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Buddy Guy: The Last Old School Bluesman, And The First New Bluesman

Read An Excerpt From The Listening Notes For Our Reissue Of ‘Left My Blues In San Francisco’

On January 29, 2019

“But now I’m seeing these records coming over from England, Buddy, with these groups that are selling millions. And their guitars are even louder and wilder than yours. American groups are starting to copy the English, who are really just copying you,” Leonard Chess said.

“I’m not the only one they copying,” I said.

“Doesn’t matter,” said Leonard. “Here’s what I want you to do.”

He got up and came ’round his desk, looked me in the eye, and said, “I’m gonna bend over so you can kick my ass.”

— Buddy Guy, as told to David Ritz in When I Left Home: My Story

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Buddy Guy, the last living legend, arguably the best blues guitarist to ever live, has always been a man out of time. Born in 1936, he was a generation younger than the men with iconic names who blazed the blues trail before him, the Wolfs, the Muddys, the Johnsons, the Son Houses and all the Sonny Boys Williamson. But Buddy was also just slightly older than the white men — often British — who took the blues of those very trailblazers and made songs about satisfaction and the inability to get such. Guy recorded his first session at the legendary Chicago blues label Chess Records before the Beatles got their 10,000 hours in at that German club, but his style was too electric, too eclectic and too wild to be properly captured on wax, or to capitalize on the interest in blues acts that propelled second, well-paying careers for the first generation of Chess greats (though he is a second guitarist on Muddy’s seminal Folk Singer comeback album). Guy didn’t even make enough money as a solo artist and session guitarist in the blues boom of the ’60s to quit his day job: He drove a delivery truck around Chicago at the same time he was laying down cuts in Chess Studios.

Which brings us back to that room, specific date in 1967 indeterminate, when Guy was called into Chess studios for a meeting with the mastermind of the Chess juggernaut, Leonard Chess. For years, Leonard’s son, Marshall Chess, had been telling him that Buddy was the best guitarist out, that his shows in the South Side Chicago clubs were can’t-miss every night. Leonard had responded by trying many different looks for a Buddy Guy solo career, having him cut R&B covers, blues rippers, and attempting to temper Guy’s wildest impulses. The refrain was the same every time Guy rolled through Michigan Avenue: “Turn that shit down, and you might have something.” But after Cream made landfall in the U.S., Leonard had seen the light: It was time to let Buddy Guy record his own debut LP, and make the album he wanted to make, as he saw fit.

Guy would make that album. Just not for Chess. That one came out on Vanguard, and is called A Man And The Blues (it was reissued in 2018 on vinyl; you should buy it). Guy had decided he was sick of riding the pine, and when Vanguard came through with a check that cleared, he jumped. Chess responded by doing what they should have done all along: The label collected the best of Guy’s Chess single releases — most of the sessions he recorded for the label were never put out at all — and released Left My Blues In San Francisco, so named so it could capitalize on all the Flower Power, “If you’re going to San Francisco” hype at the time. While the album is not considered Guy’s proper studio debut, and is hardly acknowledged in his multiple autobiographies or in histories of his work, Left My Blues In San Francisco is an important document of late-’60s blues, an alternate history to the narrative arc that has Eric Clapton and Keith Richards synthesizing delta blues for a new generation. The blues didn’t need white Monarchists to keep its traditions alive for a generation raised on Elvis and ready for guitar pyrotechnics. The blues had Buddy Guy.

Raised the son of sharecroppers in Lettsworth, Louisiana, Guy was made aware of the injustices of life for black citizens of the south from a very early age. “Farming was like throwing dice on the table at Vegas. You know you’re not going to beat ’em,” Guy told Donald E. Wilcock in Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues. As a child, he taught himself to play guitar using any strings he could get his hands on, including the ones in his window screens. As a teenager, Guy moved to Baton Rouge to attend high school and live with an older sister, but when times got tough, he started work as a janitor at Louisiana State University. The bigger city provided the aspiring musician a different kind of schooling: A key stop on the Chitlin Circuit — a route of black clubs and performance venues that booked blues and R&B heroes — Guy was able to see all the blues greats as they played Baton Rouge, from Little Walter and Luther Allison to B.B. King and Guitar Slim.

Guy told Wilcock that his goal, then, from the early-’50s, was to “play like B.B. but act like Guitar Slim,” the latter known for his raucous and out of control live shows, and the former for how well he could make his guitar — which he called “Lucille” — sing. Guy settled on a performance style that would be mimicked, in ways large and small, by virtually every blues-based guitarist who came after him. He was known to play, via a long cord, on top of the bars he was playing in, tomahawking his guitar strokes, strutting around the stage, playing wildly behind his back and with his teeth, and hitting his knees and conjuring feedback out of his guitar well before Jimi Hendrix did the same.

In 1957, at a little older than 21, Guy packed his belongings and his guitar and moved to Chicago, since, as he realized when reading about blues greats like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, that’s where all the best blues acts lived. It didn’t take long for Guy to strike up a reputation playing in nightclubs, and since Waters had himself gained a similar reputation a generation earlier, it didn’t take long for Muddy to give Buddy a call. From the time he started playing in Chicago until he left Chess Records 10 years later, Guy was in Waters’ inner circle, playing live gigs, recording on sessions, and bolstering his reputation via his own spot shows.

Buddy ran into philosophical and sonic issues with Chess more or less immediately; he arrived on the label in 1959, right as the folk-blues revival — the period in the early-’60s when acoustic blues became the favorite music of discerning college kids across America — blew up, which meant that Chess mostly wanted Buddy to record things like Muddy Waters’ Folk Singer, which he was not much interested in. “[Buddy Guy] could seemingly play anything. But Chess was known as a blues label, Guy was a blues singer from the Louisiana swamps, and the Chess brothers weren’t interested in the sharp-suited city stuff he played every night in the clubs,” Alan Harper wrote in Waiting For Buddy Guy: Chicago Blues At The Crossroads. Chess would release 11 singles, and one EP, in the next seven years, and have Buddy record many more. These ranged from slower R&B ballads to blues rave-ups, to basically every point of ’60s black music in between. Chess had the future of the blues on their roster, but they couldn’t hear it yet: The oldest single on Left My Blues In San Francisco (“When My Left Eye Jumps”) was recorded in 1962, and it sounds like Memphis soul crossed with Delta Blues, crossed with a stately Motown ballad in its verses. It made virtually no impact on the charts.

Guy spent most of the ’60s as the ace hand session guitarist at Chess, appearing on a bevy of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Koko Taylor (that’s his guitar on her “Wang Dang Doodle”), Junior Wells (who he recorded Hoodoo Man Blues With as “The Friendly Chap” because he couldn’t use his name on non-Chess albums) and Little Walter records. He was allowed to record as long as he didn’t bring his club act into the session, which for his part, was no great disappointment.

“Every time I got a break in the studio or a chance to play with somebody, I was playing almost like an acoustic guitar, because that’s how loud they’d let you go,” he says in Damn Right I Got The Blues. “But then, just [playing] behind the people I admired the most was such a thrill, just to be a part of what they were doing.”

By the mid- to late-’60s, an electrified version of the blues had taken over the rock — and pop — airwaves, when bands like Cream, the Rolling Stones, and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band were having hits with a sound that could have come from Buddy, vamping on top of a bar on Chicago’s southside.

“Around 1967, I found out that there were these white musicians who said they’d learned a lot from me,” Guy wrote in the postscript of John Collis’ The Story of Chess Records. “And they’d start coming in the clubs. Now, I’d assumed they were cops, because you wouldn’t see a white face in those clubs unless they were a cop. So I’d look around and think, ‘I’m old enough to be in here. Who are they trying to catch,’ you know? Paul Butterfield, Steve Miller, all these guys were coming in. I didn’t know what was going on out there because I was still working days.”

Which brings us back, again, to that room where Leonard Chess is begging Buddy to kick him where the good lord split him. Chess finally saw the light, albeit too late, and when listening to Left My Blues In San Francisco, it’s hard to separate what you know retrospectively — that Guy was making music that was ahead of its time, and wasn’t given the push and encouragement he deserved — with what you know about blues at the time, which is that people mostly wanted to hear the acoustic stuff from black performers, and the electric stuff from the white ones, since they decided the former was “more authentic.” Chess’ reluctance to let Buddy loose made sense at the time, but then you drop the needle on this, and the opening shuffle of “Keep It To Myself” hits, and you hear snippets of Guy’s style reflected back to you by Led Zeppelin (Robert Plant’s shriek owes at least some hat-tip to Guy’s own), and any number of late-’60s rock bands, and it’s hard to have any sympathy for shelving Guy, even with 20/20 hindsight.

With the exception of “Goin’ Home,” the 11 songs on Left My Blues In San Francisco were recorded in 1967 or earlier (and some, including “Buddy’s Groove” and “She Suits Me To A T” were released by Chess in 1969, after Buddy had gotten more recognition via his Vanguard LPs). The earliest is “When My Left Eye Jumps” (1962), and four of them come from his 1965 EP Crazy Music (“Crazy Love,” “Leave My Girl Alone,” “Too Many Ways,” and “Every Girl I See”). There are absurdly funny blues songs (“Mother-In-Law Blues,” which recounts the varied ways that Guy’s lover’s mom is grinding his gears), and songs that feel like they predict mid-’70s funk-disco in its earliest form (“Buddy’s Groove”). There are horn workouts, and crunchy guitar solos, and songs that sound like a 1950s sock hop (“Too Many Ways”). Taken as a whole, Left My Blues In San Francisco is like a missing link, providing the crouching caveman in the spot on the evolutionary chain that’s needed filling between electric Chicago blues and the blues-based rock ’n’ roll that dominated popular music in the late-’60s and early-’70s.

For his part, Guy didn’t end up much caring for his Vanguard debut, either. He talks in Going Home, his 2012 memoir with David Ritz, of feeling like that record didn’t capture what he was like live, either. It’s arguable that maybe no record — from Chess, or any other label — ever got close to capturing Guy at his apex, those years in the ’60s when he strutted across bars and stages, flailing and willing his guitar to do things people hadn’t seen before. If you doubt that distinction, virtually every blues guitarist now pays him his proper fealty; Clapton himself is convinced Guy is the best to ever do it.

Time eventually catches up to you, and you go from being underappreciated and unacknowledged to a “legend” eventually; like the Stones said, “time is on my side.” But for Guy, that arc started with the songs featured on Left My Blues In San Francisco, songs that crackle with life and sound like the future of the blues. Songs that can maybe be properly appreciated now.

Profile Picture of Andrew Winistorfer
Andrew Winistorfer

Andrew Winistorfer is Senior Director of Music and Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard, The Story of Willie Nelson, Miles Davis: The Electric Years and The Story of Waylon Jennings. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

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