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Damn Right He's Got the Blues: Buddy Guy's Life Story

Buddy Guy at House of Blues, October 2009
Buddy Guy at House of Blues, October 2009
Photo by Groovehouse

When I Left Home: My Story Buddy Guy with David Ritz Da Capo Press, 320 pp, $26

Once the young kid in a stable of blues giants, Buddy Guy is now an elder statesman of the genre. And in this memoir, the story of his life is also the tale of the music itself of the past 50-plus years.

Born in 1936 in Lettworth, Louisiana, Guy spent much of his early years picking cotton with his family in accommodations that had no electricity until he was 13. But music was a passion, and his first attempt at making a crude guitar involved stringing wire from window screens over two tin cans with rubber bands.

Eventually, Guy's father would buy him a used guitar -- with only two strings - for $4.35. But he played it and cared for it like it was worth a million.

The meat of the book, and its most interesting parts, cover Guy's arrival in Chicago in 1957 and subsequent years playing, recording and hanging out with the Chess label's stable of larger-than-life stars such as Muddy Waters (who was like a second father to Guy), Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter and Otis Spann.

There's a treasure trove of stories here, including Houston's Lightnin' Hopkins explaining why he only took cash for performances and recordings up front so as not to be cheated by contracts and shady dealings. It's something Guy wish he'd listened to more -- especially after seeing the shrewd Willie Dixon's name alone as songwriter on a lot of sides, no matter how collaborative the process was.

Ritz, the musical journalist who has penned solid bios and autobios on Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye and Etta James, definitely gets Guy's "voice" and speaking patter down on the page, but his overusage of invented/remembered dialogue from decades ago is often suspect.

 

Guy's influence on rock is significant, and he is indeed the link between the original wave of electric blues players and their white (and often English) progeny like Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck.

And though Jimi is probably the closest approximation to Guy's musical "son," Guy's one encounter with the guitarist left him unimpressed, even sniffing that he should be owed a paycheck for what he felt Hendrix borrowed of his playing and stage persona.

Despite the title -- and no matter on what stage in what country the still very-active Guy is playing -- he's never left his adopted home of Chicago, operating a club there that to this day caters to the gamut of tourists looking for an authentic "blues experience" as well as diehard fans.

Still, it's amazing -- as I witnessed firsthand about a decade ago when I went to Buddy Guy's Legends -- how many people come into the club and pay no attention to the elderly black man in overalls sitting in a stool at the edge of the bar.

And whose name happens to appear on the sign out front and every piece of merch for sale.


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