In a career that has lasted well over fifty years, Buddy Guy has played with everyone who matters and everyone who cares about the blues. From Jeff Beck to Eric Clapton and many more, they have all happily stood in line for the chance to play with Buddy. He is our living link to the glory days of Chicago Blues and Chess Records. High-energy guitar histrionics and boundless on-stage energy are his trademarks, along with a fervent vocal style that’s nearly as distinctive as his incendiary rapid-fire fretwork.
“By far and without doubt, the best guitar player alive.” – Eric Clapton
George “Buddy” Guy was born in 1936 on a farm in Lettsworth, Louisiana (where today two plaques memorialize the town’s most famous son), and made his first guitar when he was thirteen years old. By 1953, the 17-year-old was sitting in with Lightnin’ Slim and Lazy Lester at Baton Rouge clubs. At his first gigs with bandleader “Big Poppa” John Tilley, the young guitarist had to chug a stomach-jolting concoction of Dr. Tichenor’s antiseptic and wine to ward off an advanced case of stage fright, but by the time he joined harpist Raful Neal’s band, he had conquered his nervousness.
In 1957, Buddy’s mother had a stroke, so he went to Chicago looking for work, ready to take the town by storm. Initially, times were tough, at least until he turned up the juice as a showman, emulating his idol Guitar Slim’s trick of using an extended guitar cord so he could wander through the audience as he played. It didn’t take long for the new kid in town to establish himself, as he became part of a younger wave of Chicago blues artists, which included Otis Rush and Magic Sam, and who came to exemplify the “West Side Sound.”
He hung with the city’s blues elite: Freddy King, Muddy Waters, Otis Rush, and Magic Sam, who introduced Buddy Guy to Cobra Records boss Eli Toscano. Two searing 1958 singles for Cobra’s Artistic subsidiary, produced by Willie Dixon, were the result. “This Is The End” and “Try To Quit You Baby” exhibited more than a trace of B.B. King’s influence, while “You Sure Can’t Do” was an unabashed homage to Guitar Slim.
When Cobra folded, Guy followed Rush to Chess Records. With the release of his first Chess single in 1960, Guy found his footing as a solo artist, clearly no longer stylistically indebted to anyone. “First Time I Met The Blues” and its follow-up, “Broken Hearted Blues,” were fiery, tortured, slow blues tracks, brilliantly showcasing Guy’s whammy-bar-enriched guitar and shrieking, hellhound-on-his-trail vocals. In 1962, Buddy had his only hit on the Billboard R&B charts, when “Stone Crazy” reached number 12. (All are included on the compilation album Blues Greats – Buddy Guy.)
Although he often complained that Leonard Chess wouldn’t allow him to turn up his guitar loud enough, the claim doesn’t wash. Guy’s 1960-1967 Chess catalogue remains his most satisfying body of work. A shuffling “Let Me Love You Baby,” the impassioned downbeat items “Ten Years Ago,” “Stone Crazy,” “My Time After Awhile,” “Leave My Girl Alone,” and a bouncy “No Lie” rate with the hottest blues waxings of the ‘60s.
Along with his own records, he was also an in-demand session player, backing Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin’ Wolf, Koko Taylor (on her hit “Wang Dang Doodle”), and Willie Dixon. As a sideman, he can also be heard to great effect on Muddy Waters’ Folk Singer album. One of his finest moments is on the pivotal Junior Wells album Hoodoo Man Blues on Delmark, on which Guy was initially billed as Friendly Chap, as he was under contract to Chess. Guy and Wells became frequent recording and touring partners, and can also be heard performing live on Wells’ 1966 Vanguard album It’s My Life, Baby.
Two very different but equally satisfying recordings are 1968’s I Left My Blues in San Francisco, on Chess, and his outstanding 1970 album for Blue Thumb, Buddy & the Juniors, which pairs him with pianist Junior Mance and harmonica ace Junior Wells. During this period, he toured extensively, performing at rock clubs such as the two Fillmore Auditoriums. His commanding electric guitar technique bore comparison to Jimi Hendrix, on whom he was possibly an influence.
“No one ever taught me anything. I was alone, out there in the country, with this guitar that never had enough strings on it. But one day I heard John Lee Hooker on the radio.” – Buddy Guy
In 1991, Guy began a relationship with Silvertone/Jive Records that has proven to be the most durable of his career. His label debut, Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues, with guest artists Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, and Mark Knopfler, won his first Grammy Award. He has since racked up nearly ten Grammys, including one for The Blues Is Alive and Well, which features Jeff Beck, Keith Richards, and Mick Jagger.
Today, Buddy Guy is Chicago’s blues king and reigning elder, ruling his domain just as his idol and mentor Muddy Waters did before him. Now well into his eighties, he continues to tour widely. Eric Clapton called him the best guitar player alive, and he may well be right.
Words: Richard Havers