Buddy Guy is one of the most influential blues musicians of all time. And yet, compared to such giants as BB King, he is relatively unknown. Guy’s blend of Chicago blues has remained at the centre of his work for over 50 years and has incorporated myriad influences along the way. Like Miles Davis, Guy fought to keep his music at the forefront of musical expression, refusing to let it fall into obscurity.
Born in Lettsworth in 1936, Buddy Guy learned to play the guitar without even touching one. Instead, he fashioned an instrument made of tin cans and wire (sometimes known as a diddley bow) and began plucking away on that. After getting hold of an acoustic guitar, Guy fell in love with the Chicago blues and began mimicking Lightin’ Hopkins and Muddy Waters, an exercise that helped forge the virtuosity which would later define his music.
Despite a career dotted with periods of anonymity and fame in equal measure, today, Buddy Guy’s legacy is undeniable. He is a living legend and, just two years ago, he released an album that proved him to be as alive and kicking as ever.
Below we look at six songs that define Buddy Guy and his remarkable life.
The six definitive songs of Buddy Guy:
‘Sit and Cry (The Blues)’
One of Buddy Guy’s earliest known recordings, ‘Sit and Cry (The Blues)’ contains the seeds of everything he has ever made: dexterous, meandering guitar lines and a voice that could blow the roof off a church. The song was released as a 45rpm record in 1960 and undoubtedly influenced a great deal of blues guitarists at the time.
At least, those who were lucky enough to hear it. In the early days, despite his talent, Guy struggled to get the airplay he deserved, and it wasn’t until ‘First Time I Met The Blues’ (also released in 1960) that he got any meaningful recognition.
‘Keep It To Myself’
Rich with the sweeping string arrangements and syncopated rhythms of the ’60s soul boom, and ‘Keep It To Myself’ is a perfect example of the commercial production style which would come to define Motown. And yet, behind the neat arrangements, you can hear an agitation and frustration, one probably down to the fact that Guy’s record label at the time refused to record the young musician in the style of his live performances on the basis that he was “just making noise”.
The period of the mid-1960s was especially difficult for Guy because, up until 1967, he had been working as a tow truck driver and playing clubs come nightfall. But ‘Keep It To Myself’ showed that Guy deserved a place at the table. Two years after the release of his first studio album, Guy would join Eric Clapton on stage in a ‘super show’ which also featured the likes of Led Zeppelin and Glen Campbell.
‘I Smell A Rat’
This song, from the three-track EP known as ‘Stone Crazy’, marks the moment Buddy Guy broke away from his label, Chess Records, and unleashed the fiery guitar licks which had been building up inside him throughout the ’60s.
‘I Smell A Rat’ could not have been further from his previous work. With its unrestrained solos, bizarre lyrics, and elastic vocal performance, it is the perfect demonstration of Guy’s ability to remould his sound, absorbing influences from rock n’ roll in a way that keeps his style fresh and innovative.
‘DJ Play My Blues’
In this track, Guy mourns the sorry state of blues music in the early ’80s. In a mellow tone reminiscent of Otis Redding, Guy sings: “Oh Mr. DJ, I wonder why you don’t play much blues anymore.” It could be that Guy’s own career was in trouble.
Without an American label, he had to support himself by placing more emphasis on his live work, touring extensively. Despite this, Guy still managed to find the time to record with labels in Europe and Japan and ended up releasing one of the most remarkable albums of the ’80s, of which ‘DJ Play My Blues’ is the sultry crowning jewel.
Those who have seen the Ricky Gervais series Extras will recognise this track as the one Barry from EastEnders sings to prove his versatility as a performer (Did you know the venue didn’t even have a microphone?). Thankfully, Guy’s recording of the blues standard has a little more charm to it. It’s one of his most beloved songs and ripples with highway-ready cool. It also marked the moment Guy’s career was rejuvenated by the American blues revival of the late ’80s and early ’90s.
‘Mustang Sally’, alongside the album ‘Damn Right I’ve got the Blues’, bought Guy back under the spotlight and won him the 1992 Grammy Award for best contemporary blues recording. Here, we can see Guy looking back to his roots, despite having one eye fixed firmly on the future.
‘The Blues Is Alive and Well’
By 2018, Buddy Guy was over 80-years-old. The album he released that year is a love letter to the music which has defined his life and features a whole host of famous names, including Mick Jagger and Kieth Richards. But it is this track, with its dub-infused groove, is what really showcases Guy’s inexhaustible talent.
Even amongst the horn arrangements, his world-worn voice captures the listener’s attention like nothing else, a voice that has been in the pursuit of the perfect blues song for over half a century.