Beyond doubt, Buddy is the greatest living bluesman and one of the most important in the rich history of the Blues. This modest, self-effacing man is the acknowledged influence on a veritable army of blues musicians, including Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Keith Richards and Jeff Beck.
Buddy might just have been the most decorated bluesman ever, with 8 Grammy Awards, 23 W.C. Handy Awards and a whole bunch more.
Despite the tidal wave of acknowledgement and the total respect across the entire blues spectrum of musicians and audiences, he was still holding down a day job, driving a tow truck, in 1967 and didn’t start making serious money until the early 90s. He was approaching 60 years of age when the worldwide blues audience sat up and took notice with the release of his 1991 album, “Damn Right I Got The Blues”.
Possibly, the main reason Buddy Guy was not as universally known as his singing, guitar work and explosive stage performances warranted was down to his recording deal with Chess Records to whom he remained signed right across his formative years of 1959 to 1968. Leonard Chess simply refused to record Buddy doing what Buddy did onstage, playing the wildest guitar around. He described Buddy’s playing as “just making noise” and tried to record him as a solo, playing R & B ballads, jazz instrumentals, soul and novelty dance tunes, none of which were deemed suitable for release as a single.
The only Buddy Guy album released on Chess was the 1967 “I Left My Blues in San Francisco”. Leonard, who it must be remembered was not the nicest of men, often addressed musicians as “MF”, to which Buddy would gently reply, “I thought my name was Buddy?”. However, he valued Buddy’s tremendous technique, using him as session guitar man backing Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Koko Taylor and much of the Chess Records stable.
In a March 2019 interview with David Remnick for The New Yorker, Buddy remembered the time in the late 1960s, that Leonard Chess called him into his office. “I’ve always thought that I knew that I was doing,” he told Buddy, “but when it came to you, I was wrong, I held you back. I said that you were playing too much. I thought you were too wild in your style.” Then Chess said, “I’m gonna bend over so you can kick my ass, because you’ve been trying to play like this ever since you got here and I was too fucking dumb to listen.”
Remnick wrote, “Chess’s failure could have stayed with Guy as a bitter memory, but he has turned the episode into a tidy and triumphant anecdote. He refuses any kind of resentment: ‘My mother always said, “What’s for you, you gonna get. What’s not for you, don’t look for it.”’
Buddy was born George Guy on July 30 1936, one of the five children of Sam and Isabel Guy, in Lettsworth, Louisiana – a sharecropper family, living in a shack on land owned by the white Feduccia family who demanded half of what the Guy family earned picking pecans and cotton. His younger brother Phil was also to make a name for himself as a Blues guitarist.
Buddy would walk barefoot to school in order to avoid wearing out his one pair of shoes. He would pick cotton before and after school earning two dollars and fifty cents for each load weighing a hundred pounds.
Lettsworth is positioned at the northern tip of Pointe Coupee Parish, on the east bank of the Atchafalaya River, close to its intersection with the Mississippi. Its population in 2005 was just 202 people.
His earliest music memory is of the guitar playing of a strange, itinerant wandering musician known as Coot, who would come by their house, play a little, drink some and fall asleep, at which point Buddy would pick up his guitar and strum a little. Buddy made his own first instrument, a two string diddley bow, before he was given a Harmony acoustic – which nowadays can be seen exhibited in The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Buddy became familiar with the gospel music of his local church, but would spend what little spare cash he had in Lettsworth’s only Juke Joint where he became particularly fascinated by John Lee Hooker’s “Boogie Chillen”, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Muddy Waters, inspired by the records of those other black kids who had hoboed north to Chicago and were now making records.
A turning point was when he first heard the wild blues showman, Guitar Slim, who employed every trick in the book, and many that weren’t, to entertain his audience. He played guitar over his head, behind his back, between his knees and with his teeth, much of which Buddy adopted and was eventually to pass on to Jimi Hendrix who in turn would drive thousands of white kids wild throughout the U.S. and Europe.
Buddy Guy resolved that night, to learn to “play like B.B. King, and put on a show like Guitar Slim.”
By the mid 1950s Buddy was working days at Louisiana State University as a custodian, that’s maintenance man and driver, while at night playing the juke joints and roadhouses of Baton Rouge, with such musicians as Big Poppa John Tilley and Raful Neal as well as Lightnin’ Slim, Lazy Lester and Slim Harpo. In 1957, through a DJ friend, he recorded two demos for Ace which were unreleased at the time. But his dream remained firmly in place: Buddy Guy wanted to be in the thick of the blues action which meant South Side and West Side Chicago, the stomping ground of his hero, McKinley Morganfield, Muddy Waters.
On September 25th, 1957, the 22 year old Buddy Guy left New Orleans Rail Station, to become part of the great migration north, headed for Chicago Illinois, not to work as a janitor in any university, but determined to make his mark in The Blues.
You can get a t-shirt of Buddy posing backstage at Aston University, Birmingham in 1964, photographed by Jim, exclusively from Henry’s Blues Emporium