Narendra Kusnur's music musings …

The Buddy Guy story

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When I Left Home: My Story

Buddy Guy, with David Ritz

Da Capo Press, pp 280

THE first time I saw Buddy Guy on stage, I was totally mesmerised. At Mumbai’s Jamshed Bhabha Hall in December 2005, he dazzled on the numbers ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’, ‘Mustang Sally’ and ‘Someone Else is Steppin’ In’. What was most impressive was his showmanship, as he suddenly moved into the hall and came close to the crowd.

The previous morning, I had interviewed him for Mid Day. He came across as an extremely friendly and humorous person, always ready to talk about the blues and always filled with stories about the past. But since we had only 20 minutes slotted, he couldn’t really get into too much detail. I saw him two more times in Mumbai, one at the One Tree Festival and the other at the Mahindra Blues Festival, and though I felt disappointed at the third gig for more or less repeating the same set, there was no denying that he was a stunning guitarist with immense stage appeal.

Buddy’s life story was always something I wanted to know more about. His involvement with the Chicago Blues scene, and the fact that he influenced greats like Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin and Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, speak volumes for his genius.

Last year, Buddy released his autobiography, written with the help of David Ritz, who has penned or co-authored biographies of Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Etta James. I had no hesitation in ordering it, and boy, what a journey it describes!

THE best thing about ‘When I Left Home: My Story’ is that you actually feel Buddy is conversing with you. The whole book has been written in the manner Americans speak in the countryside. Add to that the regular doses of humour and nostalgia, and you have a clear winner.

And there’s the story too. In 280 pages, Buddy talks about his upbringing in a farm without electricity, his love for the guitar, his exposure to the blues, his idols, his decision to move to Chicago where all the action was, big city life, the blues clubs, his struggle and ultimate recognition in Chicago, blues record labels, his visits to Europe and Africa, his interaction with rock stars, his famous collaboration with harmonica player Junior Wells, his own feelings after many of his heroes passed away, and of course his parents, siblings, family and affairs.

Appropriately, Buddy writes his book “in memory of Muddy, father to us all.” Naturally, Muddy is one of the central characters to this story, and Buddy talks nostalgically of how the legend encouraged him when he was still trying to find his feet in Chicago and was actually planning to leave the city.

Buddy talks about his first exposure to amplified sound, thanks to Lightnin’ Slim, and how his own style and showmanship were majorly influenced by Guitar Slim. Other giants to get prominent mention are BB King, John Lee Hooker (check out Buddy’s written mimicry of his stuttering), Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Otis Rush, Freddie King, Magic Sam, harmonica great Little Walter, Big Mama Thornton, songwriter Willie Dixon (who tried to use his influence to give him a big break) and Chess Records boss Leonard Chess, who recorded with all the great artistes but got into conflicts over royalty issues.

There are many stories on Junior Wells, the way he got into trouble and the hilarious interactions between him and Muddy Waters. There’s a very nostalgic tale on events that led to the death of Stevie Ray Vaughan in a helicopter crash in August 1990. And there’s a section which talks of how he was impressed by white blues artistes for the first time, when he saw Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield join him on a jam. “That’s one of the first time I realised that the blues was blue, not white or black,” he says.

To be sure, Buddy focuses only on his active years, and avoids any mention of blues history prior to the time he reached Chicago on September 25, 1957, a date he keeps repeating. Thus, original masters like Robert Johnson, Charley Patton and Son House are mentioned only in passing, and there’s little talk of the Memphis or Texas contributions to the blues.

What also seems incomplete is that Buddy devotes only about five pages to his career after 1990, and of the success of albums ‘Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues’, ‘Feels Like Rain’, ‘Slippin’ In’, ‘Sweet Tea’, ‘Blues Singer’ and ‘Living Proof’. In fact, his latest album ‘Rhythm & Blues’, released on his 77th birthday on July 30, has had a superb opening. One really wishes he had added another 30 pages on the past two decades.

Those are minor flaws, of course. What’s really great is that this book reads like a thriller. There are so many stories, and it wouldn’t be fair to reveal any here, as that may just spoil the fun of any blues fan who would want to read this book. And this is an absolute must for anyone who loves the blues. After all, Buddy tells stories with almost the same effortlessness that he plays his guitar.


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