There are fewer and fewer Americans who can relate and recall what life was like in the South of the 1930’s. George “Buddy” Guy, his two brothers and two sisters, plus mom and dad lived as sharecroppers in a two-room shack in Lettsworth, Louisiana. The place had no running water, no indoor plumbing, only a wood stove, and no electricity until Buddy was about twelve years old. He had to live with a sister in Baton Rouge to attend high school, as Lettsworth didn’t have one. Yet the family had a closeness and strength that overcame the negatives -closeness that Buddy strived for in his own family life as well.
Such an upbringing brought him into intimacy with the Earth - its beauty and ability to sustain life. Today, you might call him a naturalist or conservationist. He lives on fourteen acres of land in suburban Chicago, shops for organic foods, and is very happy cooking up Louisiana inspired dishes.
This book was written with the assistance of David Ritz, acclaimed biographer of many famed musical artists, including Marvin Gaye, Etta James, Ray Charles, Smokey Robinson, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Janet Jackson, The Neville Brothers, B.B. King, and Bettye LaVette. Ritz again displays his careful research in ultimately readable style. Boston’s Da Capo Press is the first place to check for books on artists that are not just the flavor of the month.
Guy started on a two-string guitar and learned a bit from a family friend named Coot. Never did Buddy imagine he’d become great friends with the man whose song, “Boogie Chillen”, first possessed him to play blues guitar. A Heaven sent stranger asked, “I see it’s only got two strings. Ain’t guitars supposed to have six?” The man, named Mitchell Young, bought him a six-string Harmony guitar. When Buddy’s mother had a debilitating stroke, the family was never the same. Steadily his passion for the music increased, as he studied and labored to teach himself, and, eventually, so did his confidence in playing it.
His living situation when he made the move to Chicago, September 25, 1957, was, to put it lightly, more than unsatisfactory until he met another idol, Muddy Waters. Buddy had had minor success thus far and was down to his last nickel and on the verge of starving. When someone said, “The Mud wants you.” Buddy thought they’d said, “Someone wants to mug you.” The “Mud” gave him a salami sandwich. The relationship was one for life: “I found a new father, and his name was Muddy Waters.”
Willie Dixon, after a split with Chess, hooked Guy up with Cobra Records. Says Buddy of Dixon: “Willie would devour songwriting credits just like he devoured…chicken.” The recordings he did there never made a wave or a nickel. Howlin’ Wolf heard him and wanted to take him on the road after his usual spats with Hubert Sumlin. He declined. Subsequently, Guy met and/or played with practically every great name in that business—B. B. King, Otis Rush, Magic Sam, Jimmy Reed, Earl Hooker, Little Walter, Freddie King, Lonnie Johnson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, you name them---and Guy tells fascinating stories about them all.
He became a reliable session man at Chess, supporting other players, but in the local area clubs, he became a different animal altogether. He characterized himself as “the wild guy with the long cord and crazy style, the guy who never sat down and didn’t care if the amp was too loud and distorted with fuzz tones.” Buddy always felt the leash, until guys like Hendrix, an admirer, let loose and rock and roll, and later the British bands, went mainstream. Leonard Chess, who was always saying to him, “Buddy, calm your ass down,” even apologized to Guy when it became evident to even him that Buddy had been carrying on like that for years, yet never getting a recording break. Guy might have gotten further had he and not Muddy recorded a song that Dixon originally wrote for him titled, “The Same Thing”.
He’s very proud of the recordings he made with Junior Wells, especially the album, Hoodoo Man Blues (on Delmark), done in 1965. They’d put on exciting live performances too—“Left to our devices, we could burn.” Unfortunately, Junior “had a James Brown complex” and became more trouble than he was worth, with Buddy always having to bail him out of something. And as the lyrics say, he “had to put him down for a little while”. Meanwhile, with a wife and children, Guy still had to make ends meet driving a tow truck.
Guy attributes many things to the renaissance of the blues during the latter half of the twentieth century: Blues artists at the Newport Jazz Festival, white people now mainly as audience, exposure at overseas festivals like the American Folk Blues Festival and European television appearances, the support from British musicians, Antone’s Club in Texas, and the visibility of artists like Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
It wasn’t until about 1989 that Buddy began making real money and traveling worldwide. He recorded on the British Silvertone label and had his biggest album success with Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues. And other successful ones followed. He’s a healthy 75 years and an inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a winner of five Grammys, Billboard’s “Century Award”, and more.
One of the last things Muddy said to him just before he died was, “don’t let these blues die.” And Buddy never has. He’s the proprietor of one of Chicago’s most successful blues clubs, Legends, (and earlier managed the Checkerboard Lounge) now located at 700 South Wabash. If you happen to go in there, look carefully at the people sitting at the bar. You might just spot Buddy listening to the blues.