WHEN I LEFT HOME
By Buddy Guy
Da Capo, $26
Updated: July 25, 2012 6:02AM
The heart of downtown Chicago beat to the pulse of the working man in 1957 when George Buddy Guy left his native Louisiana to jump into Chicago’s electric blues scene.
Guy was 21. He had a Les Paul Gibson guitar and a demo he made at a Baton Rouge, La., radio station.
On this day, Guy is standing in front of his Buddy Guy’s Legends, 700 S. Wabash. He is looking north but also looking back.
Chicago’s beloved musical icon is on his way to a signing of his new memoir, When I Left Home: My Story , further on up the road at Macy’s on State. “The most famous steakhouse I knew over there burned down about four years ago,” Guy says, speaking of George Diamond on South Wabash, home of hickory charcoal-broiled, corn-fed steer steaks.
He is sizzling. He is on a roll.
“Before I married my second wife, I’d come down to South Wabash,” continues Guy, wearing a trademark polka dot shirt. “Everything is a little better than it was when I bought the first Legends [754 S. Wabash]. It was ghetto. It was just a little drinking bar with package goods. Drugs weren’t as popular on the street as they are now. All of my old friends, dead and gone, the only way you got high was whiskey and wine. Now there’s other things.
“The liquor stores and the early morning drinkers. When I had Checkerboard [on East 43rd Street], the railroaders and the stockyards were 24/7. Steel mills were 24/7. I used to open the joint at 7 in the morning and they would be cursing me out, ‘You’re late, man.’ A guy would just be getting off the railroad or coming in from the stockyards. All that’s gone. It’s not coming back. Politicans are hollering at the president and the mayor about jobs. Do you know where all our jobs are going? Technology. Nobody will admit that. I don’t even have a high school education and I see that.
“When I came to Chicago, there were people operating elevators in hotels, switchboard operators. Some young people don’t even know what that is. That job isn’t coming back. You used to see 75 men with jackhammers breaking up that street. Now you have one man with a tractor, wearing a Walkman, listening to music and tearing that street up. Nobody explains that.
“If I was a politican I wouldn’t live long because I would tell the truth.”
Stories worth telling
When I Left Home travels well in a down-home style that is uniquely Guy. The memoir was written with Los Angeles-based David Ritz, who has collaborated on autobiographies with Ray Charles, Etta James and Grandmaster Flash. Ritz gets out of the way and lets Guy play. The 260-page book is peppered with photos from Chicago’s Paul Natkin, including nice jam shots of Guy with B.B. King and an adoring Eric Clapton.
“This is my first experience with a book like this,” Guy says. “Some of the things I’m talking about now wouldn’t have crossed my mind if it hadn’t been for David. He had that computer in his hand and he’d come up with things. Of course I had to straighten him out on a few things about songwriting over the past 60 years. He’d tell me how this particular song was about this songpicker and I’d say, ‘Hold it now, you can get your computer all you want, but I can straighten you on that. And I did. That’s a history thing.
“When I was teaching myself how to play, I studied the guys who were way before me. I’m proud to have learned from the guys who taught Muddy Waters a lot: Son House and Fred McDowell. I had a chance to play and get drunk with them. I didn’t really drink. Bonnie Raitt tried to do it, Eric Clapton tried to do it, Stevie [Ray Vaughan]. All of them tried to follow, because they figured if you had to be a real blues player, you had to get drunk. You can’t learn nothing drunk. And I still don’t know all the blues songs. No one knows the history of blues music.
“It’s almost like biblical days.”
Guy is a terrific storyteller even without the prompts of a journalist. He will never forget Mel’s Hideaway, Roosevelt and Loomis, an urban juke joint named after Freddie King’s 1960 hit “Hide Away.” In a snappy cadence, Guy writes about a man who wandered into the Hideway complaining about problems he was having with his significant other. The bartender asked the gentleman how he solved the problem. The man revealed a paper bag from which he pulled the bloody, cut-off head of a woman.
The Hideaway did not have a coat check.
“Memories like that don’t ever leave,” Guy says. “We didn’t have that kind of stuff in Louisiana. We had a killing once in a while, but I had never heard of anything like that before. That was one of the better blues clubs, but it didn’t last long enough to make a name.
“I’d play the Hideway on Friday; Saturday I was at 708 [708 E. 47th St.]; Sunday at Theresa’s [in a basement at 48th and Indiana]. It went week to week like that. Muddy, Little Walter, Junior [Wells], all playing clubs in a circle like that. We weren’t making enough money to even get to Maxwell Street for a hot dog. You’d wake up the next morning with enough for bus fare to get back to the clubs. I’d catch a trolley to State Street. I’d have my guitar and amplifier on the bus. And people would be hanging out of the bus. It would be running 24/7. Then the next bus would come around the corner and it would be full, running 24/7.”
Guy devotes an entire chapter to his evolution at Chess Records, where he learned how to differentiate between his persona as a wild concert performer and an accommodating studio musician. He also details songwriting royalty battles between Leonard Chess and Chess studio head Willie Dixon, each shrewd businessmen.
“It happened not only with a lot of stuff I wrote, but things other people wrote,” Guy said. “Every time I went in with a song, some of them weren’t worth a damn. But if they thought it was OK, they’d say ‘I gotta get a piece of that.’ For example, Eric Clapton was called in to do the soundtrack for ‘Rush’ [the 1992 soundtrack that featured “Tears in Heaven”]. We made a live record called ‘Blues from Big Bill’s Copacabana’ [reissued with that title in 1967 on Chess].”
The original recording was “Folk Festival of the Blues” and was made in 1963 at the Copa Cabana, 3258 W. Roosevelt. The “folk festival” was emceed by club owner/Chicago DJ Big Bill Hill and featured Guy’s band as the house band. “Headliners were Muddy, Wolf and Sonny Boy [Williamson],” Guy said. “They told me to warm up. They kept the track [“Don’t Know Which Way To Go”] and put it on the album because I was Buddy Guy. Eric makes the soundtrack for the movie, uses that song, the movie comes out. On the record it is mine, but in the movie it is a Willie Dixon song. I had to find the original record in Europe to check it out. But that stuff still goes on now.” Guy goes into details in When I Left Home, writing how Lightnin’ Hopkins stood up to Dixon.
He bears no ill feelings towards Marie Dixon, the widow of Dixon. “I still talk to Marie,” he said. “ I just speak my mind. Some of that stuff I don’t even know that Marie knew was going on in the early days. She wasn’t a musician. And I was a youngster. I didn’t know nothing.”
He had just left home.