As a younger man, George “Buddy” Guy went through some of the worst things a musician could go through. His talents were misused in several ways by record label executives, and as a result, Guy didn’t achieve the same level of recognition many other Chicago blues contemporaries did. But as is often the case, good things happen with a little patience – or in this scenario, a lot of it.
Before Buddy Guy enjoyed all that belated success, he was a journeyman musician from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he was born on July 30, 1936. Guy would move to Chicago in 1957, immediately reaping the benefits of a thriving blues scene then dominated by Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. He would defeat fellow West Side axe-slingers Magic Sam and Otis Rush to win a record contract under Cobra Records. This would last just one year, as Cobra went belly-up in 1959.
Shortly thereafter, Guy signed with Chess Records, Chicago’s leading blues and R&B label. He stayed with Chess from 1959 to 1968, and would record songs mostly uncharacteristic of his blues leanings. Label owner Leonard Chess was apparently unhappy with Guy’s desire to take his loud, passionate live playing style to the studio setting. Only one album was released in this nine-year stint (1967’s Left My Blues in San Francisco), and Guy’s R&B and jazz-influenced singles were left gathering dust in the studio cabinets. During this period, Guy was mostly utilized as a session guitarist, backing up Waters, Wolf and other Chess recording artists. By the late ‘60s, the Chicago blues sound had transcended race barriers and influenced thousands of young rock and blues musicians. Few people outside of Chicago had heard of Buddy Guy. Fortunately, some of these people were among the young rock and blues musicians influenced by Guy’s signature style, including a certain English blues-rocker nicknamed “Slowhand.”
It would be almost twenty years after Guy’s last major performance (the 1969 Supershow concert at Staines, England) before Guy finally got the recognition he deserved. Lifelong fan Eric Clapton invited Guy to the 24 Nights blues concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London. As a result of this successful gig, Guy was signed to Silvertone Records, where he recorded Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues in 1991. This album would earn Guy his first Grammy award at the age of 55. After the 1993 misstep Feels Like Rain (featuring critically-panned duets with country star Travis Tritt and ex-Bad Company frontman Paul Rodgers), Guy rebounded with 1994’s Slippin’ In. This time, he was wise to eschew the ill-advised duets present on the previous release. Since then, Guy has been recording regularly, inviting the right people to collaborate on his records and racking up the awards. His latest release, 2010’s Living Proof, won that year’s Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album.
Even at the age of 75, Buddy Guy remains active as a recording and touring guitarist. He has lost none of that legendary showmanship that, ironically, made Chess Records wary of using him as more than just a backing musician. He’s even become an enterprising businessman on the side – his club, Buddy Guy Legends, is currently one of the hottest nightspots in Chicago. More importantly, Guy’s story is an inspiring reminder that musical genius can only be overlooked for so long.