Born Buddy Guy, 1936(?), in Lettsworth, Louisiana; son of a sharecropper.
"Buddy Guy," declared legendary British guitarist Eric Clapton in Musician magazine, "is by far and without a doubt the best guitar player alive ... If you see him in person, the way he plays is beyond anyone. Total freedom of spirit." A musician bred in the purest traditions of American blues, Guy may be the best-kept secret in the music world. While a performer like Clapton could probably maintain a constant sold-out tour before huge arena crowds and has record companies beating down his door, Guy has not recorded a new album in more than twelve years and plays mostly in nightclubs before small crowds of intensely devoted fans.
Despite the respect he enjoys among his musical peers, Clapton being just one of his many notable devotees, Guy is not a household name, much less a wealthy, major recording star. He still struggles to make ends meet financially as well, but all of this is due in most part to the nature of Buddy Guy, to his own purist's devotion to the blues in general, and specifically to the blues as he wants to play it. He is true to himself first, and the result is a man completely focused on making music on his own terms. "I guess this is why I don't have a record company giving me a shot at it now," Guy told Guitar Player magazine, "because I really wants to be Buddy Guy. I wants to play the things that never came out of me that I know I have. And if I get that opportunity next time I go into the studio, I'm going to give it. If it sells, fine. If it don't, I will please myself inside because I know what I can do, and I'm not going to be shy about it anymore. I don't want anybody teaching me how to play when the tapes are rolling; I've had that happen to me a lot in the past. I've got to play what I already know."
Born in Lettsworth, Louisiana, in 1936 and raised in nearby Baton Rouge, Guy began picking on an acoustic guitar as a teenager, emulating such southern blues players as Lightnin' Slim and Guitar Slim, who have had a profound effect on Guy's stage act to this day. Of Guitar Slim, Guy told Guitar Player 's Dan Forte: "He wouldn't just stand there and play. He used to have a sort of heavy-set guy, and he'd play the guitar with this long 150-foot cord--which I have one now--and this guy would pick him up on his shoulders and walk him all through the crowd while he played. I was about 14 years old then--goosebumps just jumpin' all over me!" But times were tough in Louisiana in the 1950s, so Guy decided to take his best shot at Chicago, the home of the blues and at that time the stomping grounds of such greats as Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and Little Walter.
But Chicago, too, was hard on the broke, 21-year-old Guy--he was about to call his mother for the bus fare back home when he was rescued by none other than Muddy Waters himself. Shy and uncertain of his talent, Guy was offered an audition at the famous 708 Club, where he was spotted by Waters: "I was going on my third day without eating in Chicago, trying to borrow a dime to call my mom to get back to Louisiana," he told Guitar Player. "And Muddy Waters bought me a salami sandwich and put me in the back of his 1958 Chevy station wagon. He said, 'You're hungry, and I know it.' And talking to Muddy Waters, I wasn't hungry anymore; I was full just for him to say, 'Hey.' I was so overjoyed about it, my stomach wasn't cramping anymore. I told him that, and Muddy said, 'Get in the goddamn car.'"
Guy soon found out that this was the way of the Chicago blues fraternity--tough, but fair. Like a rookie ballplayer, Guy found himself having to prove what he could do in the very presence of his idols, even in competition against them in head-to-head "guitar battles," where he unleashed his trademark, hurricanelike Buddy Guy stage show. "So I just walked out there with this 150-foot cord," he told Forte in Guitar Player, "and it was snowing, and I just went straight on out the door. The next day the news media was there, wanting to know who I was.... When I came to Chicago, most guitar players in town did not stand up to play.... I stood up and played to make everybody know me. I started kicking chairs off the stage when I went up there at the battles of the guitars. They were sittin' there going, 'Who the hell is that?'"
By the early 1960s Guy's reputation in Chicago had become sufficient for him to find ample studio work. He recorded behind Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and Sonny Boy Williamson at the blues mecca Chess Records, and he also found time to record numerous singles of his own. His first album, however, did not appear until 1968's A Man & the Blues, and it became apparent at this stage that the true Buddy Guy sound was either impossible to capture on vinyl or was being confined by overzealous producers. Guy claims that the closest any recording has come to capturing his best can be heard on the live album Stone Crazy, recorded in 1978 in France.
The result, however frustrating for Guy, has been a blues purist's dream: Guy has remained almost exclusively a stage act. He has to be seen to be believed.In the 1970s Guy began a long association with the great harmonica player Junior Wells, who, before meeting Guy, was having a hard time finding a band that could adequately back him. In 1972 Guy opened the Checkerboard Lounge in the heart of Chicago's blues country, and his life then settled into something of a pattern. He is to this day a premier draw at top blues clubs and festivals, not only in the U.S. but around the world. He was a regular attraction at the Checkerboard Lounge until it closed in 1983, and in 1989 he opened a new club, Legends, on a street in Chicago that Guy was influential in having renamed "Muddy Waters Drive."
At Legends, Guy has tried to recreate the feel of the old blues bars where he started his career; playing before a constantly evolving band that never rehearses, Guy, on any given night, will simply jump up on stage and take to heart the advice of his old mentors, who told him "Go get it, Buddy!" To some of his younger, more well-known peers, like Clapton, Bill Wyman, Ron Wood, Joe Walsh, and Jimmy Vaughan, Guy has become a kind of guitar guru, a wise old man on a mountaintop who has remained true to his own vision and never compromised it. Though he is often compared to Jimi Hendrix, Guy recalls that Hendrix once stopped by one of his shows and told him that he, Hendrix, had learned a great deal from Guy.
But if the essence of the blues is in the wanting of something you can't ever have, perhaps it is good that Guy has never had that big, popular crossover record he still dreams of. It is probable that many of the inimitable sounds that he creates can only be born of the feeling of hunger he had in his gut when Muddy Waters rescued him outside the 708 Club in Chicago that cold night in the 1950s. "A blues player like myself has so many ups and downs," Guy told Jas Obrecht in Guitar Player, "more downs than ups," but "I love it so much man, I even forgot what down is like. Even when I'm down, I think I'm up. If anybody in the business loves it better than me, they must eat it!"
by David Collins
Buddy Guy's Career
Began playing guitar as a teenager in Baton Rouge, La.; moved to Chicago at age twenty-one; distinguished himself in "guitar battles" in Chicago blues clubs, which led to work in bands backing Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and Little Walter, late 1950s and early 1960s; began collaborating and performing with Junior Wells (blues harmonica), 1960s; recorded first solo album, 1968. Owner of blues club, the Checkerboard Lounge, Chicago, 1972-1983; has appeared on various blues recordings and at various blues festivals worldwide; owner of blues club, Legends, Chicago, 1989--.
- Solo albums
- A Man & The Blues Vanguard.
- Hold That Plane Vanguard.
- This Is Buddy Guy Vanguard.
- I Was Walking Through the Woods Chess.
- Left My Blues in San Francisco Chess.
- Buddy Guy Chess.
- First Time I Met The Blues Chess Japan.
- In the Beginning Red Lightnin'.
- The Dollar Done Fell JSP.
- D.J., Play My Blues JSP.
- Live at the Checkerboard Lounge JSP.
- Ten Blue Fingers JSP.
- Stone Crazy Alligator.
- Buddy Guy and Junior Wells
- Buddy Guy and Junior Wells Play the Blues Atco.
- Drinkin' TNT, Smokin' Dynamite Blind Pig.
- The Original Blues Brothers Intermedia.
- Going Back Isabel.
- Live in Montreaux Black & Blue.
- Atlantic Blues: Chicago Atlantic.
- With Junior Wells
- Hoodoo Man Blues Delmark.
- Southside Blues Jam Delmark.
- It's My Life, Baby Vanguard.
- Chicago/The Blues/Today, Vol. 1 Vanguard.
- Coming At You Vanguard.
- With Muddy Waters
- Folk Singer Chess.
- Baby Please Don't Go Chess France.
- The Super Duper Blues Band Chess Japan.
- Muddy Waters Chess.
- Also appears on numerous other recordings by Chess artists and on several Chess anthologies.
November 12, 2003: Guy was honored with a National Medal of Art award, which was presented by President Bush and First Lady Laura Bush. Source: E! Online, www.eonline.com, November 13, 2003.
February 8, 2004: Guy won the Grammy Award for best traditional blues album, for Blues Singer. Source: 46th Grammy Awards, grammys.com/awards/grammy/46winners.aspx, February 8, 2004.
December 2004: Guy was named for induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the United States. Source: E! Online, www.eonline.com, December 13, 2004.
March 14, 2005: Guy was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Source: CNN.com, www.cnn.com/2005/SHOWBIZ/Music/03/15/music.rockhall.ap/index.html, March 15, 2005.
September 27, 2005: Guy's album, Bring 'Em In, was released. Source: Billboard.com, www.billboard.com/bb/releases/week_2/index.jsp, September 30, 2005.
- Stambler, Irwin, The Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock, & Soul, St. Martin's, 1977.
- Guitar Player, April, 1987; April, 1990.