Since the veteran British writer and editor Alan Harper has written a quite personal memoir of his times encountering the absolute legends of the Chicago Blues scene in 1979 and 1982, I think it is fair enough to share one of my own memories. Although Waiting for Buddy Guy is not a biography of the guitar gunslinger, just as Harper chose to feature him for his book’s title so will I in this review.
I have seen Buddy Guy perform in concert twice. The second time was at the Thunder Bay Blues Festival in or around the year 2010. It was very good, completely professional, all the hits and show pony tricks were included (here comes the white towel as a pick!) but it paled in comparison to that first performance. That date is fused in my mind: June 21, 2001. If the reader’s knowledge of Blues is completely encyclopedic, you’ll know that was the day that John Lee Hooker passed away. Buddy was told about it backstage, as he drained his usual bottle of Courvoisier in his nightly ritual of drowning stage fright in scalding amber alcohol. What followed was a tribute from one master to another. Stuck in some Canadian town that Jesus forgot but the blackflies found, Buddy Guy let it all hang out. Alan Harper witnessed a similar performance when the Blues took the front of the stage and left the show pony in the wings. It was at the Checkerboard club in Chicago. The year was 1982:
‘Phil (Guy) got the second set under way with ”Garbage Man Blues” from his new album and then segued the band quietly into the unmistakable opening of “Stone Crazy.” Brother Buddy wandered over from his poker game and listened from the side for a while, then vanished into the back of the club and came out wheeling hos amplifier. He plugged it in as the band continued to play around him, then strolled around and came back with his guitar. He had a beer in his hand and asked the waitress for a shot of bourbon, no ice …
‘”People come up to me and say the blues is dead, ‘he announced, serious now. “Well it ain’t dead as long as I’m alive. You just have to try and deal with people every day, and you’ll have the blues.” Phil and the band were simmering in the background. “The blues don’t sound good until late at night. If you don’t believe me, get high and go home and turn on your record player.” He nodded toward J.W. (Williams) on the bass and launched into a raucously orthodox version of B.B. King’s “You Upset Me Baby” in a pure, gospel tenor:
Well, she’s thirty-six in the bust, twenty-eight in the waist,
Forty-four in the hip, she got real crazy legs
You upset me baby, yes you upset me baby
Well, like being hit by a falling tree – woman, what’d you do to me?
He stopped, and stopped the band, and let go with a piercing solo, straight out of Live at the Regal in the key of G, while Phil restrained the other musicians from joining in. Then he cut it dead.
‘“That was how B.B. King does it,” said Guy, into the sudden silence, sweat beginning to glisten on his forehead in the close summer air. “This is how Lightning Hopkins used to do it.” As if from the open window of some Houston speakeasy, Guy’s green Guild Starfire picked out the wiry old Texan’s distinctive, cruising bass lines and percussive open treble, note-perfect, as he sang the first few lines of “Mojo Hand”:
I’m goin’ to Louisiana, get me a mojo hand
Gonna fix my woman so she can’t get no other man.’
And on the evening went, and on the Blues went, and on Alan Harper went, and on Waiting for Buddy Guy goes. Besides being a fairly sparkly piece of writing, that anecdote above is Harper’s book in a nutshell. The Blues itself might be a niche within popular music, however within that niche there is a sharing of the history. Ask any music journalist who has covered multiple genres – hell, you can start by asking me – and they’ll tell you that Blues people give the best interviews. They know what came before them, they know what’s out there, and they know that the future of the Blues depends on delivering that history to open minds and open ears. No wonder then at all that everyone from club owners to DJ’s (when that meant dudes with radio shows, not dudes in a club booth), old warriors like James Cotton to then-young studs like Lurrie Bell found the time to sit down with some skinny white student like Harper and share their stories and theories. Junior Wells wanted to get paid for his time. He was an exception.
Alan Harper came to Chicago purely to experience and learn about the Blues. Like many a young white Brit – or Irishmen like Rory Gallagher – he had developed an appreciation, a devotion, to the music of American blacks well before young white Americans ever did. As John Lennon said when The Beatles first arrived in America and a dumb ass reporter asked him which one of them was this Muddy Waters person, ‘Don’t you people know who your great musicians are?’
Harper had arrived a little too late for Muddy, or for Howlin’ Wolf and Lightning Hopkins, but he did get to shake hands with Big Walter Horton who had shaken hands with Robert Johnson, so he was in time to meet with the witnesses of the creation so to speak. Just to read their stories, as carefully recorded and later transcribed by Harper makes Waiting for Buddy Guy an absolute must-have book for the Blues fan.
The only really surprising aspect of the book is, What in hell took so long? Having waited nearly forty years to have this remarkable journey through the clubs of Chicago’s North and South sides published, it fairly begs for an extended epilogue. There is none. Harper notes that by 1982 there were only two clubs in all of Chicago that booked Blues seven nights a week; how many are there now? If Chicago Blues was at the crossroads around the time Ronald Reagan became President, how is it doing now that a former community organizer from Chicago is sitting in the Oval Office?
Still, any book that leaves you wanting more is – well, it’s like a great concert that makes you want the owner to leave the bar open for one more round, one more encore. A tip of the pork pie hat to Alan Harper for sharing what the witnesses’ witnessed.
Waiting for Buddy Guy: Chicago Blues at the Crossroads
By Alan Harper
University of Illinois Press 2016, Trade Paperback
188 pages, b/w illustrated, indexed.
Cover price n/a