There is nothing like going back home. About two months ago I got the opportunity to return to the city where I was born and raised, Chicago. Even though it was not a vacation, or pleasure trip, the feeling that grew inside as I passed familiar landmarks was certain happiness. Yes, once again I was home, surrounded by the atmosphere where I was born and raised. As I took it all in, I started to understand that this nostalgic feeling amplifies because of time spent away from home. Remember the quote by Thomas Haynes Bayly, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” I’ve heard that quote literally hundreds of times throughout my life, but now I can definitely say it rings true. There was so much of my early life experience that shaped what I am today. A huge part of it was my exposure to music. Certainly it helped growing up with my father playing with small jazz combos, but also the existence of music in the city like oxygen. There was no escaping the powerful effect of music in the city of Chicago. Especially the blues.
There were so many blues artists that either migrated to, or were born in the city, they eventually went on to foster a unique style of music called Chicago Blues. Of course, growing up on the south side of Chicago gave me a front row seat to much of the blues action in the city. I can only tell you it was a time that inspired many musicians and a few music historians. Since I started Weekly Music Commentary, I have taken advantage of several opportunities to write about the Chicago blues scene past and present. This week I am featuring another of the legends of the genre in a figurative return home, this week I am featuring Buddy Guy.
When speaking about Buddy Guy, the word legendary does not seem strong enough to describe him and his impact on the world of music. I think one of the best things about Buddy Guy is that he is still very active creating music. On July 31, 2015, Buddy Guy released his thirty-second solo album correctly entitled Born To Play Guitar. After an over sixty year professional career and counting, it is easy to believe that Buddy Guy was just about born with a guitar in hand.
George “Buddy” Guy was born and raised in Lettsworth, Louisiana, US. Guy began learning guitar on a two-string diddley bow he made. Later he was given a Harmony acoustic guitar, which, decades later in Guy’s lengthy career was donated to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In the early 1950s Guy began performing with bands in Baton Rouge. Soon after moving to Chicago on September 25, 1957, Guy fell under the influence of Muddy Waters. In 1958, a competition with West Side guitarists Magic Sam and Otis Rush gave Guy a record contract. Soon afterwards he recorded for Cobra Records. He recorded sessions with Junior Wells for Delmark Records under the pseudonym Friendly Chap in 1965 and 1966.
All did not go well in Buddy Guy’s early career. The decisions of record label executives kept his career from really taking off. Leonard Chess, Chess Records founder, denounced Guy’s playing as “noise”. In the early 1960s, Chess tried recording Guy as a solo artist with R&B ballads, jazz instrumentals, soul and novelty dance tunes, but none was released as a single. Guy’s only Chess album, Left My Blues in San Francisco, was finally issued in 1967. Guy’s career finally took off during the blues revival period of the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was sparked by Clapton’s request that Guy be part of the 24 Nights all-star blues guitar lineup at London’s Royal Albert Hall and Guy’s subsequent signing with Silvertone Records.
Even though Buddy Guy had his share of jealous rivals early in his career, he attracted some high-profile admirers of his work along the way. Eric Clapton said in a 1985 Musician magazine article that “Buddy Guy 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, I guess. He really changed the course of rock and roll blues.” While inducting Buddy into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Eric Clapton said “No matter how great the song, or performance, my ear would always find him out. He stood out in the mix. Simply by virtue of the originality and vitality of his playing.” Stevie Ray Vaughan stated that, “Without Buddy Guy, there would be no Stevie Ray Vaughan.” Other great guitarists of our day such as Jeff Beck, Slash, and ZZ Tops Billy Gibbons also mention Buddy Guy as a major influence on their music careers.
Seventy-nine year old Buddy Guy has not come close to slowing down. Born To Play Guitar marks Guy’s fifth #1 album on Billboard’s Top Blues chart and twelfth Top 10 Billboard Blues album. I have listened to the album for a few weeks and the word “good”, just does not describe the album correctly. The album is extraordinary, not just great blues music, but great music overall. One of my lifelong friends and guitarist once said that he hoped to settle down late in his career and be able to just appear on stage and play for audiences. When I heard my friends’ statement the first picture that came to my mind was of Buddy Guy. He appears to be enjoying the blend of career and life so much today. I can’t imagine him doing anything else. Buddy Guy has recorded and performed so much music all around the world, that it was truly difficult to choose an accompanying video clip. (Buddy Guy appeared last week at the Hard Rock Live here in Hollywood, Fl.) I though the following video of he and fellow legend, the late B.B. King performing together was special. At the end King uttered the words I knew would be the perfect title for this post, “you’re still my buddy.” Yes indeed.