Rhino 70280


Chess/MCA 9337


Vanguard 141/42

It never fails: a legendary bluesman, after years of scuffling that brought little financial success but made him well-known among black listeners and later a legend among white aficionados, finally wins mainstream acclaim for an LP crowded with white pop stars, heavy on the rock bombast, and scanty on the soul–in Buddy Guy’s case, last year’s Grammy-winning Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues, on Silvertone. All of a sudden “greatest hits” are unearthed all over the place, and record companies rush in from every direction to empty their vaults and capitalize on this “newfound” talent.

At least the moguls didn’t wait until after Buddy Guy was dead, but it’s sure taken them a long time to catch up with him. Guy’s guitar fury–patterned after legendary Louisiana fretboard madman Eddie “Guitar Slim” Jones, with heavy dollops of T-Bone Walker’s elegant harmonic sense thrown in–was first unleashed on the Chicago recording scene in 1958, when he cut a few sides for Artistic, a subsidiary of Eli Toscano’s Cobra label. Along with Magic Sam and Otis Rush, Guy pioneered what would later be termed the west-side school of Chicago blues. In 1960, after Cobra folded, Guy went to Chess Records and stayed with them until about 1967.

Guy and his west-side cohorts created a new, younger music, as different in its way from the extant Chicago blues of Muddy Waters and his disciples as that music had been from the acoustic Delta blues that sired it. The west-side men took the emotional heat that had smoldered beneath the surface of the older style and brought it to the forefront. Furious guitar arpeggios and thrashing chords screamed and splintered beneath vocals that seemed to quiver on the verge of hysteria; the lyrics evoked lust, despair, even madness and suicidal depression with a brutal nakedness that recalled Robert Johnson’s nightmarish poetic vision. The tormented sense of displacement that permeated this music caught the ear of rebellious young European musicians and helped give rise to the 60s blues-rock explosion.

The Very Best of Buddy Guy, on California’s Rhino Records, is essentially a Guy sampler, ranging from some of his classic Artistic sides through a few sessions from the early 80s. Despite the high quality of much of the work, there’s a sloppiness to this enterprise: the early songs are out of order, and there’s a jump of nearly seven years between the mid-70s material and the early-80s cuts. This makes it difficult to follow Guy’s development, from Young Turk abrim with fire and technical virtuosity to incendiary metallic thrasher given to equal parts ascendant glory and out-of-control excess.

On their own terms, however, many of these sides are first-rate (several are also duplicated on the Chess and Vanguard anthologies, so I’ll concentrate on those that are unique to this set). “First Time I Met the Blues,” the opener, is Guy’s classic 1960 Chess recording of a Little Brother Montgomery composition–piercing staccato guitar shards laid over a moaning horn ensemble, with Guy’s voice screaming a tale of hallucinatory nightmare over the top.

We then go back to Baton Rouge in 1957, when Guy cut some demos at radio station WXOK and sent them to Leonard Chess, looking for his first big break. “The Way You Been Treating Me” makes the Chess sessions sound slick and contemporary by comparison: a single sax moans in the background, and everything is muddy and unseparated. But already the elements are here: Guy’s guitar bursts forth in rough staccato flourishes, challenging the boundaries of traditional blues sparseness, while he screams lyrics of desperation.

You can hear Guy beginning to unleash himself on the Artistic sides, “Sit and Cry (the Blues)” and “This Is the End.” There are more horns on hand and Willie Dixon’s bottom-heavy production provides an appropriately ominous landscape for Guy’s tormented excursions. Otis Rush handles guitar chores on “Sit and Cry” (Artistic apparently had ideas of marketing Guy as a singer), but on “This Is the End” Guy cuts loose with a savage, remarkably modern-sounding solo.

Of special interest to modern listeners is “Five Long Years,” the Eddie Boyd classic that’s since become a Guy trademark. This version was recorded on the Blue Thumb label (on colored vinyl, the notes dutifully tell us) in 1970, and it’s an exquisite acoustic summit between Guy, Junior Wells, and pianist Junior Mance. Wells’s harsh-toned harp, with sharp tongue stops and wide vibrato, provides the hard-edged bluesiness, while Guy and Mance skitter lightly around each other.

The other gems here are the live cuts, especially a thunderous and terrifying rendition of “First Time I Met the Blues.” Recorded in an unnamed south-side club about 1970 for a British documentary film called Chicago Blues, it was originally released on the British Red Lightnin’ label. “When You See the Tears From My Eyes” and “Ten Years Ago” both feature Rolling Stone Bill Wyman, unobtrusive on bass, but the real delight is the steaming synergy Guy and Wells achieve. Guy skirts the edge of hysteria like a hound dog on the scent, and Wells’s tone is glorious–alternately powerful and sweet.

Much of the rest is unremarkable. “A Man of Many Words,” an early-70s Atco release, clumsily attempts to meld Guy into a tepid funk-rock arrangement obviously based on Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle.” Despite the presence of both Dr. John and Eric Clapton, it never catches fire. Likewise the final three offerings–“Blues at My Baby’s House,” “She Suits Me to a T,” and “Just Teasin”‘–date from a relatively undistinguished session for the British JSP label in 1981. Much of the problem on these later cuts is the production, which is clean, well spaced, and tasteful–it doesn’t come close to recapturing the raucous immediacy of the old Chess and Artistic 45s.

More valuable to the connoisseur of Guy’s early days is The Complete Chess Studio Recordings, a two-disc set that presents, in chronological order, the bulk of his output for that legendary studio. This was the youthful Guy in full bloom, a passionately dedicated musician whose raw emotion was perfectly captured by the Chess brothers’ deceptively primitive recording techniques.

The power of these recordings is still remarkable–Guy spews out his words as if they’re searing his throat while the accompaniment groans and thrashes behind him. Although his guitar isn’t featured as consistently as it would be later, there’s plenty of his patented rococo flamboyance to marvel at. Most impressive is the emotional immediacy: those who’ve seen Guy in recent years, when he’s too often tended to drift from intensity to crowd-pleasing trickery and back again, will be astounded at the way he immerses himself, song after song, in his performance.

Guy’s Chess output was as diverse as it was passionate. Some numbers–Willie Dixon’s “I Cry and Sing the Blues,” Guy’s own “I Suffer With the Blues”–sound like dispatches from the innermost realms of hell; they stand in stark contrast to the good-timey lightheartedness of novelty numbers like “Gully Hully” and “Lip Lap Louie” and the instrumental “Skippin’.”

Most fascinating is the evolution of Guy’s guitar work. On the earliest recordings he bangs out short phrases, single notes, and chords with a metallic percussiveness like an anvil. The busy, arpeggio-laden style that eventually became his trademark seems to have evolved as a kind of bridge between that early sparseness and the writhing, serpentine convolutions he’s known for today. An especially revealing example is “Let Me Love You Baby,” from December of 1960. It was Guy’s fifth Chess release, recorded during his second session for them, and you can already hear him loosening up and pouring on the heat.

It was probably inevitable that a musician of Guy’s prowess would attempt to expand his horizons. Bobby Timmons’s “Moanin'” is an audacious experiment, but it works–Guy is no jazz guitarist, but he affects a mellow tone to complement his crisp, tasteful attack. Pianist Lafayette Leake provides a fleet, sparkling accompaniment. In “Keep It to Myself (A.K.A. Keep It to Yourself),” recorded in 1966, Guy leans in a more commercial R&B direction with a riff vaguely reminiscent of Lowell Fulson’s “Tramp.” Guy’s vehement, tormented wail is hardly the kind of thing soul singers of that era specialized in, but the horns (probably arranged by tenor man Gene Barge) boot behind him with a funky, almost Stax-like danceability. Then there are breezy, pop-tinged numbers like “My Love Is Real,” complete with tinkling piano and gently riffing horns. Guy was facile enough to do justice to the entire spectrum Chess threw at him.

Yet the most memorable moments here are those when Guy unleashes the full force of his fury. He could wail out an affectionate paean to his lady (“She Suits Me to a Tee”) with more intensity than most singers could summon on a cry of heartbreak, and songs that have since become Guy trademarks–“Stone Crazy,” “My Time After Awhile”–are displayed here in all their raw, youthful glory. “Stone Crazy” is especially notable: seven minutes long–a length almost unheard of in 1961–it’s virtually a one-song distillation of Guy’s genius, from the T-Bone-like articulation of his guitar intro to the percussive symmetry of his solo, overlaid by that quivering, desperate-sounding voice.

My Time After Awhile is an overview of Guy’s output for the Vanguard label, which he joined in the middle 60s (the chronology is a bit confusing since Guy was supposedly contracted to Chess until 1967 or ’68, but the earliest Vanguard cuts date to 1965). Though Vanguard was a big-time commercial label, it seems to have been determined to allow Guy to express himself fully; his in-studio work fuses his passion with a riveting sense of restraint, while the live cuts demonstrate on wax the over-the-top flamboyance that had long been his trademark in performance.

Unfortunately, except for a spellbinding cover of Guitar Slim’s “The Things I Used to Do,” those live cuts–which also include “24 Hours of the Day” and a riotously histrionic “You Give Me Fever”–don’t feature much guitar, although Guy’s voice is out front in all its fractured, larynx-tearing glory. His guitar is prominently featured on the studio sides, however. Some might think Guy sounds uncomfortably reined in by the slickly professional major-label surroundings, but to my ears he achieves a balance between intensity and sweet-toned musicality he’s seldom aspired to since.

The opener, “A Man and the Blues,” sets the tone: Guy elegantly weaves his leads among pianist Otis Spann’s tinkling meditations, inserting subtle bends and lithe meanderings through the changes. Guy’s agonized lyrics (“The way I feel sometimes / I feel just like drinkin’ me some gasoline / Strikin’ me a match / And blow my fool self up in steam”) cut in over his guitar in a quavering, low-key moan.

Perhaps the most revelatory cuts here are the duets between Guy and harpist-vocalist Junior Wells. One can’t help feeling a bit nostalgic listening to these performances; the two haven’t worked together on a regular basis for years. This is how they were meant to be heard: playing as if with one soul, weaving pathos and puckishness around each other with a combination of hard-core dedication and ebullient joy.

Wells is featured on “Stormy Monday Blues,” “Five Long Years,” “Checking on My Baby,” “So Sad This Morning,” and Tampa Red’s “It Hurts Me Too.” Except for the Tampa Red tune, which finds Wells straining for effect over the clumsy thumpings of an unnamed bassist who can’t figure out the chord changes, all these cuts are stellar. Wells hasn’t sounded this unforced and serious in years. These tracks show him and Guy at their synergistic best–there’s a minimum of carrying on and a maximum of commitment, delivered with a feel for bluesy subtlety that neither musician often approximates anymore.

Again, we’re treated to fresh versions of songs that have become Guy standards. “My Time After Awhile” is a solid if somewhat toned-down version of the Chess classic; B.B. King’s “Sweet Little Angel” is a chestnut today but was probably fresh to the audience Guy was trying to reach in the 60s. These days Guy tends to overplay the tune, but here he remains in a delightfully restrained groove, bending strings like King but infusing his own trademark intensity with a sharp timbre and aggressive attack.

The masterpiece of the set, however, is Mercy Dee Walton’s “One Room Country Shack,” a lugubrious tale of loneliness and isolation usually delivered with more than a hint of irony. But Guy strips it to its stark essence, and the result is devastating. Pianist Spann rumbles ominously through the low registers as Guy’s guitar pierces the air with muted cries, and his voice moans out the words in a quaking near-whisper.

Guy’s version of Walton’s tune evokes a sense of desolation and hopelessness in a sharecropper’s cabin on a moonless southern night. By the mid-60s, those bad old days were long past for Guy, who’d spent his childhood in dire poverty in Louisiana. But with the genius of memory that informs all great blues artists, he re-creates those moments of despair and necessity that gave rise to both the black southern dream of freedom and the great mid-century migration to the north–and, in the process, to the blues itself.