25th of September, 1957, a date that is printed on all of the Buddy Guy guitars, the day he took a train to Chicago, with little more than a clean change of clothes and a guitar. 60 years later Guy is the real king of the blues and in charge of keeping his flame alive in the city where he changed to electric and served as the father of rock. Guy is the connection between the two, the everlasting link between Muddy Waters and Jimi Hendrix.
George Guy came into this world on July 30, 1936 in Louisiana and as many of his songs say, at the age of 2 his mother was already saying “this boy has the blues”. He was part of a poor southern family, and at a very young age he was already picking cotton with them. He heard on the radio a sound that would change his life, the blues of John Lee Hooker and Guitar Slim, whom he could also see play live. He made his own guitar (or something like it) in his teens with a stick and 2 strings. With his first paycheque he bought himself none other than a Les Paul and began to make a name for himself in the juke joints of Baton Rouge and even recorded a song for the local radio. But everybody knew he wouldn’t get very far there, he had to move to the promised land, Chicago. The place where electric blues was emerging and where all the big names were. Despite his mother’s reservations he left with the promise that when he made some decent money, he would buy her a Cadillac with polka dots painted on it. A promise he wouldn’t fulfill.
A suitcase of clothes for just 2 days, a tape with a song he had recorded and his Les Paul Goldtop was all he carried with him. After months without finding work, and without an answer from Leonard Chess, whom he had left his tape with, Buddy was hungry and ready to go back home, then one day he dropped into a juke joint where the great Otis Rush played, with his Les Paul on his back and had himself a couple of shots. After one of the songs, somebody shouted out, “Otis, there’s a guy here who can kick your ass”. Rush invited him up onstage and asked what he wanted to play, Buddy quickly replied, Guitar Slim, The Things I Used to Do, his favourite song. Rush let him begin and once he got started, you couldn’t stop him. That day he was possessed by Guitar Slim and pulled out all his tricks, like playing the guitar behind his back, and playing with his teeth, knowing that this was his last chance and he wasn’t going to let it slip away. By the time he finished, the owner of the joint had made a call that would change his life. Out in the street Muddy Waters himself awaited him, the king of the city and the blues scene. Seeing how hungry he was, he offered him a salami sandwich, and not only that, from that moment on he became a sort of father figure that showed him around the city. He made it, he wouldn’t have to go back down south with his tail between his legs, the performances began to come and soon after he was playing with the most promising guitarists such as Rush, Freddie King and Magic Sam. It was the latter who recommended him to Cobra Records where he recorded his debut, Sit and Cry (the blues) under the supervision of Willie Dixon. It would also be the last time he played the Goldtop which was stolen shortly after. When the label folded, Guy made 2 crucial decisions in his career: buy a ‘57 Stratocaster and sign on to the label of his dreams, Chess Records.
However, his move to the legendary label wasn’t as successful as he had hoped, Leonard Chess wasn’t much interested in his strong aggressive style, so Buddy was living two lives, one as a session player for Chess, to play whatever he was asked, with sessions for Muddy Waters (Folk Singer), Howlin’ Wolf (Killing Floor), and Koko Taylor (Wang Dang Doodle), and the wild side, showing off all his tricks on the stages of Chicago. One of his favourites was to start the show offstage, from the street or the bathroom, thanks to a very long cable, something we’d seen him do with his beloved Guitar Slim.
His stay at Chess is where he would leave a good part of his best work, from First Time I Get the Blues, released in 1960, to his only long-play (LP) with the label, I Left My Blues in San Francisco, from ’67, you can find the most distinguished of his discography, from the allusional Stone Crazy, to When My Left Eye Jumps, which would serve as an inspiration for his most gifted student, Jimi Hendrix, on Red House. The clearest influence of his style would live among the great trio of British blues/rock aces, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. It would mainly be through an LP that was released in 1963 called Folk Festival of the Blues, where he played alongside the greats like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, besides singing a couple of songs alone. His raw explosive style and his long exquisite solos would have a brutal impact on that generation. Clapton would declare him his favourite guitarist, Beck would admit “I didn’t know a Strat could sound like that (...) his solos don’t stick to the 3-minute pop format, they were long and very deliberate”, and Page, “ He’s an absolute monster. He left the world dumbstruck with this record”. Something which is evident in the case of Led Zeppelin II, where we can find a version of Bring It On Home practically identical to what you’ll find here.
In 1965 he would also play on possibly the best record he participated in, Hoodoo Man Blues by Junior Wells, one of the great blues classics. Oddly, when the record was released, his name didn’t appear on it, but instead Friendly Chap, a pseudonym, now that the record was edited by Delmark and he was under the Chess label. His relationship with Wells was one of the most productive in blues with gems like Vietnam Blues in ‘66, where you’ll see another part of his style, more lyrical and unhurried, a result of the tremendous influence of B.B. King.
In 1967 radio stations were flooded with people who took their style a step further like Hendrix and Clapton, and Guy left Chess to sign with Vanguard Records. Leonard Chess would recognise this, saying, “kick my ass Buddy, you’d spent all this time trying to record this and I wasn’t capable of noticing it”. It wasn't really like that, Buddy is an excellent story-teller and loves to embellish, A Man and the Blues sounded more like the soulful rock of I Left My Blues in San Francisco than Are You Experienced?, without a trace of effects or pedals. Still, at the end of the 60s, he began to play with his disciples, a jam with Hendrix, a London performance with Jack Bruce and Buddy Miles, and signed to record with Clapton. The result was the remarkable Buddy Guy & Junior Wells Play the Blues, which was released in 1972, and recorded in 2 sessions, the first with Clapton and 2 members of Derek & The Dominos in 1970, and the second in 1972 without Clapton nor Wells, but with members of the J. Geils Band. It’s another of the peaks in his career, with songs like Man of Many Words, pure Otis Redding, sounds like Hard to Handle but with an amazing solo by Guy.
The 70s still saw him share the stage with rock stars, tours with the Stones and Janis Joplin and The Band. But little by little his star was fading. In 1981 he recorded Stone Crazy, a record on which I Smell a Rat shone, but there wasn’t a market for it and he went a decade without recording. When he did it, it was his big comeback, along the way Stevie Ray Vaughan had captured the blues rock fuse once again and didn’t skimp on praise towards Buddy, besides, Clapton took him for his 24 Nights. Suddenly Damn Right I Got the Blues became a hit, winning Grammys and returning to the top of the charts.
Slowly but surely the blues greats were disappearing, Junior Wells died in 1998, John Lee hooker in 2001, and B.B. King in 2015. Buddy guy remained in charge of keeping the blues torch burning. He is now the king and keeps showing it in his juke joint in Chicago, one of the few (like him) that is still open. That’s where you can see what Hendrix meant with, “paradise is being at Buddy Guy’s feet while you listen to him play”.
But this story has an epilogue, Buddy could never keep his promise and give his mother a Cadillac with polka dots, so when in 1995 Fender made his signature model, Buddy Guy asked the company to paint dots on it. And maybe it’s not a Cadillac, but for somebody born to play the guitar to dedicate his own Stratocaster to his mother is a much better gift.