Guy, Buddy (1936—)

views updated

Guy, Buddy (1936—)

Perhaps the greatest showman to ever play blues guitar, Buddy Guy was a crucial link between blues and rock 'n' roll. Virtually unknown to the general public for most of his career, Guy was universally hailed by rock musicians from America and Britain. Guitarists Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix cited him as a prime influence, and Eric Clapton stated in Musician Magazine in 1986 that Buddy Guy "is by far and without a doubt the best guitar player alive."

The reason for such praise stemmed not just from Guy's technical skill, but also from his astounding and often unpredictable antics on stage. Guy held nothing back in performance, torturing his guitar into sonic oblivion and singing himself into a frenzy. Although others have been known to play with their teeth and parade through audiences, Guy was one of the first to do so. Before Guy came to Chicago, blues was played sitting down.

Born on July 30, 1936 in Lettsworth, Louisiana, into a family of sharecroppers, George "Buddy" Guy spent much of his spare time during childhood listening to Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and Sonny Boy Williamson on the radio. As Guy grew older, he began hanging out at the Temple Roof Garden, a 300-seat club in Baton Rouge where he would see B. B. King, Bobby Bland, and his biggest inspiration, Guitar Slim.

Guitar Slim (Eddie Jones) had a Number 1 R&B single with "The Things (That) I Used to Do" in 1954 and was the top draw of the southern "Chitlin' Circuit" of black clubs. Slim was a wild man on stage, wearing outlandish costumes with matching wigs, swinging from the rafters and dancing through crowds on a 150-foot guitar cable. "When I saw him … I'd made up my mind," Guy said in Donald E. Wilcox's biography, Damn Right I've Got the Blues. "I wanted to play like B. B. but act like Guitar Slim." Around this time, an uncle bought Guy his first real guitar for $52.50.

By the mid 1950s, he was playing around Louisiana behind local musicians "Big Poppa" John Tilley and Raful Neal. In 1957, Guy recorded a demo tape at radio station WXOK in Baton Rouge and decided to try to make it big in Chicago. Guy brought his tape to Chess Records, the top label in town, but got nowhere. After six months of struggling, Guy finally got to sit in with Otis Rush. He began to play regular gigs around town, and his frantic stage show soon set him apart from the crowd.

"Buddy's act was not premeditated or contrived," Wilcox said in his biography of Guy. "His style was merely a natural by-product of being self-taught, having a compulsion to play, and being insecure enough to feel that if he didn't dazzle and hypnotize his audience with the flamboyant techniques he'd seen work for Guitar Slim, he'd be buried by competition from guitarists who were better technicians."

Word of the crazy kid from Louisiana spread and Chess producer and songwriter Willie Dixon soon recognized Guy's talent. Dixon brought Guy in and immediately put him to work as a session musician with Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Koko Taylor.

Chess tried recording Guy as a solo artist, but failed to find the right niche. R&B ballads, jazz instrumentals, soul, and novelty dance tunes were all recorded during the early 1960s, but none were released as singles. Guy wanted to record a set similar to his live shows, boosting his guitar's volume and cutting loose, but Chess wouldn't take the chance. Meanwhile, Guy's reputation spread to Great Britain, where young rockers like Clapton and the Rolling Stones were seeking out Chess singles and learning about Guy. His tour of England in 1965 brought exposure to a generation of musicians eager to soak it up, repackage it, and turn around and sell it to Americans as the hip new thing. "[Chess founder] Leonard Chess would eventually realize his mistake in not recognizing Buddy's appeal in the clubs, or that much of the appeal of the British rock bands was based on the kind of 'noise' that Buddy was producing live," Wilcox noted in his biography of Guy. "Still, Chess had not yet released a single album by Buddy Guy. What saved Buddy at Chess was his versatility."

Guy was invited to play with harmonica player Junior Wells on his Delmark album Hoodoo Man Blues in 1965. Delmark, a small jazz label, wasn't interested in producing singles, and encouraged the band to play as if it were a live show. The result was the first recording of a Chicago blues band in its natural environment and the album became the best-selling record in the label's history. On the first pressing, Guy was listed only as "Friendly Chap" due to his contract with Chess.

After leaving Chess in frustration in the late 1960s, Guy recorded for Vanguard Records and continued to play with Wells. In 1972, Eric Clapton convinced Atlantic Records to record Guy and Wells and Buddy Guy and Junior Wells Play the Blues was the result. The album should have been Guy's breakthrough, but Clapton's work as producer was hampered by his heroin addiction. The album wasn't completed for two years and was virtually ignored.

Guy continued to record on various small labels, often in Europe, through the 1970s and 1980s, and he bought the Checkerboard Lounge on Chicago's South Side. He later opened Buddy Guy's Legends just south of Chicago's Loop, which soon became the city's premier club.

Guy often jammed with prominent guitarists like Clapton, Vaughan, and Robert Cray and his higher profile helped him land a contract with England's Silvertone Records, which released Damn Right, I've Got the Blues in 1990. With guests like Clapton and fellow Brit Jeff Beck, the album was criticized by purists as leaning too far towards rock. Still, it won a Grammy Award as best contemporary blues album and he collected five W. C. Handy awards in 1992. Guy recorded four more albums for Silvertone through 1998, influencing a new generation of young guitarists, including Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd.

—Jon Klinkowitz

Further Reading:

DeCurtis, Anthony. "Living Legends." Rolling Stone. September 21, 1989, 89-99.

Murray, Charles Shaar. "Strat Cats" (Interview with Guy and Jeff Beck). Guitar World, July 1991, 80ff.

Obrecht, Jas, editor. Blues Guitar: The Men Who Made the Music. San Francisco, GPI Books, 1990.

Whiteis, David. "Buddy Guy: 50 Million Riff Thieves Can't Be Wrong." Down Beat. October 1991, 22-23.

Wilcox, Donald E. Damn Right I've Got the Blues: Buddy Guy and the Blues Roots of Rock-and-Roll. San Francisco, Woodford Press, 1993.