Guitarist Buddy Guy is both one of the most popular bluesmen of all time (I'll brook no argument about this simple fact) and one of the most influential (ditto). It's safe to say that without Guy applying his raucous, wiry guitar licks to some of the best of Chess Records in the late 1950s and 1960s, including recordings by Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Muddy Waters that he may never had Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, or the Rolling Stones.
Skipping forward a bit in the story, the last few years have been good to Buddy Guy. Albums like 2008's Skin Deep and 2010's Living Proof have brought the guitarist acclaim, awards, and maybe a little cash. They've certainly raised his profile and status to near that of his good friend B.B. King, creating demand for tickets to see Guy play live around the world. On the basis of Guy's aforementioned influence on the development of rock 'n' roll during the 1960s, he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2005, some two decades after taking his well-deserved place in the Blues Hall of Fame.
Buddy Guy's When I Left Home
Buddy Guy has lived quite a life, and sometime during the last few years he decided to share his story with his fans. Enlisting the help of award-winning author David Ritz, who has penned acclaimed biographies of R&B artists like Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin and helped write B.B. King's autobiography, Guy published When I Left Home: My Story in early 2012, launching an amazing year that saw the guitarist perform at the White House and receive Kennedy Center Honors...a heady journey indeed for a country boy from Louisiana.
Guy's story begins in rural Lettsworth, Louisiana where he was born the son of sharecroppers, learning to pick cotton at an early age. He was fascinated by the sound of a family friend's guitar and while Guy grew up in poverty, he seems to have had a relatively happy childhood, albeit not one without its share of tragedy. His family didn't get electricity until Guy was twelve years old, and then a beat-up old phonograph introduced young Buddy to John Lee Hooker and the blues. A chance meeting with guitarist Lightnin' Slim would later seal the deal, and there would be no looking back for (future) bluesman Buddy Guy.
Going To Chicago
Guy moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana to live with his older sister and attend high school, but his education would be cut short when he had to return home to attend to his family. He later returned to Baton Rouge where a blessed gift of a guitar put Guy back on the blues highway. Working two jobs at the time to help his family, Guy's career as a performer was almost derailed by his immense stage fright, the guitarist singing with his back to the audience. Again, however, Guy would find a way to overcome his shyness once he saw Guitar Slim perform and electrify the audience.
A few years later, at the age of 21, Guy decided to follow his idols like Muddy Waters and travel to Chicago with a guitar, a suitcase, and a couple hundred dollars in savings. The blues legend goes into some detail about his early days in the Windy City and the dues he paid to become a working musician. Guy's story about meeting the great Muddy Waters alone is worth the price of When I Left Home, but tales of his days at Chess Records, working with Willie Dixon, learning from Otis Rush and Magic Sam, and an interlude with guitarist Earl Hooker help fuel a free-flowing narrative that sheds a lot of light on the Chicago blues scene of the 1950s and 1960s.
The Silvertone Years
When I Left Home goes into some detail on Guy's longtime friendships with the late Junior Wells (and the pair's musical collaborations) and B.B. King but also pays particular attention to the kindness of Waters, who took the young Chicago immigrant under his wing and served as a mentor, teaching him the ways of the blues. Guy touches upon issues of race and poverty, and especially bemoans the lack of financial success he witnessed among those artists he considered the originators of the blues. Guy always seems aware of his place in the blues hierarchy, sometimes coming across as too self-effacing, downplaying his own influence and accomplishments in his praise for the earlier generation of Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, and other idols.
Guy experienced some leans years himself, spending most of the 1980s without a record deal in the U.S., performing in Europe and recording for small Europeans labels. It was after signing with Silvertone Records in 1991 and releasing his breakthrough album, Damn Right, I've Got The Blues that Guy's fortunes began to improve. Featuring guests like Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, the album would finally earn Guy the respect he deserved as well as his first Grammy™ Award. In the two decades since, Guy has become one of the biggest blues stars on the planet, and while he shows sincere gratitude for his success, he also realizes that it's been built on the efforts of those bluesmen that came before him.
The Reverend's Bottom Line
Obviously, Guy shares a lot more insight and stories in the pages of When I Left Home than we can go into with this short book review. Suffice it to say that if you're a fan of blues music, and especially if you're a Buddy Guy fan, you owe it to yourself to read When I Left Home. Not only does Guy share a large portion of his own life, warts and all, his stories of fellow bluesmen – always delivered with respect even when humorous or, shall we say, "spicy" – are a lot of fun and put a human face on artists we usually only hear on record.
Co-author David Ritz massages Guy's stories into a conversational narrative that flows easily, and the book reads like talking to an old friend, allowing the bluesman to tell his tale at his own pace. As such, When I Left Home is filled with Guy's intelligence and easy-going nature but crackles with excitement like the man performing on stage. Highly recommended... (Da Capo Press, published May 8, 2012)
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