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.
Throughout Guy’s vivid character sketches, anecdotes, and descriptions of his work in the studio and in clubs, Guy reveals the realities of the music business and how he tried to make a living driving trucks and doing manual labor on the side. Thinking owing his own venue would be the ticket, he bought the Checkerboard Club which became legendary when the Rolling Stones played there. But the South Side of Chicago was no place to locate a thriving blues club when the audiences had become almost entirely white.
Along the way, Guy enjoyed notable career highlights. In 1972, Buddy Guy & Junior Wells Play The Blues became quickly acknowledged as a classic album in electric blues. While not drawing huge audiences on his own, he became a father figure for the likes of Jimmy and Stevie Ray Vaughn. Not until 1991 did he produce his “break-through” CD, Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues for Silvertone Records. A few years before, he established his “Buddy Guy’s Legends” club at 700 S. Wabash Ave. Guy opens and closes his book inviting the reader to visit “Legends” where he says you can usually find him sitting at the bar waiting to talk with fans.
The heart of When I Left Home: My Story are the years leading up to his move to Chicago and then up to his leaving Chess in 1968. From that point forward, Guy is more observer than participant in the stories he tells. He keeps his private life private and clearly thinks the reader wants to get insights into all the people he knew more so than his own later achievements. For example, he expresses pride in Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues but says nothing about his subsequent award winning releases for Silvertone. The past two decades, for the most part, are covered in but a few pages.
So most readers should find When I Left Home: My Story a perfect blend of insights, observations, and behind-the-scenes looks into a seminal place and time in American music. Guy’s perspective seems balanced, candid, and level-headed. This isn’t a story of rags to excesses to rags, of a rise and fall and renewal, but rather the story of a musician who has always put his guitar and singing center stage with few personal distractions or demons. He knows how to tell a story with an open-hearted personality and down-home style. For example, when sharing conversations with John Lee Hooker, Guy uses Hooker’s pronounced stutter. It’s for blues lovers, sho nuff.
And, before he leaves us, see Guy live whenever and wherever you can. When he and B.B. King are gone, so too will all living links to the great creative core that made Chicago as important a musical capital as Memphis, Nashville, or New Orleans.