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BOOK REVIEW: ‘When I Left Home’

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WHEN I LEFT HOME: MY STORY
By Buddy Guy with David Ritz
Da Capo Press, $26, 267 pages, illus.

Let us now praise Buddy Guy: six Grammy awards, Billboard magazine's Century Award, membership in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the Blues Foundation's Keeping the Blues Alive Award. And he owns a Chicago blues club. But almost all of these awards and accolades came to the blues guitarist and singer after he was 55 years old. For decades he was admired by his colleagues and revered by English rockers like the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. But outside that relatively small circle, he was not famous and not particularly successful. At one time in the 1960s, he needed money so badly he took a job driving a tow truck. As late as the 1980s, he had no deal with a major label. He paid his dues as he played the blues.

But does Mr. Guy feel bitter? To the contrary, "When I Left Home" is filled with high spirits, good humor, magnanimity toward old foes and gratitude toward those who helped him. He tells his story in the earthy, salty style of the blues itself, honest about feelings, frank about sex, all imbued with an unconquerable love of life, even (especially?) at its hardest. Mr. Guy owes a debt to his co-author, David Ritz, who has helped capture the sound, the rhythms and the raw energy of the language bluesmen speak, including the familiar incestuous epithet, which, depending upon mood, can mean "Hello, friend, " or "I'm going to hurt you."

Buddy Guy was born in rural Louisiana on July 30, 1936, the son of loving parents who worked hard in the fields and taught him the work ethic that would later sustain him in hard times. Eager to see if he could make a living playing electric guitar in the big time, he came to South Side Chicago on Sept. 25, 1957. He quickly learned that in order to survive as a blues guitarist he had to do more than simply play well. He also had to learn how to put on a show for his fans. His first model in this endeavor was Guitar Slim:

"From the back of the ballroom, coming through the door, was this giant fat man carrying [Slim] on his shoulders ... he was slick as grease and dressed to kill ... flaming red suit, flaming red shoes, flaming red-dyed hair ... he wore his guitar low on his hip like a gunslinger ... he never sat down. He played his guitar between his legs ... behind his back ... on his back, played it jumping off the stage [and] hanging from the rafters. Wasn't nothing Slim wouldn't do."

In South Side blues bars, the audience often consisted of "the night shift from the slaughter houses." On pay day they could be a tough, unruly crowd. Subtlety, nuance, sophistication and exquisite Ellingtonian tonal shadings were not what they were paying for. Mr. Guy gave them what they wanted:

"No matter how cold or hot the evening, I'd come marching in [the front door], my guitar screaming. I might march into the men's room and play from there. I might march into the ladies' room and play from there. I'd leap up on the bar and play flat on my back ... I'd do any goddamn thing to get them to like me."

He belted out "country blues jacked up with big-city electricity" using "fuzz tones and buzzin' and distorting the amps, riding high on electricity." He was a showman, but he also became one of the most sought-after session players and sidemen in Chicago. Leonard Chess, legendary owner of Chess Records, had enough ego-driven stars on his label. What he needed were supporting players who could sublimate their egos for a couple of hours. Mr. Guy quickly learned that you got called back for recording sessions (and got paid) if you met the requirements:

"Listen. Figure out what the star was doing. Figure out what the star needed. Support the star. Help the star sound better. Don't worry about bringing no attention to me because the session ain't about me. Stay the hell out of the spotlight."

In the 1950s, the blues audience was almost entirely black. In the 1960s, white audiences started listening to the blues, and there were more and better-paying gigs. The blues hit a dry patch in the 1970s, only to come back in the 1980s. Through it all, success and failure, Mr. Guy kept on playing.

The book is rich in anecdotes, hilarious and tragic, about the giants he knew: his benefactor and great friend Muddy Waters, the formidable John Lee Hooker, Mr. Guy's musical partner, the troubled harmonica player, Junior Wells, Howlin' Wolf, B.B. King and Albert King. Near the end of the book he characteristically pays tribute to those who came before him. These were "the men I heard as a boy - the men sitting on the porch, making quiet magic with their guitars, and singing the sun to sleep behind those white and gold fields of cotton and corn." Quite a tribute. Quite a book. Quite a Guy.

• William F. Gavin is the author of "Speechwright: An Insider's Take on Political Rhetoric" (Michigan State University Press).

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