“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
He’s Chicago’s blues king today, ruling his domain just as his idol and mentor Muddy Waters did before him. Yet there was a time and not all that long ago when Buddy Guy couldn’t even negotiate a decent record deal. Times sure have changed for the better: Guy’s first three albums for Silvertone in the ’90s all earned Grammys. Eric Clapton unabashedly calls Guy his favorite blues axeman and so do a great many adoring fans worldwide.
High-energy guitar histrionics and boundless on-stage energy, have always been Guy trademarks, along with a tortured vocal style that’s nearly as distinctive as his incendiary rapid-fire fretwork. He’s come a long way from his beginnings on the ’50s Baton Rouge blues scene; 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, Guy had conquered his nervousness.
Guy journeyed to Chicago in 1957, ready to take the town by storm. Initially, times were tough, until he turned up the juice as a showman (much as another of his early idols, Guitar Slim had back home). It didn’t take long after that, for the new kid in town to establish himself. 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 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. Willie Dixon produced the sides.
When Cobra folded, Guy wisely followed Rush over to Chess. With the issue of his first Chess single in 1960, Guy was no longer aurally indebted to anybody. ‘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.
Although he’s 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. While at Chess, Guy worked long and hard as a session guitarist, getting his licks in on sides by Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Koko Taylor (on her hit “Wang Dang Doodle”).
Buddy went on to record for a whole host of labels, but it is as a live performer that he is adored by anyone with an interest in the Blues. Eric Clapton was right…
Words: Richard Havers