, vibrantly colorful anecdotes, and immense insight.
Guy gives his due to a business savvy, Lightnin’ Hopkins who insisted in being paid cash up front after being ripped off by duplicitous record labels and lawyers alike, something Guy would come to experience and learn from.
And while Guy is heartfelt in paying his respects to his blues contemporaries, recounting their significant contributions and golden merits, he’s not afraid to speak his mind when espousing the disappointment he has felt at times regarding the tarnished failings of some of the influential artists who have touched his life.
There’s Earl Hooker. Guy discusses how Hooker, a gifted slide guitarist who Guy looked up to, was jealous of Guy’s guitar talents, sabotaging Guy’s gear by stealing Guy’s guitar chord and the tubes to his amp.
Guy speaks in great detail of Willie Dixon, Chess Records masterful producer, A&R, and impresario, who though a brilliant songwriter in his own right who organized Guy’s most iconic early sessions at Chess, (and was an ardent advocate for the copyrights and royalties of blues artists through his Blues Heaven Foundation, something Guy ambiguously omits), Guy takes Dixon to task as a greedy hypocrite who, “would devour songwriting credits like he devoured chicken”, inferring that Dixon took credit for far more songs than he actually wrote and who let Guy down when he jealously dismissed and disrespected John Lee Hooker’s songwriting as “simpleminded” and “no good”.
Guy recounts with joyful wonder and exuberance the milestone moments that touched his heart and paved his way on the path to the blues during his formative years. He remembers the first time he ever saw and touched a guitar was when a family friend visited every Christmas with a two string guitar playing Lonnie Johnson’s “Tomorrow Night” giving Guy, “goose bumps”. Guy effuses wanting to be just like Guitar Slim after seeing the guitarist stop in town with a “beat up but beautiful old Strat” on which he made magic.
Then there was “the record that did it for me”, a 78 record of John Lee Hooker’s “Boogie Chillen” that “wasn’t anything more than one guy playing his electric guitar by himself”, but it transformed the young and impressionable Guy, and was the first song that he learned to play on the guitar.
He recalls hearing Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ Stone” on a general store jukebox, “He cracked open my soul to everything he said in his songs” and then learning that Muddy and “all those blues guys live up in Chicago”. Guy remembers as he first stepped off the train upon arriving in Chicago in 1957, seeing “a nightclub with the door open and the music blasting out. It was guitar music, guitar blues, and my heart started racing.” And Guy busts with joy regaling all the iconic guitar players who were burning up the streets of Chicago at the time, “There never was – and never will be – another time when so many gunslinger guitarists terrorized the streets of any city.”
Guy’s fond memories and vivid, spellbinding behind the scenes accounts all leap off the pages with vibrantly colorful and insightful stories of the many great session players and blues and rock artists who shared the recording studio and the live stage with him. Many of Guy’s accounts serve as cornerstones in documenting music history and time.
He chronicles his days as a burgeoning guitarist and session artist honing his chops on some of music’s most landmark sessions and recordings at Chess Records. He continues with his later years as a solo recording artist. He details his many live gigs playing the gritty, often seamy clubs of Chicago, which still crackled with excitement and teeming nightlife, and also performing at many prestigious festivals and tours across the U.S., Europe, and Africa.
Accompanying photographic memories of Guy’s storied life and career show the bluesman enjoying special moments with friends Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, John Lee Hooker, Jonny Lang, Muddy Waters, Ron Wood, and many more music legends.
Guy humorously recounts his amazing “trip”, in more ways than one and no not his “trip”, but what he witnessed while sharing the bill and riding on the hippie chartered Festival Express train tour across Canada with Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, The Band, and The Flying Burrito Brothers. There’s the adrenaline rush and career high of opening for The Rolling Stones in soccer stadiums across Europe. And then joy truly turns into the elegiac, sadness of the blues as Guy discusses playing Alpine Valley with Eric Clapton, Robert Cray, and the Vaughan Brothers and what would be the last, fateful gig for Stevie Ray Vaughan.
A particularly resonant and poignant moment in Guy’s book documents Guy’s touching memories of how he wrote the song, “Rememberin’ Stevie” in homage for his late dear friend, SRV.
Guy gratefully acknowledges and generously tips his hat to many English rockers including The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Rod Stewart, Jeff Beck, and Eric Clapton, all who have championed and supported Guy and the blues, revitalizing and crossing the blues over to mainstream, global audiences.
Guy also gives props and appreciation in discussing how in the late ’50s, young white fans, including the then up and coming blues harpist Paul Butterfield and guitarist Michael Bloomfield, started coming out to the clubs and then became Guy’s and the blues’ biggest audience in the 60’s at all the major music festivals. “That’s one of the first times I realized that the blues was….blue…not white or black” says Guy.
Guy’s numerous fond, priceless, and outrageously hilarious anecdotes, told with sharp wit and candor, generously pepper his memoirs, from his bawdy recollections of enjoying the pleasures of the musician’s life, “That changed a little when I got into playing the guitar. Ladies like musicians”, to sharing blue jokes and dining with Big Mama Thornton and John Lee Hooker while playing the American Folk Blues Festival in Germany, (Guy’s spot on impression of John Lee’s distinctive manner of talking, especially when ordering a steak in a non English speaking restaurant are a hoot!), to my favorite story wherein Guy recounts taking his longtime creative partner and foil, blues harpist and singer ,Junior Wells, to the doctor for a painful creepy critter body cavity invasion during their U.S. State Dep’t. Tour of the Central African Republic.
Guy’s chronicle is refreshingly free of the typical confessional tell all, drugs and sex excesses of many rocker memoirs, taking pride in Guy’s deep rooted and grounded family values lifestyle.
However, in its stead, Guy’s compendium starkly reveals the much more shocking, violent, and dangerous road which he braved in the post World War Two, 50’s and ’60s nightclubs of modern Chicago.
On any given night performing his gigs at clubs like The Hideaway or The Squeeze Club aka The Bucket Of Blood, Guy terrifyingly recounts male and female patrons regularly coming armed with guns, knives, razors, and ice picks. Guy witnessed, (and often escaped solely by using his wits as he recounts in one instance) deadly stabbings, shootings, brawls and much more grisly dealings inside the clubs while performing his shows. Through all this, Guy had to keep his cool and persevere, suffering through years of bad record deals that robbed him of his publishing rights and royalties, receiving little or no payments, all while also holding down menial, manual labor, day jobs including driving a tow truck, just to feed his family.
Guy’s ruminations pull no punches in detailing the chicanery, and slipshod incompetence of his early dealings with record labels. Guy discusses how Cobra Records founder Eli Toscano gave Guy his first recording deal but never paid Guy a cent, and how a frustrated Guy left Chess Records for the Vanguard Label after enduring years of Leonard Chess intentionally holding Guy back and failing to recognize and develop Guy’s bright promise and talent.
Guy even expresses his discontent with late Atlantic Records President Ahmet Ertegun who though renowned for his support and development of artists, dropped the ball when he offered to co-produce Guy’s 1972 album, “Buddy Guy and Junior Wells Play The Blues”. Ertegun spent what should have been valuable studio time helming Guy’s recording, instead, enjoying “days at the beach” while the album’s sessions languished in chaos without focus or direction. When Guy voiced his concerns to Ertegun, Ertegun brushed Guy aside with promises (which were broken by Ertegun) to record more albums and hits with Guy at the famed Muscle Shoals. As Guy relates, it was “a sad record that sold poorly, a wasted chance on a major label”.
But , Guy offers appreciative praise to his current record label, Silvertone, detailing how he came up with the oh so wickedly apropo song and album title of his 1991 debut album for the label, “Damn Right, I’ve Got The Blues”, that would become “the biggest hit of my career”. Guy also relates that he is particularly proud of his 2001 Silvertone album, “Sweet Tea”, which explored the hill country blues of North Mississippi.
Guy also expounds that being a great musician isn’t enough to become recognized and successful in a very competitive world. After first seeing Guitar Slim’s flamboyant showmanship, Guy learned to become both a consummate musician…and performer…incorporating breakneck stage theatrics, over the top acrobatics and wild gimmicks galore into his scorching guitar playing and exuberant live shows, catching his audiences’ imagination with outrageous panache and finesse. In an April 2001 Interview with me, Guy explained, “When I go out and play in person, I learned from Guitar Slim and some of those guys to add a little showmanship. They didn’t just stand there and I think that has something to do with it. I have to move. I’m from the Baptist church. When I get happy I have to shout. That’s what my family used to say, “You have to shout and let it all come out!”
It seems that Guy isn’t slowing down anytime soon and we are all the better for it. He only becomes more ferocious a guitarist with that same joyfully resilient appetite for life as time goes on, continuing to write, tour, and record, all while garnering the praises of fans and peers alike. Guy ultimately derives joy and fulfillment in the life well lived and in traveling that ongoing journey, continuously bringing happiness to people around the world as he shares with them the history, craft, and joyful mojo magic of the blues.
In my April 2001 interview with Guy we had this exchange:
Arlene R. Weiss: It’s ironic, they call it the blues and some of it is sad, but some of it’s the reverse. It’s a real embracing of life. It’s joyful actually.
Buddy Guy: When I first started coming to New York, I had a ring on my finger that said “Blues” and a husband and wife was checking me into my hotel and they saw it and said, “Blues makes you cry.” It just hit me and I said, “Ok, you guys come on out and cry tonight. I’m gonna give you two free passes.” The next morning I got ready to check out and they said, “Now we’re gonna cry, cause we danced all night. We thought blues was sad but it’s so happy.”
As Guy wistfully and fondly expounds, “I also never mind thinking back on this long journey that keeps getting longer. I think about that train ride from Louisiana to Illinois on September 25, 1957, and the blues I found when I got to Chicago. Like me that blues left home. The blues went traveling and wound up in every corner of the world. I’m believing that the blues makes life better wherever it goes. I’ll tell you why: even when the blues is sad, it turns your sadness to joy. And ain’t that a beautiful thing?”
Title: “When I Left Home: My Story”
Author(s): Buddy Guy With David Ritz
Publisher: De Capo Press – Member Of The Perseus Books Group (ISBN# 0306819570)
© Copyright September 11, 2012 By Arlene R. Weiss-All Rights Reserved