(Editor’s Note: Lightly Edited for Clarity and Additional Video)
You’ve probably heard of Chess Records. With artists like Willie Dixon (the backbone of the label as performer, writer and producer), Muddy, The Wolf, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson and so on, Chess Records defined “Chicago Blues” for two decades.
However, even one familiar with the label can be forgiven for not knowing that for a decade they had under contract one of the best bluesmen of all time, Mr. Buddy Guy.
Buddy Guy on landing his first job at Chicago’s 798 Club:
“I went up and did a couple of Jimmy Reed and Bobby Bland songs, ‘Further Up the Road,’ B.B. King ‘Sweet Little Angel.’ And … it was 99.9 [percent] Black people listening to blues at that time.
“And the owner of the club was a white guy, and him and his wife was on their way out the door, and all I saw was that… They picked up their receipts, and they left word, say, ‘I don’t know who that is, but hire him.’
“Somebody called … Muddy Waters … [who lived] about six blocks away and he drove in. And before I left Baton Rouge, they told me be careful because you get mugged in Chicago, not in Baton Rouge. And I didn’t know they called Muddy Waters the Mud. So he slapped me upside my ear, and I was ringing, and he said, ‘That’s the Mud.’ I said, ‘Oh … I see what they mean by getting mugged.'”
Prior to signing with Chess he made two records for Cobra Records, including this one composed by Ike Turner who also backed on guitar.
As per Buddy Guy: I was in Chess Studio [in Chicago] doing a record called “My Time”  and Muddy Waters had the Rolling Stones come up to do an audition and they brought them in my session and I wanted to curse them out because I didn’t want nobody in there. Come to find out years later they were so famous, I said, ‘I’m glad you did come in.’
During his tenure with Chess he wowed live crowds with his novel style of playing and his impassioned singing. He also played with Junior Wells under a pseudonym.
Leonard Chess refused to record Buddy playing this way, relegating him to session work and did not even release the R&B, soul and dance tracks he did record.
Not his best work, understandably so.
By the time he left Chess in ’68 American blues was nearly forgotten. Bands like Cream, The Stones, Ten Years After, The Yardbirds/Zeppelin were doing what Buddy had been unable to record.
Those other bands knew who Buddy was and Eric Clapton included him on the 24 Nights concert series.
(Robert Cray bonus)
In 1981 he recorded the album “DJ Play My Blues”
1991 brought “Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues”
In 2001 came “Sweet Tea”
In 2010 it was “Living Proof”
Buddy Guy on the origin of his signature polka-dot guitar:
“Well, I’m the oldest boy in my family. There were five of us: three boys and two girls. And when I left Louisiana for Chicago 57 years ago, my mother had a stroke and didn’t want me to go. She wasn’t even able to walk or talk right anymore, but she got to where she could understand a few things and I could understand her.
And I wanted to make her feel good, so I say, “Well, I’m gonna go to Chicago and make more money than I’m making here, and I’m gonna be sending you money back, and you’ll see how well I’m doing. I’m gonna drive back down to you in a polka-dot Cadillac.” I knew I was lying to her. And when she passed away in 1968, I said to myself, “You lied to your mama and never got a chance to tell her you were lying.” That bothered me.
And one day I said to myself, “You know what? I’m gonna see if Fender will make me a polka-dot Strat.” At first, they said they couldn’t do it, but then they hired a guy who said, ‘We can do it.’ They made me one or two, and then they tried it out at the NAMM show.
They made 100 or 200, just to see what would happen, and they let me know the 200 were gone before they even got there. These days, I think I own about seven or eight of them. But I got some sons and grandsons come up to see me now. And sometimes I open up a case after they leave and the guitar is gone!”
Editor’s Choice Video: Because Buddy Guy & Paul Rodgers (’nuff said)
Seven Grammy winning albums and a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame he is still going strong, but I wonder what might have been had he been allowed to widely share his gift in the ‘60s. Guess I’ll just have to enjoy what we have.
Buddy Guy once said: “The blues don’t make you sad, they lift you up!” Buddy Guy is indeed “Living Proof” of that.