One of the last survivors of Chicago blues’ golden age of the 1950s and ’60s, Guy retravels a familiar route in this ingratiating but disappointingly slim as-told-to autobiography.
The son of rural sharecroppers, he became fixated with playing the guitar after hearing John Lee Hooker’s 1949 hit “Boogie Chillen.” He caught firsthand glimpses of such Louisiana stars as Lightnin’ Slim and Guitar Slim, the latter of whom supplied the blueprint for Guy’s flamboyant performing style. He lyrically recalls his 1957 train trip to Chicago, a Mecca for émigré musicians from the South. After an arduous period, he began to burn up the South Side’s bars; his local stardom led to record dates at Chess Records, then home to blues giants like Muddy Waters, who encouraged him in his early days, and the forbidding Howlin’ Wolf, who wanted to hire him. (Wary of Wolf’s harsh treatment of his sidemen, he declined.) Work ultimately became so scarce that Guy drove a tow truck to make ends meet, but he finally found success in the ’60s on the European festival scene and then in the rock ballrooms. Guy has a wealth of entertaining, occasionally raunchy stories about the contemporaries he revered, including Muddy, Wolf, Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, Jimmy Reed, Big Mama Thornton and B.B King. Sometimes he takes a jab: Songwriter Willie Dixon was stingy about sharing credit, guitarist Albert King was a tightwad, label owner Leonard Chess never paid royalties or recorded him at his extroverted best. He has fonder memories of the young white performers—especially Brits like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and the Rolling Stones—who helped shine a spotlight on his work. He saves his best stuff for longtime musical partner Junior Wells, the pugnacious, oft-incarcerated harmonica ace. At most junctures, the material about Guy’s fellow bluesmen is so choice it pushes the book’s purported subject into the background. And there’s little about the major renewal of Guy’s career after the 1991 release of his Grammy-winning Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues.
Tasty as a Buddy Guy guitar lick, but seldom revelatory.