By Steve Newton
Like the blues itself, the life of Buddy Guy has been all about joy and pain, beauty and sadness. And in his autobiography, When I Left Home, the 81-year-old blues legend tells his tales of hardship and triumph with the same raw, truth-telling vibe you’ll pick up from one of his searing guitar solos.
Guy’s story starts off with his retelling of an impoverished–yet always happy–upbringing in a sharecroppers’ shack in Louisiana, and ends with him inviting you to Legends, his successful blues club on the south side of Chicago. In between you’ll hear about how he first got turned on to the blues, at age of 13, via John Lee Hooker’s “Boogie Chillen”, and later followed his heroes like Muddy Waters and Little Walter to the Windy City, where he found work–though not a lot of it–playing in rowdy late-night dives and doing underpaid session work for the likes of Chess Records.
Some of the most intriguing glimpses into the rough-and-tumble world of Chicago blues involves Guy’s memories of harmonica great Little Walter, who could apparently be one mean son-of-a-gun.
“He had scars from head to foot, and he was ready to cut anyone he didn’t like,” writes Guy. “That was just his way. He kept his feelings right in front of his face. Maybe that’s why he was the baddest harp man who ever done slipped one of those things in his mouth.”
Another blues legend you didn’t want to mess with, apparently, was Howlin’ Wolf. “If he don’t think I’m playing right, he’ll try to beat up on me like I’m one of his women,” Guy quotes guitar legend Hubert Sumlin as saying about the Wolf.
The penultimate chapter of When I Left Home, “Alpine Valley”, features Guy’s remembrances of Stevie Ray Vaughan, who he credits with bringing back interest in the blues in the ’80s. (I remember actually being turned on to Buddy’s music myself after hearing Stevie rave about him.) Guy took Vaughan’s tragic death hard, and recalls how–right after his doomed Alpine Valley performance–Vaughan suggested they make a record together.
“Rememberin’ Stevie, I thought that if it did happen, it was gonna happen in blues heaven. I pictured the band–Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, Fred Belew, Little Walter, Stevie Ray Vaughan. That’s a band worth dying for.”