Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A Man and His Blues

Best Buddy ever?
George "Buddy" Guy (July 30, 1936) could be called the last man standing in that great third generation of Chicago Blues geniuses*. James Cotton is still very much with us but he's sitting down now, and doesn't sing, although his robust harmonica playing remains undimmed.

Buddy has assiduously courted the white blues audience as well as the more influential blues tastemakers, not the least of whom is Eric Clapton. Clapton called Buddy "the greatest", and that was all Guy needed to vault into the blues superstar status previously reserved for BB King. (There is no comparison between rock superstar status and blues superstar status. Let's just say Buddy probably doesn't have to drive himself to gigs anymore.)

Largely because of this, Buddy's shows had become increasingly tedious, even as the fans had become increasingly more enthusiastic, allowing him to not bother completing songs and saying, "Shee-it" a lot, like the Little Walter outtakes.

To be fair, I haven't seen him in a while, so perhaps the latest shaved head reincarnation of Buddy Guy is putting on a great act. Gentle readers, please let me know.

Enough of this- one may get the feeling that I don't like Buddy Guy. But to paraphrase Billy Gilbert in "The Music Box", I love Buddy Guy! I think he is truly one of the great bluesmen in history. Certainly he is a rare electric guitarist, one of a literal handfull plus one  that can be identified in two notes, along with BB, T-Bone Walker, Guitar Slim, Albert King and Albert Collins.

The first time I saw him was in 1968 at the Newport Folk Festival. He was teamed with Junior Wells, and Fred Below and A. C. Reed were in the band. They were amazing- just what I wanted to see after wearing out my copies of Hoodoo Man Blues and It's My Life, Baby.

After that, it was hit or miss with those two- I saw some of the bravest, deepest blues shows ever and, unfortunately, some of the worst. They never seemd to really like each other, but they did seem to, on occasion, love each other. A strange dynamic, to say the least.

Around the time of Newport, Buddy released his finest recording: the uber- legendary A Man and His Blues on Vanguard records. No Junior, cool horns and an unbelievable performance from Otis Spann who almost steals the show, especially on One Room Country Shack. Check out Buddy's mumbled, "Git it, Spann," while Otis plays low note arpeggios. It's a sublime moment in a disc filled with sublime moments.

Bobby Bland's long-time guitarist and right hand man Wayne Bennett provides rock solid rhythm guitar. The horn section of three tenor saxes (Donald Hankins, Aaron Corthen aka A. C. Reed, and Bobby Fields) are subtle and never get in the way of the rest of the band. Jack Myers, the Hoodoo Man bass player, and no relation to the Myers brothers, repeats his role here. Below and drummer Lonny Taylor trade off on the drum chores, although my ear tells me that Below is doing most of the drumming.

Buddy takes Earl Hooker's Two Bugs and Roach instrumental, adds nursery rhyme lyrics and retitles it Mary Had a Little Lamb. Years later Stevie Ray Vaughn would turn this into a major hit. All the slow blues, and there are a few- it's right after BB's success with Live at the Regal after all, head into the late- night, after hours territory... lonely, sparse and very blue.

The album has an almost casual sound, and Buddy's guitar lacks the distorted overplaying that characterized his post- Hendrix work. In addition to his fine guitar on this disc, Guy's singing is great. He is at the top of his form, his sweet, high tenor perfectly expressing his feelings.

Nowadays blues audiences demand technique and pyrotechnics, but this recording is a throwback to the days of passion and deep feeling, especially in the interplay between Spann and Guy.

And that's why I love Buddy Guy.

*1st generation: Tampa Red, John Lee Williamson, et alia. 2nd generation: Muddy, Wolf, et alia. 3rd generation: Cotton, Otis Rush, Magic Sam, Buddy and Junior, et alia.


SueWho said...

I think I once heard Jimi Hendrix doing Buddy Guy, or was it the other way around? To me, they have a similar sound, even though different genres. Maybe Hendrix had a little bit of Buddy Guy influence/inspired by?

Jon said...

Regrettably, he has not picked up his game. My friend/carpool partner, a huge Buddy fan, has stopped going to see him because he doesn't complete a single song and plays at shrill/blistering levels.

He is a legend, though, I remember seeing him w/ Jr. Wells in ~1974.