Few blues artists have enjoyed as storied a career as guitarist Buddy Guy. The undisputed, long-time King of Chicago Blues, Guy has played with just about everybody that was ever anybody in blues music, from Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and Junior Wells to blues-rockers like Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones. Clapton has long called Guy his favorite blues guitarist, and Guy also influenced artists like Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Many thought Guy's career to be finished during the 1980s when the guitarist had seemingly lost his way creatively. After delivering a solid effort for Alligator Records with 1991's Stone Crazy, Guy spent most of the rest of the decade in the wilderness, recording a series of mostly lackluster efforts for England's JSP label. At the dawn of the 1990s, however, Guy signed with Silvertone Records and experienced a career revival. Silvertone releases like 1991's Damn Right, I've Got The Blues earned the artist respect, mainstream attention, increased sales, and three Grammy™ Awards.
The Definitive Buddy Guy
The Definitive Buddy Guy is the first single-disc retrospective of the guitarist's lengthy career, a collection of 17 songs that begins in the late-1950s and stretches through the decades to the new millennium. Along the way, The Definitive Buddy Guy touches upon most of the highlights of the artist's catalog, including material recorded for Chess Records, JSP, Alligator, Blind Pig, Evidence, Vanguard, and, naturally, Silvertone.
Alongside Guy's phenomenal guitarwork, the collection also features performances by friends and guests like Junior Wells, Otis Rush, Otis Spann, Eric Clapton, Pinetop Perkins, and many others. The album begins with "Sit And Cry (The Blues)," released in 1958 by Artistic Records, an imprint of the better-known Cobra Records label. A slow-burning tearjerker with staggered rhythms, elegant fretwork, and passionate vocals, "Sit And Cry (The Blues)" introduces both Guy's talent and intent.
The Chess Years & Vanguard Records
After Cobra closed its doors, Guy jumped over to Chess Records, Chicago's reigning blues label during the late-1950s. Guy's "First Time I Met The Blues," issued as a single in 1960, is a prototypical blues pounder with shards of frenetic guitar, shouted vocals, cool blasts of piano, and rhythms courtesy of a full backing band. The Guy original, "Ten Years Ago," offers one of the guitarist's first appearances alongside harpist Junior Wells, strong vocals supported by mournful harmonica and whoops of guitar.
"Stone Crazy" is a bona fide guitar showcase and a fine example of some of Guy's best work for Chess. Taken from the budget-priced singles compilation I Was Walking Through The Woods, Guy's vocals are drenched in emotion, Otis Spann's piano provides an important musical counterpoint to Guy's whirlwind fretwork, and Well's harp contributions are mostly understated but powerful. The rhythm section of bassist Jack Meyers and drummer Fred Below provide a steady backbone, and the horns sway back-and-forth as needed.
Guy left Chess during sometime in the late-1960s, signing with the folk-oriented Vanguard Records label. Guy recorded three albums for Vanguard, 1968's A Man and the Blues being the best. Two tracks from the Vanguard albums are included here, including the title track of the aforementioned album, a jazzy slow blues number that benefits from Spann's delicate pianowork and the addition of rhythm guitarist Wayne Bennett.
Buddy Guy & Junior Wells
Buddy Guy and blues harpist Junior Wells went together like peanut butter and bananas, the two talented artists enjoying an association that lasted until Wells' death in 1998. The Definitive Buddy Guy features a wealth of the duo's musical collaborations, beginning with the title cut from Wells' groundbreaking 1966 album Hoodoo Man Blues. A raucous swinging club favorite, "Hoodoo Man Blues" is a dictionary-perfect definition of the Chicago blues style.
The atmospheric, swaggering "Five Long Years" comes from the hard-to-find Buddy and the Juniors album (import only), and it shows Guy and Wells in a different setting, with only pianist Junior Mance providing backing rhythms. The often overlooked 1972 album Buddy Guy & Junior Wells Play The Blues is represented by "A Man Of Many Words," a tune that features intricate guitar interplay between Guy and Eric Clapton alongside Wells' timely harp blasts and Dr. John's considered piano play.
"Checkin' On My Baby," a live performance from the 1974 Montreux Jazz Festival taken from Blind Pig's 1988 Drinkin' TNT 'N' Smokin' Dynamite, features Guy and Wells onstage with Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman and pianist Pinetop Perkins. A rollicking Chicago blues tune with up-tempo instrumentation, the song is an excellent example of the magical juxtaposition of Guy's guitarplay and Wells' fast-walking harpwork.
The Reverend's Bottom Line
The Definitive Buddy Guy is a good...but not great...document of the blues legend's lengthy career. On the plus side, it includes the aforementioned early Artistic and Chess Records sides, as well as a couple of harder-to-find Junior Wells/Buddy Guy cuts.
However, the set offers nothing past 2001's Sweet Tea album, ignoring some fine material from 2003's acoustic Blues Singer. Also, it includes nothing from Guy's Damn Right, I've Got The Blues, or 1994's excellent Slippin' In album. Personally, I would have preferred a two-disc set with maybe 30 songs to better represent Guy's music over the past 50 years.
Nevertheless, if you're unfamiliar with the sound and fury that is Buddy Guy and his guitar, the 17 tracks on The Definitive Buddy Guy will provide a satisfying taste of the bluesman's style and substance, enough to make you look for the full gourmet meal available through his other recordings. (Shout! Factory Records, released April 14, 2009)