Personalities | Buddy Guy | Sixties | Jazz & Blues
‘When I first heard of the electric guitar, I thought somebody was bullshittin’ me,’ says George ‘Buddy’ Guy. ‘We lived so far in the country I didn’t even know what an acoustic guitar was until my mother started getting mail-order catalogs’. In 2005, Guy, who was born in Lettsworth, Louisiana on 30 July 1936, stands at the pinnacle of modern electric blues.
Guy’s first instruments were one-stringed contraptions that he made from screen wire, nails and paint cans, before he graduated to a battered acoustic bartered for by his father. He first heard an electric six-string played by Lightnin’ Slim at a general store near the plantation where his family sharecropped, and the sound took root. After witnessing Guitar Slim’s fiery live act in a Baton Rouge club, Guy’s interest in becoming a baseball player vanished. He moved to Baton Rouge himself and began playing professionally, until he earned enough money for a bus ticket to Chicago in 1957.
The Windy City was less than welcoming. Guy failed to find work on the bandstand or elsewhere, although Chicago’s blues scene was at its peak, heightened by Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and many other stars and journeymen, as well as the presence of the Chess, United and Cobra labels. Frustrated and starving, Guy resolved to return home, but Waters intervened and took the young musician under his wing. Guy then became a regular session player at Chess and recorded singles for Chess and Cobra. He supported Waters on the 1963 classic Folk Singer and fell into a partnership with vocalist and harmonica player Junior Wells, with whom he recorded Hoodoo Man Blues (1965) and Southside Blues Jam (1967) on Delmark. Although he could not break out of the Chicago scene, Guy became known for his great live delivery (hanging from rafters and playing with his teeth), his gospel-style testifying and a guitar vocabulary built on explosive dynamics, off-the-neck bends, subtle chromatic lines and uninhibited improvisation.
His Reputation Spreads And Wanes
Guy’s reputation reached further than he imagined. His playing influenced guitarists as widespread as Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. Equally impressed, musicologist Samuel Charters produced Guy’s first solo albums for the Vanguard label, including the brilliant A Man & The Blues (1968), still widely considered to be Guy’s masterpiece. In 1970 Guy and Wells were invited to tour with the Rolling Stones; they then found themselves on the international festival circuit, together and with their bands, but their fame was fleeting. Guy spent the 1980s without a contract, playing clubs including his own, the Checker-board Lounge. He later opened Legends in downtown Chicago.
At The Zenith
It took another acolyte, Texan guitarslinger Stevie Ray Vaughan, to propel Guy to the top of the contemporary blues world, where he remains, second only to B.B. King. Vaughan’s tireless support won Guy a contract with Silvertone Records, resulting in 1991’s Damn Right, I’ve Got The Blues – which was also the title of...
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