Buddy Guy - Biography

Buddy Guy is one of the all time great Chicago bluesmen, known for his stinging guitar style, frenzied vocals and over the top showmanship. Since his debut as second guitarist in the Muddy Waters band of the early ‘60s, he’s cut a wide swath, wowing listeners with his incendiary guitar and solid songwriting. He was an influence on guitarists from Jimi Hendrix to Stevie Ray Vaughn to Eric Clapton and is one of the few blues players to be recognized for his talent while he’s still alive. He’s won five Grammys for traditional and contemporary blues albums, taken home Billboard magazine’s Century Award for distinguished artistic achievement, collected 23 W.C. Handy Awards (more than any other blues artist) and received a National Medal of Arts in 2003 from President George W. Bush. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Eric Clapton and B.B. King in 2005 and is still burning up stages all over the country when he’s not holding court at his restaurant, Buddy Guy’s Legends, the place to be in Chicago’s Grant Park.


Guy was born in Lettsworth, Louisiana, one of five children born to Sam and Isabel Guy. His father was a sharecropper on a plantation and Guy’s early years were marked by hard labor and Jim Crow era racism. Guy was seven when he built himself a diddley bow out of a piece of wood, some wire and his mother’s hairpins. He got his first guitar at 17 and taught himself how to play by imitating the blues songs he heard on the radio. By 1956, he was playing professionally with blues bands in Baton Rouge while working days as a custodian at Louisiana State University for $28 per week. When a friend came back from a trip up to Chicago and told Guy that he could play night and day there, Guy decided his destiny was in the North. Guy stepped onto the train for Chicago on September 25, 1957. He soon made the 708 Club his new home and one night, after hearing him play, Muddy Waters became a fan. Waters and Otis Rush helped him find work at Chess Records, where he was soon a member of the house band. He recorded sessions with Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson, including the legendary Folk Festival of the Blues (1963 Argo), where he backed both Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters Folk Singer (1964 Chess), on which he backed Waters on acoustic guitar, and Koko Taylor’s hit, “Wang Dang Doodle.”


Guy also made his own singles including “First Time I Met the Blues” and “Broken Hearted Blues” as well as albums for Chess, forging his own sound with his fierce guitar playing and ferocious vocals. I Was Walking Through the Woods (1974 Chess) collects some of his early work for the label. By the time he cut I Left My Blues in San Francisco (1967 Chess), he’d developed his trademark style. The album, despite its corny title, is a scorcher. He moved to Vanguard and cut three amazing albums in less than a year, A Man With the Blues (1968 Vanguard), Blues Today (1968 Vanguard) and a live set with the great Otis Spann on piano, This Is Buddy Guy (1968 Vanguard). He also played guitar behind harmonica master Junior Wells on his classic Hoodoo Man Blues (1965 Delmark).


During the late ‘60s and all of the ‘70s, Guy made one classic album after another including a collaboration with Junior Wells and Junior Mance titled Buddy and The Juniors (1970 Blue Thumb), a set with Wells and Otis Spann titled South Side Blues Jam (1970 Delmark), Buddy Guy & Junior Wells Play the Blues (1972 Atco), which includes various sessions with Eric Clapton and the J. Geils Band and Drinkin’ TNT ‘n’ Smokin’ Dynamite (1982 Blind Pig), a legendary live gig from the 1974 Montreux Jazz Festival with Junior Wells.


In the ‘80s, Guy continued touring, but with the blues allegedly in decline, not a single American record label would take a chance on him.  He did make albums for French and British labels including a French set that’s loose and full of extended solo work, Stone Crazy (1981 Alligator), another duo effort with Junior Wells that features Guy on both acoustic and electric guitar, Alone & Acoustic (1981 Alligator), a smoking session cut in Chicago but only released in England, DJ Play My Blues (1981 JSP UK) and Breaking Out (1988 JSP).


In 1991, Eric Clapton invited Guy to participate in his 24 Nights concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Guy wowed the crowd and Silvertone Records signed him. Damn Right, I've Got the Blues (1991 Silvertone), his first American album in almost a decade, included cameos by Clapton, Jeff Beck and Mark Knopfler on a collection that blends blues and soul to great effect. The album won Guy his first Best Contemporary Blues Album Grammy.


Feels Like Rain (1993 Silvertone) is another super session with guests including Bonnie Raitt, Travis Tritt, Paul Rodgers and John Mayall. It won Guy his second Contemporary Blues Grammy. Guy went back to his roots on Slippin’ In (1995 Silvertone) playing down and dirty, backed by Stevie Ray Vaughn’s rhythm section of  Tommy Shannon on bass and Chris Layton on drums. His third Grammy followed. Guy’s next set, Live: the Real Deal (1996 Silvertone), was cut with G. E. Smith and the Saturday Night Live Band and is another down-home collection of gritty blues. That year Guy also took part in the sessions for A Tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughn (1996 Columbia.) One of the tracks from the record, “SRV Shuffle,” captured a Best Rock Instrumental Performance Grammy for Guy and his collaborators Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, Robert Cray, B.B. King, Dr. John and Art Neville.


While waiting for his next Grammy, Guy released another rock crossover bid, Heavy Love (1998 Silvertone), a set with Junior Wells recorded at Guy’s Chicago club just before Wells died,  Last Time Around - Live at Legends (1998 Jive) and a stripped down, rootsy performance, Sweet Tea (2001 Silvertone). Then came a laid-back acoustic set with guest shots by B. B. King and Eric Clapton, Blues Singer (2003 Silvertone. It copped that year’s Best Traditional Blues Album Grammy. His most recent effort is Skin Deep (2008 Silvertone), one of the first albums in a long time to feature Guy originals. The players along for the ride include steel guitarist Robert Randolph, Susan Tedeschi, Derek Trucks and 18-year-old guitar wiz Quinn Sullivan. In 2010 he released Living Proof.


There are many compilations of Guy’s work available to introduce you to his lengthy career. Try the overview from Chess to Zomba, Can’t Quit the Blues (2006 Silvertone), The Complete Chess Studio Recordings 1960 — 1967 (1992 Chess/MCA), Buddy’s Baddest (1999 Silvertone), The Complete Vanguard Recordings (2000 Vanguard) or Buddy’s Blues: Best of the JSP Recordings 1978-1982 (1998 JSP UK).

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