Louisiana-born guitarist and singer George "Buddy" Guy is the major link to the electric Chicago blues sound of the 1950s and 1960s.
Guitarist and singer Buddy Guy, who was born in Louisiana, is the major link to the electric Chicago blues sound of the 1950s and 1960s. Perhaps more than any other blues artist, Guy has moved fluidly between both blues and rock audiences throughout his career. His recordings and concerts have also influenced guitarists of both styles. One of the first guitarists to make extensive use of feedback, Guy is renowned for his incendiary guitar playing, his outrageous showmanship, and his impassioned vocals.
George ”Buddy” Guy was born on July 30, 1936, into a sharecropping family in Lettsworth, about an hour north of Baton Rouge. He was the third of five children born to Sam and Isabelle Guy. The family included older sisters Annie Mae and Fanny, and younger brothers Sam and Philip, also a blues guitarist. Guy grew up in the Baptist church, an early source for the emotional intensity of his playing and singing.
Guy first heard the blues from Henry “Coot” Smith, a local sharecropper whose playing captivated him. He later made his first “guitar” at age seven using wood, his mother’s hairpins, paint cans, and screen door wire. When Guy was in his early teens, he listened to blues and rhythm & blues (R&B) on Nashville’s WLAC and ordered records by mail from Randy’s Record Shop in Tennessee. His early favorites included Lonnie Johnson, Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and Eddie “Guitar Slim” Jones.
In 1950 Guy went to live with his sister in Baton Rouge where he attended high school, but his mother’s stroke forced him to drop out to support his family. He worked as a gas station attendant and later as a custodian for Louisiana State University. Local blues musician John “Big Poppa” Tilley gave him his first gig, but fired him when the intimidated Guy played with his back to the audience. After a second chance, Guy earned a position in Tilley’s band, playing shows at a variety of area clubs and attracting local attention for his intense guitar style.
Life in Chicago
After about a year and a half of working around Baton Rouge, Guy—like many southern blues musicians before him—headed to Chicago, hoping to break into the city’s vibrant blues scene. He left Louisiana in the fall of 1957, having previously mailed a demo tape he had made at Baton Rouge radio station WXOK to the legendary blues and rock and roll (rock ‘n’ roll) label Chess Records. In Chicago, Guy initially had no luck finding work. He was on the verge of returning home when a chance encounter with a blues fan led to a guest appearance with guitarist Otis Rush at the popular 708 Club. Impressed by Guy’s playing, the club’s owner offered him a regular gig. Word spread about Guy’s unique style, and soon he was playing regularly at other Chicago clubs as well.
Guy enjoyed a special relationship with his hero Muddy Waters, whom he first met at a Chicago club. As the story goes, he knew Guy had just arrived from the South and, anticipating that he might be hungry, Waters fed him salami sandwiches. Waters also encouraged Guy to overcome his natural shyness on stage with the aid of small doses of cognac. Although Guy never actually joined Waters’s band, he later showed his versatility by backing the legendary singer and guitarist on his acoustic country-blues album Muddy Waters: Folk Singer (1964).
During the early 1960s, blues began gaining popularity with a predominantly young, white, folk music audience, who initially favored acoustic country-blues acts like Mississippi John Hurt and William “Big Bill” Broonzy. But as the decade progressed, Guy and his fellow guitarists Otis Rush and Samuel “Magic Sam” Maghett introduced what came to be known as the “West Side Sound”—a high-energy electric blues style incorporating longer guitar solos and an intense, flashy stage show. The sound influenced American and British rock ‘n’ roll guitarists such as Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, Carlos Santana, and especially Jimi Hendrix, who frequently attended Guy’s concerts.
In 1960, Guy signed a contract with Chess Records. He cut two singles: “First Time I Met the Blues” and “Stone Crazy,” which reached number twelve on the 1962 R&B charts. Interested in him as a vocalist, label owner Leonard Chess derided Guy’s manic guitar playing in his club shows as “noise” and forced him to employ a more toned-down approach on his records. Though Guy believes that the recordings from this period are not representative of his live shows, many blues scholars consider the 1960–67 Chess recordings to be his strongest body of work.
Guy made his first trip to England in 1965, playing shows with the Yardbirds and Rod Stewart and impressing a generation of young English rockers. He was amazed to discover that while he was virtually unknown in the States, English audiences treated him like a star. He also played on the British television show Ready Steady Go! but was mistakenly introduced as Chuck Berry!
Buddy Guy’s long partnership with vocalist/harpist Junior Wells began in 1965, when Delmark Records owner Bob Koester proposed recording the two at one of their regular gigs at Theresa’s Lounge. The resulting album, Hoodoo Man Blues by the Junior Wells Blues Band, was the first to capture the live sound of an electric Chicago blues band. (Since Guy was under contract to Chess at the time, he is listed on the record cover under the pseudonym “Friendly Chap.”)
In 1968 Guy signed a contract with the Vanguard label, known for its folk releases. He recorded several albums for Vanguard, as a solo artist and with Junior Wells. Guy’s next recording was with legendary R&B label Atlantic Records, whose head offered him a contract provided Eric Clapton produced the record. The result, Buddy Guy & Junior Wells Play the Blues (Atco), was recorded in 1970 but released two years later to disappointing sales.
Guy and Wells continued to work together into the 1970s and 1980s. Around this time Guy took on a new manager and began expanding his audience, playing folk and rock festivals. In 1970, Guy and Wells opened for the Rolling Stones, whom Guy had met at Chess studios in 1964, on their European tour.
Guy pursued a second career as a club owner, starting the legendary Checkerboard Lounge on Chicago’s South Side in 1972. Visiting rock stars often dropped in to jam with Chicago blues musicians. Guy sold his share of the Checkerboard Lounge in 1985, but in 1989 he opened Buddy Guy’s Legends, now one of Chicago’s most popular blues venues. David Bowie, Roger Daltrey, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and members of the Rolling Stones were all spotted at Legends, either on stage or in the audience.
The Stone Crazy! album, originally released in 1979 and re-released by Alligator Records in 1981, was the first record on which Buddy Guy felt free to be himself musically. Also in 1981, Guy hired a new manager, who envisioned marketing him to a rock ‘n’ roll audience. Guy drastically increased his touring schedule, enjoying renewed success as blues-rock guitarists like Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan sang Guy’s praises and covered his songs. In a 1986 interview with Musician magazine, Clapton even proclaimed that Guy was “by far and without a doubt the best guitar player alive.”
In numerous interviews, Buddy Guy has displayed a remarkable insecurity, claiming that his flamboyant, high-energy stage show is a cover-up for his lack of technical ability. While B.B. King’s guitar style was his main musical influence, Louisiana bluesman Eddie Jones (a.k.a. Guitar Slim) inspired his wild onstage antics. Guy often plays behind his head, with his teeth, or with one hand. Using an extremely long guitar cord, he sometimes ventures out into the audience.
Guy recorded very little during most of the 1980s but, in 1990, Eric Clapton featured him in the “24 Nights” guitar concert series at London’s Royal Albert Hall. This exposure helped Guy land a contract with the Silvertone label, which released the Grammy-winning 1991 gold record Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues. His next two Silvertone releases won Grammys as well. In 2009 Shout! Factory released The Definitive Buddy Guy, a retrospective collection spanning his career.
Buddy Guy’s pioneering use of feedback and distortion, high-energy playing, and over-the-top stage act have influenced blues and rock guitarists since the 1960s. He has won five Grammys and the Presidential Medal of Arts and was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2005. He appeared in the 2008 Rolling Stones concert film Shine a Light, directed by Martin Scorsese, and, by many accounts, stole the show. He made the cover of Rolling Stone at the age of 72 and shows no signs of slowing down. As Carlos Santana mused on Buddy Guy, “He plays one note and you forget about the rent.”