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In February, members of Vinyl Me, Please Classics will receive Left My Blues In San Francisco, the overlooked first album from Buddy Guy that charts both the evolution of the blues and his growth as a performer. Read an excerpt from the Listening Notes here. You can sign up over here.
Below, you can learn why we picked the album, and everything that went into making our reissue.
Theda Berry: You wrote the Listening Notes for this one and did a really deep dive into Buddy Guy’s history and the background of this album. And you mention in them that Left My Blues In San Francisco is often left out or briefly mentioned in autobiographies of him, and it’s also not considered his proper studio debut. Can you say more about why you think this album is important and overlooked, and why it’s the VMP Classics pick this month?
Andrew Winistorfer: I kind of think it's a multi-part answer for that. As I say in the booklet, Buddy Guy is kind of a weird transition point where blues went from being this sort of set-in-amber thing that artists like Muddy Waters were still playing, but it was unchanged from the ‘50s in some ways. And then Buddy Guy comes along, and he’s a younger generation than all the older guys like Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson. But he is playing a version of their blues that predicts the Beatles, the Yardbirds, all those bands sound like Buddy Guy, but Buddy Guy was a contemporary with them. And so he’s an interesting figure in the blues, because he doesn’t really fit into this old guard, like, a bluesman on a porch in Mississippi. But he also is not quite the next generation either; he’s like a weird middle figure.
And this record, I think it’s overlooked partially because the most known work that he did on Chess was recording guitar on Muddy Waters records or Sonny Boy Williamson records; he was more famous for being, like, the ace backup guitar player than being a lead. And that’s kind of why it took so long, it took Chess like six or seven years, until 1968, to put out an actual LP on him. The whole ‘60s, he’s recording these singles that end up sounding like Rolling Stones singles, but then is not given the opportunity to put those out, and never gets to make an album until — you know, I opened the booklet with that scene where Leonard Chess is telling him to kick him for not knowing that Buddy was a star. When he finally gets this opportunity, it was only after all these years of these people coming along that sounded like Buddy Guy. This record gets overlooked because the record that comes after this, A Man and the Blues, I think is the major introduction that people had to Buddy Guy, and the Chess stuff ends up — since it’s mostly a singles collection — being forgotten because he was an afterthought on Chess Records. And part of the reason why I wanted to pick this one is that it’s, like, restoring it. People can listen to this record and hear where the blues was in the early ’60s and where it was by the time this record comes out. And it just charts the evolution of the blues and of Buddy Guy as a performer, and I think it’s an important thing, an important artifact.
And the opportunity presented itself where Universal came to us and said, “You guys can basically have the keys to the Chess vault, what do you want to reissue from Chess?” And this record and the Muddy Waters album in December were my first two, I said, “We need to do these two records.”
We talked before about how Fathers and Sons was really about white blues musicians learning from, idolizing and collaborating with Muddy Waters. In contrast to that, you wrote in these Listening Notes that: “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.” Can you elaborate that idea, and how this album functions in this alternative history of the blues, which you sort of touched on already?
I think the general trajectory of the blues becoming ’60s rock ’n’ roll is that it had this generation of British musicians — you know, the bands I mentioned earlier— and it was like, they were record-collecting nerds, these, like, British musicians were getting their hands on every Chess Records blues release, and then modified it to what became in the ’60s rock ’n’ roll revolution. They started with the blues: Eric Clapton listened to blues records before he becomes the Eric Clapton. The Rolling Stones are named after a Muddy Waters song. They all are taking their inspiration and ending up in this more rock version, but built on the blues. And Buddy Guy was basically doing the same thing, but is on Chess Records, so he’s automatically characterized as a blues artist, when he was actually making all of the same sonic leaps that all these bands did, taking the blues and morphing it, but he was just doing it in Chicago nightclubs as opposed to Top of the Pops, or whatever, like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. And I guess, part of the way that we catalog black artists, that he is not — this is clearly a blues record but it should have been carried in the same section as a Rolling Stones record in 1968. Like, the guitar sounds, the way that he’s playing the songs, it’s a rock ’n’ roll record played by a bluesman.
I was going to say it reminds me of current conversations about labeling black musicians as R&B artists when that’s not actually the genre that they’re playing in. Just sort of that same idea of limiting musicians, typecasting blues musicians.
It’s like the Moses Sumney thing, like, is Moses Sumney making R&B or is he making Sufjan Stevens-esque indie rock? Because he’s black he’s being characterized as R&B and that’s not really the case. And a similar thing happened to Buddy Guy.
Absolutely. I guess one more thing to note is that this is the first reissue of the album in more than 30 years, right?
Yeah, there hasn’t been one in the U.S. since 1987.
What are the packaging details for this one?
It on 180-gram black vinyl, remastered by Kevin Gray, 33 RPM, tip-on jacket like always and I wrote the Listening Notes booklet for this one.
About the album title, so, Buddy Guy was born in Lettsworth, Louisiana, and this album was recorded in Chicago. It seems like he never lived in San Francisco, or spent any significant time there. Do you think the album name is just meant to capitalize on the popularity of Flower Power and its ties to the city at the time, like you mention briefly in the Listening Notes?
He still lives in Chicago and played there, he was born in Louisiana and moved to Chicago as a teenager, and had lived there his entire life; he’s never lived in San Francisco. I’m not sure why it was titled that, but, yeah, it seems like it’s just a way to capitalize on San Francisco being hot at the time. The Flower Power, “Meet Me in San Francisco” thing got to the blues guys, too.