REVIEW by Willard Manus
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."