From Lettsworth to the Checkerboard
Guy, Buddy, with David Ritz. When I Left Home: My Story. Da Capo Press. 2012
This book is more about people in Buddy’s life than the music they created. He acknowledges the roles and support of these influences. So many of the blues greats from the South started at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder and received little education—they scratched together a life while pursuing their music passion and migrated North at a young age with nothing but hope. There are many humorous passages in this book; however, there are also a few gruesome ones. The book is a thorough memoir, but discussed here are the challenges of Buddy the young musician.
Buddy Guy (BG) may rank as the greatest Chicago blues man who has not been knifed, shot, nor injured seriously in an auto accident. He has never been jailed, and has been in jails only to bail out his music partner, Junior Wells. For all the tales of guns and knives and early deaths, it is remarkable for any Chicago bluesman in his 70’s to be alive. His closest death encounter may have been when he awoke to his wife hovering over him with a letter opener. A divorce followed shortly thereafter, and Buddy plays on. Buddy’s life story begins in Louisiana.
There was no electricity in the first Buddy Guy sharecropping family house in Lettsworth, Louisiana, way out in the country. The first music he heard was from a family friend who visited at Christmas, Coot (aka Henry Smith). Coot would play John Lee Hooker’s “Boogie Chillen” on his two-string guitar in exchange for drinks. There were no screens on the windows, and big “skeeters.” When the family finally got window screens, Buddy pulled out two strings and made a guitar; when he got caught and had to return the strings, he attached a rubber band to two nails on the wall to see what sound he could produce. A short time later, Buddy was in the general store when Lightnin’ Slim walked in with his guitar and amp; he got the proprietor to coax Slim into playing for 30-minutes in exchange for a few beers. And with that Buddy was hooked on electric guitar for life.
There is no technical language describing music in this memoir. Like many folk blues musicians, Guy cannot read music. There was no written music in his world to learn from. Formal education was limited to periodic sessions at a church school and some high school. His first guitar or makeshift instrument had fewer than six strings. He worked the fields of cotton and corn for his family in Lettsworth. When a teenager, Buddy moved to Baton Rouge to live with his sister’s family; he worked in a full-service gas station and on the campus of LSU doing maintenance work. At age 22 he rode the train to Chicago in search of a better paying job–it was 1957.
In the beginning, at the 708 Club, Guy got initiated to the blues stage when he was thrust into a challenge on the stage with the Otis Rush band. The musicians were sitting down while playing—Buddy feared he may need to read music, but the music stands were only for show. Rush just “had to let me go. I believe he had to let me go. I believe no force on earth could have kept me from letting go. See, the spirit of Guitar Slim entered my soul—not just the spirit, but the showmanship. I wouldn’t sit down, I couldn’t sit down, and after I played the opening notes I watch myself move to the edge of the stage and jump into the crowd, just as I’d seen Slim do (76).”
In those early days, Guy established his club performance demeanor described as wild and crazy. Describing a cutting contest with the prize a pint of whisky on the barroom table, and feeling fear he was overmatched against Earl Hooker: “Hooker would hand me my ass on a platter—I didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell. But on a night when there was three feet of snow, I hooked up my 150-foot Guitar Slim-styled cord and started playing from inside a car parked outside the bar . . . when I finally did step through the door (of the club), the yelling was so loud that the owner handed me the pint.” BG never began his set on the bandstand; instead he marched out from within the men’s room, or the women’s bathroom, ever trying to please the tough bar crowd. And he turned the amp volume up loud to be heard. To Buddy, Chicago blues was “nothing more than country blues jacked up with big-city electricity (84).”
Buddy developed his reputation in Chicago by playing for years in the blues clubs and as a sideman in the studio of Chess Records at 2120 South Michigan Avenue. His first club dates were at the 708 on the South Side and the Squeeze Club, also called the Bucket of Blood, on the West Side. These were very tough places, and Guy is not shy about discussing the presence of weapons: “I was playing my guitar when one cat drove an ice pick deep into another cat’s neck. That way you bleed on the inside and there ain’t no mess. When the cat fell to the ground, they dragged him outside and dumped him on the corner. Seeing all this, I got sick to my stomach. . . When the cops saw the dead man, they couldn’t have cared less. To them it meant only one more dead nigger (p. 86).” Not only was the scene occasionally violent, but the pay from the club owners was occasional for assuming the risk. Guy also says he got little money from Leonard Chess for the recording sessions. But, Chicago’s Chess Records was where it was at, having recorded the likes of Muddy Waters, Little Water, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Jimmy Rogers. Buddy’s music life strategy was to play wild and loud in the bars and keep his mouth shut in the recording studio—it has seemed to pay off.
So, what was the bar crowd like? In the fifties the steel mills and slaughterhouses were running shifts for 24-hours. “They wanted to forget the pain of trucking steel and killing cows. They wanted to get happy in a hurry. They wanted music that would blast ‘em into outer space, sounds that would carry them out of this mean ol’ world into another world of good feeling (77).” You can read about the action at places like the 708, Theresa’s, Curly’s and the Checkerboard Lounge in Chicago; and the F & J Lounge in Gary, Ind. And, then there’s that place called the Squeeze Club on the West Side, where a man walked in with his woman’s head in a paper bag.
In the 1960s work became more scarce for blues musicians—Elvis was delivering blues to white audiences in the 50’s and rock ‘n’ roll followed. Chicago blacks left the blues bars for the Regal Theatre to see the Isley Brothers. Motown and R & B were hot. And then, the British invasion took over. The blues never totally went away, however. The popularity of white blues musicians like the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton lead their fans to dig a little deeper for the source of their sound; with that, the blues resurgence was born. Playing to white audiences in the 60’s, Buddy partnered with mouth harp player Junior Wells to become successful recording artists just as Muddy Waters and Little Walter in this guitar and harmonicist front man duo style had done.
The men who influenced Guy in his music career are discussed at length here—one or more chapters dedicated to each—and are fondly referred to as “daddys.” Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, B. B. King, and Junior Wells are modern contemporaries. Buddy remembers his early inspiration sources; upon receiving a Grammy, or some other award, BG will thank the musicians who paved the way and received little or no fame or money—Guitar Slim, Lightnin’ Slim, and Lightnin’ Hopkins are his influences. BG expresses the most love for Muddy Waters, who helped Guy develop professionally in Chicago, and B. B. King, who has been the most dependable source of friendship. Guy dedicates his book to “the memory of Muddy Waters, father to us all.”
My review of the KUVO 89.3 FM playlist in recent months indicates that you will most likely hear the music of Buddy Guy on two programs: The All Blues show with Sammy Mayfield hosting on Saturday afternoon, and Rockin n’ Rhythm with JC on Friday evenings. Thanks to these volunteer on-air hosts for helping keep the blues alive!