Guy, George "Buddy"
Guy, George "Buddy"
Guitarist, blues musician
George "Buddy" Guy, hailed by Eric Clapton in Musician magazine as "the greatest guitar player alive," remains as one of the last links to a blues tradition that began before Robert Johnson, and continued most notably through the careers of Muddy Waters and other Chicago blues players. After years of only sporadic recognition, he achieved a period of sustained success in the 1990s and 2000s. Though the legendary bluesman is internationally famous today, he began his life as a sharecropper's son. Today Guy owns a mansion outside of Chicago and presides over his own blues club in his adopted home town, but the middle child of the five children of Sam and Isabell Guy began his life picking cotton.
Guy was born on July 30, 1936, in Lettsworth, Louisiana. Life was difficult in rural Louisiana, especially when the weather did not cooperate and the cotton harvest was poor. To help feed his family, Guy fished and hunted raccoon, muskrat, and possum. His mother had a vegetable garden and grew food in the summer, making it last all the way through the winter. Guy worked on his family's farm, but on Saturdays he would pick cotton for a half day to earn money for himself.
From the beginning Guy spent his hard-earned money on the blues by sending away for old 78s of Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker. Guy made his first guitar out of old paint cans and wire from the front screen door. When his father got tired of all the mosquitoes that came into the house, he bought his son an old acoustic guitar with only two strings on it. Soon Guy was able to pick out a passable version of Hooker's "Boogie Chillen." He first heard an electric guitar when a man who was passing through town playing for change plugged in his amp in front of a local store. Guy threw the man his 35 cents' allowance, and the rest was history.
As many kids his age were forced to do in his circumstances, Guy quit high school to work—pumping gas and washing cars in Baton Rouge. It was at the gas station that Guy got his introduction to show business. A local bandleader, John "Big Poppa" Tilley, heard of a young man at the local service station who could play guitar. The 300-pound Tilley brought his guitar and amp to the pumps, and Guy got an audition right there. He roared through a rendition of Eddie "Guitar Slim" Jones's version of "Things I Used To Do." Not only did the playing attract a crowd of people, but Tilley hired Guy on the spot.
After a dubious beginning, in which Tilley fired the shy, nervous young player because he would not perform before a crowd, Guy became a regular with the band. By this time he had secured a job as a custodian at Louisiana State University, and had all but given up on the idea of being a professional musician. His mother, however, disagreed with her son's assessment of his abilities. Isabell, who was recovering from a stroke, regained her ability to speak, and began to encourage his musical career. With the help of a local disc jockey, Guy made two demos, "The Way You've Been Treating Me" and "Baby, Don't You Wanna Come Home." Guy sent them to the preeminent blues label of the day, Chess Records in Chicago, sure that he would be a star.
On to Chicago
On September 27, 1957, with his two recordings in hand, his Gibson Les Paul guitar, and $500, Guy bought a one-way train ticket to Chicago to find Leonard Chess, owner of Chess Records. He knew he could stay with a friend of his sister's in Chicago, but he spent most of his time wandering the streets day and night, trying to work up the courage to make an appearance at Chess Records. When he finally did show up, he found that no one had listened to the demos he had sent, and further learned that an unknown guitarist could not just walk in off the street for a meeting with Leonard or his brother Phil Chess.
After spending another few months in Chicago unsuccessfully looking for work or an opportunity to play, Guy was down to his last dime and ready to call home for train fare back to Louisiana. Purely by chance he met a man who guided him to the 708 Club, a local blues hot spot. When Guy walked in, he found none other than Chicago blues legend Otis Rush presiding over a jam session. Rush brought him up on the stage and Guy, near swooning from hunger, plugged in his guitar and released all of his frustration and loneliness. After a short but spectacular set, which included "Things I Used To Do" and "Further On Up The Road," Guy walked off the stage and out of the bar, certain that he had performed his swan song in Chicago.
But word of his performance had spread. Several days later a man approached him on the street and introduced himself as "Mud." Guy was dumbfounded, because the man turned out to be blues icon Muddy Waters. Waters had heard about the young guitarist's epic impromptu performance, and in addition to feeding the starving young man, Waters introduced him to some of the most important people on the Chicago blues scene.
Guy was suddenly appearing in top flight blues guitar competitions with other young guitarists such as Earl Hooker, Magic Sam, and even B.B. King. With such talent, Guy knew he had to find a way to distinguish himself. He found his trademark one night at the Blue Flame club while Otis Rush and Magic Sam were on stage. Guy told Timothy White of Billboard what happened: "I got a new extra-long cord, and I told this fella who was with me to take the wire, unroll it, and bring his end all the way to the stage where Magic and Otis were. I would hide in the bathroom, and when they call my name, he'd jump up and plug me in!"
Guy was introduced, but instead of appearing on stage, he came out of the back of the club ripping through his solo at maximum volume. He walked through the stunned crowd, out the front door of the Blue Flame, and then back up to the stage to join the other musicians. The stunt worked so well that Guy made his stroll through the crowd a mainstay of his show for the next 40 years.
For the Record . . .
Born on July 30, 1936, in Lettsworth, LA; son of Sam (a sharecropper) and Isabell Guy.
Blues guitarist; moved to Chicago, 1957; signed with Cobra Records, cut two singles, 1958; signed with Chess Records, recorded numerous singles, including "Stone Crazy"; became a valued session musician for Chess artists such as Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, and Howlin' Wolf, among others, 1960-67; released one album, A Man and His Blues, 1968; began long association with harmonica player Junior Wells, 1970s; owner of blues club the Checkerboard Lounge, 1972-83; released breakthrough album, Damn Right I've Got The Blues, 1990; owner of blues club Legends, 1989–; series of successful releases on Silvertone label, 1990s and early 2000s; released acoustic album Blues Singer, 2004.
Awards: Grammy Award, Best Blues Album of the Year, for "Damn Right I've Got The Blues," 1990, and for "Feels Like Rain," 1992; Billboard's Century Award for lifetime achievement, 1993; National Medal of Art award, 2003; Grammy Award, Best Traditional Blues Album for Blues Singer, 2004; inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 2005.
Addresses: Office—Legends, 754 South Wabash, Chicago, IL 60605.
Signed with Chess
In 1958 Guy signed with Cobra Records and cut two singles. The next year Cobra went under, and this time it was Chess Records that came looking for him. He signed with Leonard Chess in 1960, and became a noted session musician while recording his own singles. Besides such singles as "Stone Crazy," which became a number 12 Billboard R&B record, Guy played with Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, Howlin' Wolf, Koko Taylor and others.
In an interview with John Lee Hooker by Jas Obrecht of Guitar Player, Guy talked about his attitude when playing as a session musician with some of the masters: "When I got to Chicago, there were so many great guitarists around that I went to work a regular job. When I saw these people play, I just knew that there was no way I had a chance. I just wanted to meet these great musicians, and I woke up and they was askin' me to play with them. One thing helped me a lot was I was a good listener, and if they would ask me to play with them, I didn't go tell John Lee or Muddy Waters or the Howlin' Wolf or Walter what to play ... When I went into the studio with them, I got in the corner and said, 'I'm at school now. It's time for me to learn my lesson, not teach.'"
Guy appeared on Folk Singer, an acoustic record by Muddy Waters. When Leonard Chess objected to the electric guitarist being included on an acoustic album, Waters told the record label owner to "shut up and sit down." Guy stayed with Chess until 1967, but the company released only one album, A Man & His Blues, in 1968.
Though Guy received a measure of success and notoriety in Chicago, few outside the blues capital of the world knew about him. But those that did know his style were devoted and influential. Jimi Hendrix used to tape Guy's concerts, and in trips to England in the 1960s he met Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. Clapton co-produced Guy's collaboration with harmonica legend Junior Wells in 1972, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells Play the Blues, and the artist was instrumental in Guy's later ascent to stardom. Guy continued to tour, most of the time without a recording contract, though he did release Stone Crazy, a live album of a performance in France in 1978. In 1972 he opened a blues club in Chicago, the Checkerboard Lounge, which he ran until 1983. His days as a club owner resumed when he opened another Chicago blues club, Legends, in 1989.
A Breakthrough Year
In 1990 Guy was invited by Clapton to be part of his historic string concerts in London's Royal Albert Hall. The concerts were recorded on Clapton's 24 Nights album, and suddenly everyone wanted to know who Buddy Guy was. After the appearance in England, Guy returned there in 1990 with a new recording contract with Silvertone, to record "Damn Right, I've Got The Blues."
After all those years of playing in anonymity, Guy wanted the album to be just right. He was resolved to capture the Buddy Guy live sound that he had been unable to capture before. He told Ed Enright of Downbeat about the negotiations leading up to the ground-breaking recording: "They told me, 'We'd like to sign you, and we would want to support you.' And I said, 'Well, I really want to play Buddy Guy, because I never had the chance to play Buddy Guy before. I want you to hear that, because I'm a Johnny Come Later now; everybody else says these are Buddy Guy licks, and Buddy Guy has never played them himself.' They said, 'We're not going to tell you what to play, just give you a good supporting band. Won't you come to London and make this session?' And I said, "Thank you, I'll sign."
Damn Right I've Got The Blues included guest appearances by Clapton, Beck, and Mark Knopfler, and went on to receive a Grammy Award. The album reached gold record status in Canada, New Zealand, and England, and made Guy a star on the international blues scene. A book with the same title quickly followed, featuring interviews with Wells, Clapton, Beck, Willy Dixon, Robert Cray, and Stevie Ray Vaughn.
Guy followed up his hit record with Feels Like Rain in 1992. For his new album, Guy wanted to make more of an ambitious statement. He told Jim Washburn of The Los Angeles Times that he wanted a wider audience: "We got down in the alley on it, but also we were trying to get some of the bigger radio stations that do not play Muddy Waters or Howlin' Wolf to hopefully feel that maybe some of it would fit on their station."
Guy repeated the success of his previous album, winning a Grammy Award for Best Blues Album of the Year. The following year Billboard presented Guy with its highest honor, the Century Award for lifetime achievement. The man who went almost 13 years without a recording contract was now recording soundtracks and going on tour with the Saturday Night Live Band. His club, Legends, which he had struggled to keep open, was finally secured as a place where new blues talent could develop just as the master did. Though he recorded another successful album, Slippin' In, and continued to tour around the world, Guy rarely strayed far from his Chicago home and Legends, often popping in to the bar to mingle with the crowd and listen to the local talent. Guy told Enright that he will always remember where he came from: "Sometimes entertainers get so big, they have to isolate themselves. Please believe me, I don't ever want to get like that. I think that's the time I would start thinkin' maybe I should quit playin'. Because I would miss people."
And indeed, Guy showed no signs of quitting or even slowing down as he reached senior citizen status. He issued albums at a steady clip, including Last Time Around (1998), a live album that captured his wild concert style. Modern technology enabled him to trade in his long cord for a wireless microphone, giving him even more range in interacting with audiences. Guy was identified with stage theatrics, and rejected calls from music writers that he tone down his act. "If a gimmick is necessary," he was quoted as saying in the Washington Post, "I use it." Guy released Sweet Tea in 2001.
After that, however, Guy did experiment with a stripped-down blues style, something he had never done before. His 2003 album Blues Singer looked back to the older, often acoustic styles of blues that he had known as a young musician. "I love the sound of the acoustic guitar," Guy told Steve Inskeep of National Public Radio. "I never lost that, you know, because it's like—I'm from Louisiana, you know? ... I wrote a song once about, 'You can take me out of the country, but you'll never get the country out of me.'" Blues Singer brought Guy his fifth Grammy Award.
On March 14, 2005, at New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, Guy was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The musicians he had influenced paid him long tributes. Rock guitarist Eric Clapton, quoted in the Chicago Sun-Times, recalled seeing Guy perform in London in 1965. "He was earth-shattering," Clapton said on stage. "He was fantastic, doing all the things we'd later come to associate with Jimi Hendrix—playing with his teeth, his feet, behind his head." Guy himself kept the focus on the emotional content of the music, telling the audience (according to the Sun-Times) that "I've made a lot of records that if you ever listen to, some of the things I say might fit you, like you're damn right I've got the blues. If you don't think you got the blues, just keep living."
Buddy Guy, Chess.
First Time I Met The Blues, Chess Japan.
In the Beginning, Red Lightnin'.
Live at the Checkerboard Lounge, JSP.
Stone Crazy, Alligator.
Left My Blues in San Francisco, Chess, 1967.
A Man & The Blues, Vanguard, 1968.
This Is Buddy Guy, Vanguard, 1968.
Hold That Plane, Vanguard, 1972.
I Was Walking Through the Woods, Chess, 1974.
The Dollar Done Fell, JSP, 1980.
D.J., Play My Blues, JSP, 1982.
Ten Blue Fingers, JSP, 1985.
Breaking Out, JSP, 1988.
Damn Right, I've Got the Blues, Silvertone, 1991.
Feels Like Rain, Silvertone, 1993.
Slippin' In, Silvertone, 1994.
Live: The Real Deal, Silvertone, 1996.
Heavy Love, Silvertone, 1998.
Last Time Around: Live at Legends, Jive, 1998.
Sweet Tea, Jive, 2001.
Blues Singer, Silvertone, 2003.
As Buddy Guy and Junior Wells
Buddy Guy and Junior Wells Play the Blues, Atco, 1972.
Live in Montreux, Black & Blue, 1977.
Drinkin' TNT, Smokin' Dynamite, Blind Pig.
The Original Blues Brothers, Intermedia.
Going Back, Isabel.
Atlantic Blues: Chicago, Atlantic.
With Junior Wells
Hoodoo Man Blues, Delmark.
Southside Blues Jam, Delmark.
It's My Life, Baby, Vanguard.
Chicago/The Blues/Today, Vol. 1, Vanguard.
Coming At You, Vanguard.
With Muddy Waters
Folk Singer, Chess.
Baby Please Don't Go, Chess France.
The Super Duper Blues Band, Chess Japan.
Muddy Waters, Chess.
Billboard, December 4, 1993.
Chicago Sun-Times, March 16, 2005, p. 56.
Downbeat, February 1995.
Guitar Player, June 1996.
Los Angeles Times, April 22, 1993.
Washington Post, March 14, 2004, p. N1.
"Buddy Guy," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (July 8, 2005).
"Inductees: Buddy Guy," Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, http://www.rockhall.com/hof/inductee.aspt?id=2344 (July 8, 2005).
Additional information for this profile was obtained from an interview with Buddy Guy on National Public Radio's Weekend All Things Considered, September 21, 2003.
—Michael J. Watkins andJames M. Manheim
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