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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Buddy Guy's Dazzling 'My Story'

Blues great shares tales from a singular life

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Buddy Guy and co-author David Ritz have come up with a dazzling book, rife with details about people, guitars and historically significant musical events. When I Left Home: My Story (Da Capo) will enthrall Guy's fans as well as guitar aficionados and cultural historians. It's a lively and informative book placing one of the last, living blues greats in proper perspective. With the recent death of Hubert Sumlin, Howlin' Wolf's guitar player, one should savor the Buddy Guy story not only because he is such an influential artist, combining blues roots with rock 'n' roll performance, but also because it is a story that would be hard for anyone else to tell.

Guy was born in 1936 in Louisiana. He never had the calling to hit New Orleans to play the music one found there, and instead opted for Chicago to record for Chess Records—but not before being profoundly influenced by Guitar Slim, whose 1954 recording “The Things I Used to Do” became “the biggest record of my life.”

Most scholars would agree that this song, sung in the tradition of Fats Domino, is one of the seminal numbers shaping what was to become rock 'n' roll. But it was Guitar Slim's Stratocaster sound, played like a hoodoo wand on the audience, that hit Buddy Guy hard: “He played his 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,” Guy recalls. “I wanted to be Guitar Slim.”

Leaving Louisiana for Chicago on Sept. 25, 1957, the day he calls his “second birthday,” Guy picked up everything he needed to succeed when he arrived. Chess Records was supposedly expecting him and, as he tells it, he fell into a recording session right away. His exciting stories of recording at Chess are balanced against the label's business tactics. Willie Dixon, who plays a major role in this book, served as Guy's adviser in many ways, knowing the ways that money could be withheld from a Chess recording star. Good music often walked hand in hand with bad business.

From Muddy Waters to Michael Bloomfield, revered players move through this book in ways that only firsthand experience can provide the pathways to understanding. Anyone consumed by the blues will find that this book makes them feel right at home.