Along with B.B. King, guitar-slinger Buddy Guy is one of the last of a dying breed. True, there is no shortage of great, younger blues performers out there now. True, Guy didn’t enjoy the same high-flying profile as some of his contemporaries. But he was a man who came to know and work with many of his mentors and compatriots like Magic Sam, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Sonny Boy Williamson II, John Lee Hooker, and Guy’s longtime partner, Junior Wells. He knew the ins and outs of the legendary Chess Records and the ways of the road during the heavily influential period of the late ‘50s and ‘60s. He became an important and influential figure himself, and he’s still a vital presence now.
When I Left Home is an apt title for Guy’s account of his life with the blues. The engaging first chapters describe his home, Lettsworth, Louisiana, where he labored in the cotton fields. Despite the stark poverty, he describes a loving and supporting family. As an adult, Guy writes, he always tried to duplicate the relationship of his parents and thus never became a serious womanizer or drinker. Then, as a teenager in 1949, he heard John Lee Hooker’s “Boogie Chillin.'” From then on, from his first two-string to a second-hand acoustic to the electric guitar, Buddy Guy was a blues man, body, heart, and soul. Whatever else has happened on his path, everything he shares in his lively autobiography is about the music he became part of.
Guy left home in 1957 after practicing his chops around Baton Rouge. He moved to Chicago where he walked into a blues renaissance. In short order, fantasy met reality when he learned the guys who played the records he loved didn’t live in mansions. He literally stumbled over one of his idols, Jimmy Reed, when stepping into a club Reed was playing at. The harp master was passed out cold in front of the club. Some players would be kind to him, others wouldn’t. Guy quickly established his own flamboyant style by coming to the stage from the street, playing his licks via a 50 foot cord. However, the man at the top, Chess Records president Leonard Chess, saw Guy as a perfect go-to session player on hits like Koko Taylor’s “Wang Dang Doodle” or Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor” but not as a serious solo artist. Chess didn’t grasp the fire and magic of what Guy could do live. Thus, as Chess himself apparently later admitted, he deserved a good kick in the ass because he didn’t see the money that could be made recording a Stratocaster master who’d influenced folks like Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, and Jeff Beck.