The Great Lost Blues Memoir: When I Left Home by Buddy Guy

I used to buy records in a Chicago shop called the Jazz Record Mart on Grand Avenue. It was run by a guy named Bob Koester, a jazz and blues fanatic. He also had his own record company, Delmark Records, where he recorded a lot of blues artists who’d been passed over by Chess Records. The record shop was incredible. It was piled floor to ceiling with jazz and blues records. Bruce Iglauer, who went on to start Alligator Records, worked behind the counter. On any given day you might spot a well-known blues musician flipping through the stacks or talking to Koester.

The first time I went down to the Jazz Record Mart with a friend, Alex, I stocked up on Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf records. Alex bought a single album: Hoodoo Man Blues by Junior Wells. It was recorded by Bob Koester on his Delmark label. We rushed back to Alex’s house and put the record on. The album cover was an atmospheric black and white shot of Junior Wells playing in some after-hours blues dive, cigarette smoke surrounding him in a thick cloud, his harmonica in one hand. The music on the album was just as atmospheric. Most of the blues albums on Chess were really just compendiums of greatest hits, with maybe some filler thrown in, but Hoodoo Man Blues was a real album, with continuity, songs leading into other songs, all sounding like they were recorded live at, say, Theresa’s, a blues club on the South Side where Junior Wells often played. The guitar player, who very subtly supported Junior’s singing and harp playing, but also showed some occasional flash, was credited as “Friendly Chap”. We asked Koester about this and he told us that “Friendly Chap” was in reality the guitarist Buddy Guy. Buddy was under contract to the Chess brothers, so to avoid legal hassles Koester listed him under a fictitious name.

This was my first introduction to Buddy Guy (and Junior Wells), and Alex and I listened to that album until we could play every song note for note.

Buddy Guy and Junior Wells had a turbulent relationship spanning more than twenty years, playing together or apart, but always playing well. They were part of the new generation of bluesmen who came up in Chicago after the generation of masters that included Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. The new generation included Otis Rush, Magic Sam, James Cotton, and Luther Allison. These musicians arrived in the 1950s, ten years after Muddy Waters established a beachhead for blues in Chicago. Muddy had developed the basic Chicago Blues sound, and the new generation of players just took it to new heights. Where we can see country roots in much of Muddy and Wolf’s early recordings, Buddy Guy and Otis Rush brought a distinctly urban and electric sensibility.

Now, joining a recent raft of rock and roll memoirs, Buddy Guy himself has published a memoir, When I Left Home: My Story. It’s written with David Ritz, who worked on previous biographies of Ray Charles and Marvin Gaye. This is Buddy recounting his life as the son of a Louisiana sharecropper, growing up in a tight-knit country family, falling in love with the guitar, and making his way up to Chicago.

Buddy provides the stories, and David Ritz crafts them into a highly readable book. When I Left Home is not an academic work or a classic of post-modern fiction. It is quite simply Buddy Guy relating his struggle to make it big and provide for his family in a very tough urban blues scene. Buddy gigged all over Chicago and Gary, Indiana, drove a tow truck by day, and managed a club called the Checkerboard Lounge. He met and became friends with Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Ike Turner, Earl Hooker, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson. He later formed lasting relationships with the “English cats”, as he calls them: Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Jeff Beck, as well as with the Vaughan Brothers of Texas, Jimmy and Stevie Ray.

Buddy’s story is one of constant gigging, constantly trying to make money from a very precarious line of work. His innovation and skill kept him going when the black blues scene went through its bust in the early sixties, only to be picked up by a new white audience that brought more fame and money than Buddy had ever thought possible.

Buddy Guy was one of the first bluesmen to play in the great hippie palaces of the sixties, along with B.B. King and Albert King. His agent Dick Waterman booked him into the Avalon and the Fillmore in San Francisco, and sent him on extended trips to Europe. His outrageous guitar style – he began his set playing outside of the venue and then walked through the crowd to the stage, a trick he borrowed from Guitar Slim – had a great influence on other guitar wild men such as Jimmy Hendrix, and his use of distortion and feedback was a big inspiration for Eric Clapton.

I saw Buddy play several times in the 1980s at Chicago nightclubs, when he was making his move to go beyond a local blues legend and become an international star. Around this time he opened his own blues club, Legends, on South Wabash (and has since opened a new Legends just down the street, an ultimate down-home blues bar where artists from all over the world come to play).

As you read When I Left Home, you will realize how hard Buddy had to struggle to establish himself as a guitar player in Chicago, and then finally with his relentless touring and Grammy winning albums to become a major star of the caliber of B. B. King.

Interspersed with stories of gigs and recording sessions are stories of the Chicago blues scene and its denizens, some reflecting the violence of the time, others the absurdity and hilarity.

The young Junior Wells, for example was a bit of a juvenile delinquent. Muddy Waters wanted him in this band to replace Little Walter on harp, as Muddy and Walter had had a falling out over Walter’s hit “Juke”. Once, while Junior was still in high school, he got into some trouble and the school wanted to put Junior in juvenile hall. Muddy Waters interceded and got custody of Junior, signed a paper, and Junior was free. Junior thanked Muddy and then went off to catch a bus.

Muddy said, “Where you going, Junior? Get into the car with me.”

Junior said “I got places to go.”

“The hell you do. I’m in charge of your black ass.”

Muddy was blocking Junior’s way to the bus, so Junior gave him a shove.

Muddy didn’t say nothing. He just pulled out his .25 automatic and pointed it at [Junior’s] head. “I got no problem with shooting you — no problem at all”.

On the gruesome side, Buddy recounts a story that took place in a bar called Mel’s Hideaway on the South Side. A man comes in and sits at the bar and starts drinking heavily.

“You drinking hard”, said the bartender.

“Need to, feeling down … Wife troubles.”

“Those are the kind of problems that can get you down.”

“Not anymore.”

The man throws back two beers followed by two scotch chasers, orders another round. Finally, the bartender asks the man how he solved his problems …

Man put a paper bag on the bar.

“How could a paper bag solve your wife problem?”, asked the bartender.

“Go on and look inside”, said the man.

Bartender put his hand in the bag and felt something hairy.

“Pull it out”, said the man.

Bartender pulls it out and right there, in his hand, is the bloody cut-off head of a woman.

“Motherfucker”, the bartender screamed.

“Told you I done solved the problem”, said the man.

Not all the stories in Buddy’s book are this grim. Some are very funny, although the humor is quite crude. The Chicago bluesmen were raised in rural poverty, and even though they moved north to the big city, they never lost their country ways. They were ex-field hands who escaped the plantations and share-crop farms on the strength of their talent, but the barnyard was never far behind. Some, like Howlin’ Wolf, remained as country as Muddy Waters was urban.

One night, Buddy Guy organized a blues harmonica contest at Theresa’s. He noticed that all the best harp men were in the house: Little Walter, Junior Wells, James Cotton and Sonny Boy Williamson. They got up on the stage one by one and they all tried to beat Little Walter, who was really the best harp player in Chicago. The others grudgingly acknowledged Walter as the top man, but the competition didn’t end there:

At one point Junior and Walter had gone in the men’s room at the same time.

“I saw you in there, motherfucker,” said Walter. “Heard you been telling the ladies you got a log in your pants. All I saw was a stick.”

“A stick,” Junior shot back, “a lot longer than yours.”

“None of y’all can even stand at the same piss stand as me”, said James Cotton.

“Motherfuckers”, said Sonny Boy Williamson, “if you want to talk about God-given equipment, I’m ready to measure my manhood against anyone.”

Right then and there, out came the dicks! And out came the women, running over to see these fools looking to claim bragging rights for carrying the biggest tool in the shed.

When I left Home captures a time that has long passed into memory — the golden age of Chicago blues. It was a time when Chess, Vee-Jay and Cobra were turning out records that were noticed halfway around the world by young British musicians. It was a time when all the best musicians in the country gravitated to Chicago to play at Silvio’s, Theresa’s, Peppers and all the other great blues joints that dotted the South Side and West Side.

Muddy and the Wolf were the undisputed kings of the scene, but they always got stiff competition from princes like Buddy Guy and Otis Rush. It was a time of great industrial strength for the city of Chicago, where well-paying jobs brought rural blacks by the thousands to live in cramped slum housing, but who nonetheless expressed their joy of living and their pride in their culture by heading to the blues clubs at night.

Now the older bluesmen have died off, the young guns are themselves old, and the black community prefers hip-hop to blues. Blues is now considered old-fashioned by young urban African-Americans, and remains strong only through the support of the white blues community, who came to the music late and respect it for its purity and its improvisational qualities.

Read Buddy Guy’s story. Compare it to some of the recent rock memoirs. You will see the vast difference in motivation that Buddy Guy brings to his tale. Money and fame were not his driving forces. He was driven foremost by a deep love of his music, and by need to be a part of the blues community. Buddy Guy did not search for fame — he searched for respect and love.

4 Responses

  1. There is a film documentary
    There is a film documentary about a 1970 music tour called the Festival Express, which traveled across Canada by train. It featured Janis Joplin, The Band, Grateful Dead, and others, but the best performance, to me, was by Buddy Guy.

  2. Bill – Buddy Guy was the best
    Bill – Buddy Guy was the best act on the Festival Express! No doubt!

  3. I love the history of blues
    I love the history of blues and jazz; it is the bad and sad stories that give the music such soul, and there is a line, from Chicago, through Kansas City and into Texas where Buddy Guy and other blues and jazzmen made history. It is one of my favorite areas to travel in.

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