Buddy Guy: From the farm to fame

May 29, 2012

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Buddy Guy: His name is as synonymous with blues music as that of his idol, mentor and father-figure, Muddy Waters. But Guy would be the first person to say he could never equal or surpass the musical prowess of “Mud.” That’s the kind of man Buddy Guy is: humble and honest. His middle name should be “Nice.”

But he is also a determined man. From the day he heard his father’s friend, Coot, play a beat-up, two-string guitar when he was a youngster living in a shack with his family in the small town farm town of Lettsworth, Louisiana, Buddy seemed to know that music was meant to be his life.

But the blues wasn’t the first music that touched his heart – it was the singing of the birds. Guy grew up in the fields of a plantation, picking cotton alongside his dad. He loved and still loves the outdoors and nature.

How do I know this? I just finished reading Guy’s biography, When I Left Home: My Story.

Guy takes the reader on a wonderful ride filled with humor, sadness, some regret, lucky breaks and, of course, music. I learn that Guy made his first two-string guitar by stripping some of the wire from the new screen window his mom, Isabell, bought. When he was 12 years old, his dad plunked down $4.32 to buy his son Coot’s guitar.

Like many African-Americans in the first half of the 20th century, Guy left the south to come north to Chicago. He arrived on September 25, 1957, a small town young man with no prospects and enough cash to last maybe a month. But boy, what a ride. Guy came to Chicago when blues music was the music of choice for African-Americans, especially the working class who toiled away in the factories and needed release of all kinds after slaughtering cattle at the stockyards or making steel.

I believe Guy’s breaks, in what he calls "the crazy blues life" of Chicago, were equal parts luck, humility and kindness. No, he wasn’t a saint. But he also certainly wasn’t rough and tumble like some of his early heroes and peers in the blues life.

Another of those talented characters was the father of Chicago blues: McKinley Morganfield, aka Muddy Waters. There’s good reason Guy’s book is dedicated to Muddy Waters, “father to us all.”

From the first night Guy met Muddy Waters, who was driving his red Chevy wagon outside the 708 Club, until Water’s death in 1983 at the age of 70, Guy was always in awe of Waters and his creativity.

Guy hit Chicago at the height of blues in Chicago, then rode the waves of its decline in the African-American community and its ascendance among white fans around the world. Now at age 75, Guy is a legend. He may have slowed down some, but he continues to show no lack of energy and creativity when he picks up his guitar. I think after 55 years in Chicago, we can rightly call him one of our own and beam with pride.

He's my guest on Eight Forty-Eight Tuesday. Join us!