Buddy Guy - When I Left Home

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

Buddy Guy, the famous blues man, looks back on his life in WHEN I LEFT HOME, the autobiography he wrote with the help of David Ritz. Published by Da Capo Press, the book tells a remarkable story, one that began in the backwoods of Louisiana (where his father was a sharecropper) and led to the juke joints of Baton Rouge, followed by the blues clubs and recording studios of south-side Chicago. Guy's odyssey didn't stop there: thanks to his guitar work in the bands of Junior Wells, Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, he eventually became a headliner in his own right, not just in the USA but in Europe and Asia as well.

Today Guy operates his own club in Chicago, Legends ("dedicated to all the legends--Muddy, Walter, Wolf, Muddy, John Lee and B.B.--and all the others who had schooled me"), lives on a 14-acre spread in the far suburbs of Chicago, and does the occasional gig with the likes of Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones. In 1991, at the age of fifty-five, Guy won a Grammy for Damn Right, I've Got the Blues. It was followed by five more Grammies, Billboard magazine's Century Award, membership in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the Blues Foundation's Keeping the Blues Alive Award.

Guy's response to all that? "Thank you, Jesus."

That simple, self-effacing remark sums up the man's character. It was formed in his sideman days, especially when he was backing up Howlin' Wolf during his Chess Records glory days. Guy's policy in the studio was simple: "Don't talk. Lay low. Figure out what the star was doing. Figure out what the star needed. Support the star. Help the star sound better. Don't worry about bringing no attention to me because the session ain't about me. Stay the hell outta the spotlight."

That's not to say that Guy hid from sight when he was in charge. On the contrary, he became something of a wild man, bursting into clubs with a long cord on his amped-up guitar and leaping around "like a screaming angel from heaven" and playing the guitar over his head and behind his back. "I did it maybe because I knew my life depended on tearing up this club until folks wouldn't forget me."

There is darkness in every bluesman's life; it comes with the territory. Guy has had more than his share: busted marriages; seeing friends like Junior Wells, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix felled early by drinks and drugs; being cheated by record companies and promoters; and living through blues droughts, when the work seemingly disappeared for good.

"But then in the eighties the blues got born again, this time stronger than ever," Guy writes. "They got born because they too good to stay dead. They too simple, too pretty, too true to life. When you break down all the guitar music starting up with the rock and roll music of the fifties, you see the blues at the root of the whole thing. Can't ever get away from the blues. Your mama might have passed on, but she'll always be your mama. Long as you live, you ain't forgetting her. She gave you life. Well, sir, the blues is life."