No Regular Guy

The rise, fall and rise of blues guitarist Buddy Guy.

Veteran bluesman Buddy Guy's modesty is becoming, but sometimes he takes it too far. Take, for instance, the following statement: "I'm not a great singer and I'm not a great guitar player."

That's absurd. Guy has an extremely strong and distinctive voice capable of enigmatic purring, full-throated roaring or unexpected shrieking that melds the authenticity of field hollers with the intensity of feedback-stained rock and roll. And his six-string work is, if anything, even better. He's a virtuoso soloist whose playing busts through genre boundaries with marvelous ease. Eric Clapton, one of Buddy's buddies, readily admits that Guy has had a tremendous influence on his playing, and scores of others in the blues and rock arenas say the same thing.

Press Guy to acknowledge the scope of his skills, however, and the guitarist will refuse to budge an inch. "If you go and listen to the guys who really do it right--guys I learned a lot from--you'll see that I'm telling the truth," he insists. "You've got to listen to B.B. King, man. You've got to go back to T-Bone Walker and Muddy Waters and all those people like that. I was just lucky to learn from the masters." He laughs. "I was getting it from the best who ever did it--and I got away with it."

Of course, there's considerably more to the story than that. Guy did indeed rub shoulders with Waters, Otis Rush and other acknowledged blues geniuses at the late Fifties/early Sixties musical hothouse that was Chess Records. But he's hardly a simple mimic. He soaked up the styles associated with his elders and drew upon them while developing his own approach, but the sound that resulted was entirely Guy's own. Moreover, he's kept growing as a creative entity. While the majority of his contemporaries who remain among the living are artistic shadows of their former selves, Guy today is every bit as impressive a talent as he ever was--perhaps more so. Better yet, he's finally enjoying the popular acclaim he's deserved since the beginning. Where once he had problems finding places to play, he now owns Legends, one of the finest blues club in Chicago. "I was happy back in the old days," he contends, "but I'm much happier knowing my family has got a meal and a roof over their heads. I'm very happy about what's happening for me now--and the way my life has gone might be a good example for some young person. Because what ain't worth waiting for ain't worth having."

It's been a long wait. Guy (real first name: George) was born during the long, hot summer of 1936 in Lettsworth, Louisiana. His parents, who made their living by working a plot of ground owned by white landlords, certainly didn't have much folding green, but they managed to trade for a worn-out acoustic guitar that Buddy had been hankering for by the time he was in his early teens. His aptitude improved steadily, and within a few years he was a regular part of a Baton Rouge band led by John "Big Poppa" Tilley. Later he cut a couple of tunes that he felt certain would turn heads at Chess, Chicago's premier purveyor of electric blues. He mailed a recording of the songs north and followed by train. But rather than being welcomed with open arms, he was ushered to the door by Chess employees who knew nothing about him or his demo. He slowly went broke over the next couple of months, but before he packed his bags and returned to the bayou, he delivered an impromptu performance at an Otis Rush gig that caught the attention of Waters. Thanks to Muddy's backing, Guy eventually won the Chess contract he desired. He stayed with the company from 1960-67 despite owner Leonard Chess's dismissal of Guy's guitar gymnastics as "motherfucking noise."

Well, his playing was loud, but it was also innovative; his rendition of "Stone Crazy" was among Jimi Hendrix's favorite pieces of music. His groundbreaking effects didn't light a fire under his album sales, though, and Chess eventually sent him on his way. He made some fine discs for the Vanguard imprint during the late Sixties and early Seventies, and the recently reissued 1972 platter Buddy Guy & Junior Wells Play the Blues, co-produced by Clapton, is an exciting artifact. Too bad so few people noticed. By the latter part of the decade, Guy was without a recording deal. (His sole product from this era, 1978's Stone Crazy, was a one-off Guy made because the London entrepreneur who backed it promised to name his label Isabel, after Guy's mother.) He and Wells, with whom he toured, survived because of the loyalty of blues fanatics in Europe.

"We would go there once or twice a year and catch up with the past-due bills," he says. "Because we weren't doing much work here, you know. When we were, Junior and I would be in very small clubs with three or four pieces behind us. And after we'd split $500 between us and paid the hotel and paid the guys, we didn't have much left. But that didn't stop us."

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