Buddy Guy recently played a sold-out Akron Civic Theatre and proved once again why rock’s most revered guitarist consider him the best on earth. The 76-year old played sizzling blues rock on his Fender Stratocaster with his teeth, tickled the fret board while holding the instrument over his head, and kept jamming as he strolled nonchalantly into the audience, disappeared, and reemerged in the balcony upstairs.
Now available for pre-order in paperback, When I Left Home: My Story (Da Capo 280 pages) is the long-awaited definitive autobiography by the man Eric Clapton called “the greatest guitarist alive.”
Written with an assist by David Ritz—who’s chronicled the lives of Marvin Gay, Ray Charles, and Etta James—When I Left Home is Buddy Guy’s captivating memoir, written in first person in the same grammar-and-syntax-be-damned style the bluesman uses when sharing anecdotes and dirty jokes onstage. It’s an approach that renders the narrative extra intimacy, as if Guy were orating across from you on your living room sofa with one of his signature polka dot guitars on his lap, occasionally cracking that mischievous grin or gesticulating with a calloused index finger for occasional emphasis.
Frankly, it’s a tale that couldn’t have been told effectively any other way. Beginning in the present day with the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer reflecting on his past from a barstool in his Chicago club, the book transports readers back to George “Buddy” Guy’s childhood on a plantation in Lettsworth, Louisiana. Raised with his siblings by God-fearing parents in a shack without plumbing or air conditioning, Buddy came to appreciate hard work, close kin, and wholesome organic food. He learned responsibility quickly as a sharecropper—his family surrendered half their yield to the white landowners—but savored his mother’s stew and catfish. Occasionally he’d bag a rabbit while hunting.
Today, Buddy will leap over a store counter for fresh beans. Any produce at the market with a worm on it is the good kind—because that means the fruit hasn’t been sprayed with chemicals.
Fascinated by the two-string guitar prowess of a neighbor called “Coot,” Buddy fashioned a “diddly bow” with boxes and window screen wire and began mimicking the wild “Boogie Chillen” sounds he once heard Lightin’ Slim play at a general store. His father eventually bought Coot’s guitar for the enthusiastic teen for four dollars and some loose change. A couple years later, while staying at his older sister’s, a mysterious benefactor overheard Buddy tinkering with a John Lee Hooker song (“I’m in the Mood”) and escorted him to a music store, where he plunked down $50 for the boy’s proper instrument. Turns out the stranger was an old family friend—but the only thing Mitchell Young had recognized about Buddy was potential.
Embracing the narrative suggested by the book title, Buddy describes his heartbreaking decision to leave home for the big city, entrusting the care of his stroke-addled mom to his resilient father. Buddy worked as a custodian at Louisiana State University, but his passion was given to playing guitar in blues bands in Baton Rouge. Before long he was drawing crowds like flies to honey, emulating the musical histrionics of mentors like Willie Dixon, Guitar Slim, Sonny Boy Williamson, Lonnie Johnson, and Muddy Waters. A local radio station even let him record an original track on some extra reel-to-reel tape; Guy didn’t realize until later he’d made his first “demo.”
Chicago was ground zero for rhythm and blues, so on September 25, 1957 Buddy accepted his friend Shorty’s invitation to take a train north and share a Windy City apartment. There’s a poignant passage where Buddy and another passenger laugh over how they’re “doin’ it wrong” by heading into colder climes when everyone else was headed for the sunny south. Barely in his twenties, ambitious Buddy chased his heroes to their studio, only to be ignored by record impresario Leonard Chess, with whom he left his precious demo tape. He service station jobs to supplement the meager earnings from his rare gigs and nearly returned home after six months, already tired of a town where seemingly everyone carried a gun or knife and the police took bribes before napping in their cars.
But fortune intervened again in the person of Otis Rush, who allowed the young upstart to play with him at the 708 Club. The incendiary performance left the crowd hollering for more, and by night’s end Buddy was sharing salami sandwiches with his idol, Muddy Waters, in the back of a red Chevrolet. The elder bluesman greased the wheels at Chess Records, where Guy played on tracks by Howlin’ Wolf and Little Walter. Chess felt Buddy’s solo style was just too noisy and wild for the man to be cutting his own records, but the loose, carefree sound helped Chess’ established artists sell a lot of records. Buddy concedes ignorance with respect to copyright laws and royalty payments at the time; he was just happy to be playing the blues with his heroes and walking out of the studio with cash. At Chess he forms a long friendship with Memphis harmonica wizard Junior Wells, with whom he crafts several well-received albums. By night he’s a sensational showman who dazzles club-goers by starting his gigs outside and processing into the venues with his guitar and extra-long cord, his searing notes ringing into the Chicago skies over Lake Michigan.
It took a while for the humble country boy-turned-local superstar to realize that the American rock bands of the mid-‘60s were copying their English peers like The Rolling Stones—who in fact were mimicking Guy and his blues brethren and admitted it. Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page all pointed to Buddy as being the real deal, and Cream’s Eric Clapton signed Guy up for a pivotal appearance in the 1969 Supershow concert film in Staines, England. The next year, Buddy joined Janis Joplin and The Grateful Dead on the Festival Express Tour. After Guy starts releasing his own work on Vanguard Records, Leonard Chess apologizes to the guitar genius for suppressing his skills and literally proffers his own ass for a good kicking.
When I Left Home races through the ‘70s and ‘80s, whose highlights (and lowlights) include goodwill trips to Africa—where Buddy’s companion contracts a tapeworm from the unsanitary living conditions—and Guy’s first botched attempt at managing a nightclub. One friend is stabbed by vindictive girlfriend, while others (including Muddy Waters) succumb to alcoholism or cancer. Guy concedes he was never a saint—but booze, pills, and powders apparently never appealed to his senses or ego the way they seduced his pals. He’s squeamish when asked to accompany his friends to inflict beatings on two-timing females, even when physical mistreatment was considered the norm between man and wife. Buddy further acknowledges his failures as a husband and father (he was always on the road), and even discloses paternity of two kids with a girl he met shortly after arriving in Chicago.
Clapton again rekindled interest in Guy’s career by having him as one of many guest stars on his 24 Nights live recordings in 1990. The appearance resulted in Buddy’s signing to the Silvertone label, which issued his Grammy-winning disc Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues, the very next year. The ‘90s and ‘00s saw Guy growing old gracefully, producing acclaimed albums like Skin Deep and Living Proof in between tours with youngsters like Jonny Lang—whom Buddy hails as the next generation of bluesmen.
To paraphrase Buddy’s pal Koko Taylor, it’s a wang-dang doodle of a read.