Buddy Guy is an internationally acclaimed blues guitarist, singer and showman. He’s one of the finest examples of Chicago-style electric blues.
Throughout his extensive musical career Buddy Guy has received numerous Grammy Awards, Blues Foundation’s W.C. Handy Awards, a Billboard Century Award and in 2003, the United States President presented Buddy Guy with The Medal of Arts that was established by Congress in 1984.
Even though Buddy Guy is closely associated with Chicago, his story in reality started in Louisiana. Born in 1936 to a sharecropper’s family and raised on a plantation near the small town of Lettsworth, located some 140 miles northwest of New Orleans, George “Buddy” Guy was one of five children born to Sam and Isabel Guy.
His earliest years were affected by growing up in the American South: separate seating on public buses, whites-only drinking fountains, and restaurants where blacks (if served at all) were sent around back. But it was tolerance, not resentment, impressed upon in the young Buddy Guy.
Buddy was seven years old, he recalls, when he put together his first makeshift “guitar” a two-string device attached to a piece of wood and secured with his mother’s hairpins. There was usually no work to be done on the plantation on Saturday afternoons and Sundays, and the valuable free time helped Buddy to develop the very skills that would one day bring him fame. It would be nearly a decade, however, before Buddy would own an actual guitar, a Harmony acoustic that now sits on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
By late 1955, following a job pumping gas, the 19-year-old Guy was working as a custodian at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, earning $28 per week. His passion was already firmly connected to the guitar and the blues sounds he heard coming from the radio, but at that point in his young life, Guy had never even been out of Louisiana.
It was September 25, 1957, a date Guy would cite countless times in interviews over the following decades, when he boarded the 8:14 a.m. train in Hammond, Louisiana, arriving in Chicago just before midnight. In an instant, his world had changed. Gone was the rural landscape of Louisiana; in its place was the thriving urban sprawl of a large city.
Within months, though, Guy had taken up residency in Chicago’s fabled 708 Club. His first appearance followed a set by Otis Rush and an often repeated story about a hungry Guy, penniless and on the verge of returning to Louisiana, getting salami sandwiches from none other than Muddy Waters himself, who had arrived at the club in a red Chevrolet. It was the first time Guy had ever seen the blues giant, who happened to live nearby.
“When I first came to Chicago,” says Guy, “most musicians were still sitting down in front of music stands even if they couldn’t read music, they did it just to look more serious. Then Guitar Slim got wild and kicked them all off stage, and I was wild like that, too.
“We used to have guitar battles every Sunday and Monday, with guys like Otis Rush and Magic Sam. It was like watching two tennis players or two boxers, they’d go at each other, but it was just making a living. One time, I came in with a 150 foot cord, walked in the door playing, and they just put their guitars down. And even now, if I don’t go off the stage, people ask if I’m feeling alright!”
By the early 1960s, Guy was a first-call session man at Chess Records. In that role, he backed artist like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, and Sonny Boy Williamson. One milestone recording with Waters, Folk Singer, was made in September of 1963 and released in the spring of 1964.
Poducer Ralph Bass wrote in the album’s original liner notes about the “search” for a second guitarist to back Waters: “Buddy Guy, a young blues singer in his own right, was first choice and it is amazing for so young a musician as Buddy to be able to fit in with Muddy.”
In addition, Guy began to release a considerable amount of recordings under his own name. By the end of the 1960s, he released trailblazing albums like 1967’s I Left My Blues in San Francisco, his last recording for Chess, and 1968’s A Man and the Blues for Vanguard. In the process, Guy, the musician who developed a stinging, attacking electric guitar style and wild, impassioned vocals, was influencing a growing number of rock musicians.
“He was for me what Elvis was probably like for other people,” Eric Clapton remembered at Guy’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2005. “My course was set, and he was my pilot.”
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Guy released over 20 albums under his name. The best was a collaboration with the late harmonica master Junior Wells.
In the 1990s, Guy entered a new era of commercial success. His first three albums for Silvertone, the 1991 comeback hit Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues (reissued in 2005), 1993’s Feels Like Rain, and 1994’s Slippin’ In, all earned Grammy Awards.
Succeeding releases like Live: The Real Deal (1996), Heavy Love (1998) and 2001’s Sweet Tea demonstrated that Guy, while firmly rooted in blues, has always tried to keep his music looking forward, even at the risk of alienating lovers of traditional blues sounds.
On his album Bring ‘Em In, Guy invited Carlos Santana and John Mayer on an album featuring covers of classic soul songs.
On Skin Deep, Buddy Guy showcases younger players such as pedal steel virtuoso Robert Randolph and husband-and-wife guitar guitarists Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks. These musicians serve as a living response to the question Guy raises on the song “Who’s Gonna Fill Those Shoes,” featuring pre-teen guitar whiz Quinn Sullivan, in which he reflects on the future of the blues beyond his revolutionary generation.
“I just try to get the best players, and hope I can pop the top off this can and show that the blues are back,” said Buddy Guy. “I learn from them, bring them in and see what they can do. And these guys got me feeling like when I was 22 years old and went into the studio with Muddy Waters.”
On March 14, 2005, Buddy was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame and on March 15 he re-released the Grammy Award winning Damn Right, I’ve Got The Blues.
In 2010, The Blues Foundation presented the Lifetime Achievement Award to Buddy Guy. The award is a one-of-a-kind creation of Patterson & Barnes, who also created the original artwork that served as the basis for the 2010 poster.
I Left My Blues in San Francisco (Chess, 1967)
This Is Buddy Guy (Vanguard, 1968)
A Man and the Blues (Vanguard, 1968)
Hold That Plane! (Vanguard, 1972)
Stone Crazy! (Alligator, 1979)
Live at the Checkerboard Lounge (Rockbeat, 1979)
Breaking Out (JSP, 1980)
The Dollar Done Fell (JSP, 1980)
DJ Play My Blues (JSP, 1981)
Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues (Silvertone/BMG, 1991)
Feels Like Rain (Silvertone, 1993)
Slippin’ In (Silvertone, 1994)
Heavy Love (Silvertone, 1998)
Sweet Tea (Jive, 2001)
Blues Singer (Silvertone, 2003)
Chicago Blues Festival, 1964 (Stardust, 2003)
Jammin’ Blues Electric & Acoustic (Sony, 2003)
Live at the Mystery Club (Quicksilver, 2003)
Bring ‘Em In (Jive, 2005)
Skin Deep (Jive, 2008)
Living Proof (Jive, 2010)
Live at Legends (RCA/Silvertone, 2012)
Rhythm & Blues (RCA Records, 2013)
Born to Play Guitar (RCA Records, 2015)
I’ll Play the Blues for You (Klondike, 2016)
Author: Angel Romero
Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music music for many years. He founded the websites worldmusiccentral.org and musicasdelmundo.com. Angel produced several TV specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World.