Da Capo Press, 2012. ISBN: 978-0-306-82179-0
The great bluesman Buddy Guy’s story in some ways was the story of any bluesman who left the South for Chicago near the middle of the 20th century, lured by the electified sound of what’s now called the Chicago Blues, created by earlier artists like Muddy Waters, Earl Hooker, and Howlin’ Wolf. In some ways it’s not like so many other artists’ stories at all, for so many of them lived and died in complete obscurity. That was not Buddy Guy’s destiny, and of course that’s the bulk of what this book is about.
Buddy’s early life as a sharecropper’s son in Louisiana, however, is not given short shrift. There’s a good deal of fascinating detail about what life for a black man was like at that time and in that place, the strong values his parents imbued in him, and what led him to music in the first place. This information has to inform the reader’s understanding of the next phase of his life, when he left home to make his fortune in Chicago.
In those early days, however, there wasn’t a lot of fortune to be had. Buddy was sharing a flat with a family friend, an apartment so small they had to take turns sleeping. He played guitar at any club that would let him, entering and winning so-called open guitar contests where the winner was award a pint of whiskey. Buddy often won, but whiskey isn’t money and his roommate usually drank it anyway before Buddy was done with his set. After about a year of this he was broke with few prospects, and almost ready to give up. It was then that he was taken under the wing of the legendary Muddy Waters who provided both encouragement and the occasional sandwich to keep Buddy going.
The situation did improve, but slowly. Buddy started cutting records, first on the Cobra label, then with Chess. Chess, especially, is legendary for its early blues records, but almost as legendary for the way it exploited its artists. There was money to be made in blues, but by and large it wasn’t the performers who were making it. While the records were helping with name recognition, it was performing in the clubs that kept the musicians going. Then came the 1960’s.
Here’s where Buddy Guy’s story as well as the history of blues itself veers off into the ironic. By the end of the 1950’s the younger black audiences were drifting away from traditional blues to pop, soul and R&B. Blues was considered “old folks’ music.” The blues clubs around Chicago were dying off and shutting down. But a funny thing had happened along the way—performers like Big Bill Broonzy and Muddy Waters had done tours in England, where the blues and especially later the electrified variety by Muddy Waters was serving as the seed for a new generation of English musicians inspired by American blues. When groups and musicians like the Rolling Stones and the Beatles and Eric Clapton came to America, it was the blues musicians that they wanted to hear, talk about and promote. It’s probably an exaggeration to say that the British Invasion saved American blues as a musical form, but it did mean new opportunities and greatly expanded audiences for many of the performers who had dedicated their lives to the blues, and Buddy Guy was one of them.
It would be foolish to attempt to summarize Buddy Guy’s career in a review. If you don’t know who he is but have an interest in the music and the scene in Chicago during one of the blues’ most formative periods, this is a great book to pick up. David Ritz does a great job of capturing Buddy Guy’s distinctive voice. If you already know, but want something a lot closer to the “whole story,” then this is also the book for you. Highly recommended.