There aren’t many authentic bluesmen left, but Buddy Guy ranks among the most esteemed. When he first toured England, Rod Stewart served as his valet. Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck camped out overnight in a van so they could see him perform. And Jimi Hendrix called him one of his “teachers.’’ Guy has enjoyed much recognition later in life — he has won six Grammys and been voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — but he still comes across as a humble, homespun fellow who wonders what all the fuss is about.
Guy’s “When I Left Home: My Story,’’ written with help from David Ritz (who has coauthored memoirs by Ray Charles and Etta James), is a lively, sharply etched account of Guy’s unlikely ascent from sharecropper roots in Louisiana to the blues hotbed of Chicago and beyond. He still can’t read music, but he learned his feel from the masters — Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf — and he survived the violence of late 1950s-early 1960s Chicago clubs to become an elder statesman, now 75 years old and still going strong. (He headlines Boston’s House of Blues on June 10.)
Guy was born June 30, 1935, and raised in a wooden shack with no electricity or indoor plumbing in Lettsworth, La. Early on he picked cotton but moved as a teen to Baton Rouge to live with his big sister and seek more opportunity, though he ended up working in a beer factory and pumping gas. He started to play guitar when he was 13 after his dad bought him a used two-string model for $4.25. Buddy says he basically took country blues and “jacked it up with big-city electricity’’ once he reached Chicago in 1957.
Guy was the quintessential innocent in Chicago, knowing nothing about song copyrights or how to deal with a voracious music business. He got ripped off and made what little money he could in clubs like Silvio’s, where he might play a 7 a.m. set backing Howlin’ Wolf for guys coming off the night shift at the steel mills and stockyards. He played at other clubs until 4 a.m. and saw some ungodly things such as a drunken patron killing someone with an ice pick.
Guy recorded many studio sessions for Chicago’s famed Chess Records, adding that owner Leonard Chess would leave a bottle of whiskey in the studio to get musicians in the mood. “He don’t want us drunk, but he wants us lit,’’ studio producer Willie Dixon tells Guy. “He wants us to feel the fire that folks get to feeling in the clubs.’’
Buddy has a colorful way of describing the young blues talents who looked up to him and his Chicago peers. Of Janis Joplin: “Janis couldn’t have been sweeter. . . . But you couldn’t separate her from her bottle of Southern Comfort. She clung to it like a baby clinging to a bottle of milk.’’ Of Hendrix: “He’d turn up the volume loud enough to wake up your grandmother in the grave.’’ And of Clapton: “[P]ound for pound . . . the most popular man to ever pick up a guitar.’’ He also loved Stevie Ray Vaughan and played with him the night Vaughan died in a helicopter crash.
For years, Guy built up respect in Chicago, but still had to work an outside job. He drove a tow truck to make ends meet. His fate changed when he was managed by Dick Waterman, a former Cambridge resident who also got Bonnie Raitt started. Waterman helped Guy land better record deals and quit his tow job.
Guy has led a full, roller coaster life. He has eight children and still tours, but also, in a surprise, says he can often be found sitting at the bar of his Chicago club, Legends, greeting patrons. He even urges readers to look him up there. If you go and he tells a fraction of the stories he shares in this book, it will be a night well spent.