Biography reveals a Guy with opinions
WHEN I LEFT HOME
By Buddy Guy with David Ritz
Da Capo; $26, 320 pp.
Buddy Guy likes to think about food. “When the weather’s warm, I want melon. But you can’t sell me melon without seeds. Just like you can’t sell me white-and-yellow corn. I don’t fool with no food that’s messed over by man,” he explains in the preface of When I Left Home.
Though perhaps not directly relevant to his rise as one of the greatest blues musicians of all time, Guy’s comments about food, baseball and working on the farm establish him as a man with opinions. Guy knows what he likes. He didn’t mind his job as a maintenance man at LSU, doing whatever odd tasks came his way. He hated working in a beer plant. “This factory work felt like jail. The job didn’t last long,” he writes.
When it came to music, he knew he loved the blues from the first time he heard a local wino playing for the farmhands after work. But it was another man who showed him what he really wanted to do. When he saw him on stage, Guy knew. “He played the guitar between his legs, played it behind his back, played it on his back, played it jumping off the stage, played it hanging from the rafters.” From that moment, Guy writes, “I wanted to be Guitar Slim.”
The road to blues greatness took him first to Chicago where he lived in an apartment with a man named Lawrence Chalk. There was only one bed, so Guy had to adjust his sleep schedule to Chalk’s eccentric habits.
When Guy first arrived in the big city, he was flummoxed by the apartment doorbells and the subway system. He couldn’t get a job driving a tow truck since he didn’t know his way around the city, and his attempt to break in at Chess Records — one of the biggest companies recording the blues at the time — was a failure.
Stage fright was one of the barriers to his early success. Once he overcame his fear and started playing in clubs, he attracted the attention of Muddy Waters. The great bluesman made him a salami sandwich and told him to stay in Chicago. “Tonight you found a new home,” Waters told him.
Waters managed to make a living from the blues, but it was a while before Guy could do the same. Soon, he had a family to support and record contracts were hard to come by.
When his blues gigs and club manager position didn’t pay enough, he finally landed a job as a tow truck driver.
The break came in the mid-’60s when groups like Cream started having huge hits with songs influenced by the blues. Finally, Leonard Chess of Chess Records called Guy into his office and apologized for making Guy tone down his signature style. But Guy had already signed a contract with Vanguard.
From there, Guy made his way up in the music world, brushing shoulders with Jimmi Hendrix, Steve Miller and other young musicians who admired the blues. Guy, in turn, admired the hippies and embraced the concept of free love.
From intestinal worms in Africa to his troubled relationships with women, Guy is not afraid to reveal the dirty, humiliating and altogether human aspects of his long and fascinating life. With the help of bestselling author David Ritz, he brings the story forth in vivid color.