Buddy Guy rules. I first heard his records back in 1984, when a college friend-of-a-friend excitedly put his Alligator debut, Stone Crazy, on the turntable. (We had turntables back then, only we called them “record players”). As the opening staccato chords of “I Smell a Rat” ripped forth from the speakers, my other friend turned to me and said, “Now this is the real blues.”
He was right, of course. At that point in the mid-‘80s, Guy had already been playing for decades, and was at the midpoint of his career. Stone Crazy was his latest release at that time, but the ‘80s would not be kind to him. Not until the string of superb Silvertone albums released in the ‘90s—a jaw-dropping run that would include Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues, Feels Like Rain, Heavy Love, Slippin’ In and Sweet Tea—would the masses (including myself) wake up to the fact that we had a national treasure living and working in our midst. A national treasure, by the way, who could freakin’ shred.
Of course, some people were hip to it all along. The Rolling Stones were always ready to acknowledge their musical forebears, not just Buddy Guy, but Muddy Waters and BB King and Willie Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf, too. For a lot of white suburban rockers like me, though, it took a little longer than it should have for the message to sink in.
Guy acknowledges his ancestors too, and manages to make his struggles both in and out of the music industry into compellind reading that is devoid of self-pity. When I Left Home: My Story is exactly what is promises to be: the recollections of a 74-year-old blues maestro who paid his dues, grew up poor, gigged a lot and rubbed elbows with some of the most remarkable musicians of his time, even as he himself developed into another of that elite group.
The book recounts Guy’s early days growing up in a loving family, picking cotton as a sharecropper’s son in rural Louisiana. The first light bulb came to the family shack when he was twelve years old. Long before that, he heard a family friend pick out blues tunes on a two-string guitar, and it was this music that wormed its way into young Buddy’s head and lodged there. The song that really tipped the scales was “Boogie Chillun” by John Lee Hooker, and when Guy chanced to come into possession of that same guitar at age 13, he spent hours learning and playing the song over and over again.
After that, his destiny as a musician seemed set. He kept playing, teaching himself and watching other guitarists closely. The showman’s antics of Guitar Slim made a deep impression, as did the notion that he should leave the south and travel to snowy Chicago, where Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker had all made their homes. Before long, Guy would join them.
If music was his destiny, though, it didn’t necessarily follow that musical success was on the cards. Life in Chicago was rough and competitive, and if the brawling crowds at the blues clubs didn’t cause you problems, then the conniving record executives at the labels would. Leonard Chess, head of the legendary blues label Chess Records, comes off as a man who loved the blues more than the musicians who played it, at least as far as paying for their work went.
Willie Dixon was Chess’s in-house bass player and arranger, and he’s the closest thing this book has to a villain. Guy subtly but unmistakably suggests that Dixon was willing to put his name on any song regardless of whether he’d written it or not, and acted as a de facto swindler not just for him, but for countless other musicians. Considering that in the ‘80s, Dixon would sue Led Zeppelin over the writing of “Whole Lotta Love”, the irony in this revelation is extreme.
Guy never comes across as bitter, however, even when recounting such shady business deals or the long years he spent working as a sideman for a few dollars per session. The memoir rolls along in the cadences of his speaking voice, almost as if collaborator David Ritz was working from transcribed audio tapes. The technique allows Guy to keep his own unique inflections intact. “You can read books that say there was a South Side style to the Chicago blues and then a West Side style,” he tells us, “but I say that’s bullshit. We was playing all over. I started out at the 708 on the South Side, but I went to the Squeeze Club on the West Side.”
Guy is also eloquent in his praise of his spiritual brother, harmonica master Junior Wells. For many years the duo performed live and on tape, and released the crucial Hoodoo Man Blues album in 1964. This album has as good a shot as any at being considered the greatest blues recording of all time. “I’m grateful to God that we hooked up like we did,” says Guy, “not that it was all smooth sailing. Junior came with a boatload of baggage, but with Junior by my side, I do believe I raised the stakes.”
This is a compulsively readable book. With Guy’s narration propelling the story, there aren’t a lot of lulls, and there’s always something interesting just around the corner. Blues aficianados are likely to enjoy it. If not exactly revelatory, it’s always pleasant to spend a few hours in the company of a guy like Buddy.