A Half Century of A Man & the Blues
Celebrating 50 years of Buddy Guy’s landmark second album
The title of Chicago blues legend Buddy Guy’s Vanguard Records label debut, A Man & the Blues (released, oddly, under the title The Blues To-Day in France), couldn’t have been a more apt description of the first recording to truly capture the guitarist’s chaotic energy and genre-busting talent.
Guy had previously recorded sides for Cobra Records in the late ‘50s, and was signed to Chess Records from 1960 to 1968, with that label releasing his debut LP, I Left My Blues In San Francisco, in 1967. However, Guy was constantly frustrated by the conservatism of the Chess Records approach, and the label’s founder, Leonard Chess, notoriously (and unfairly) criticized Guy’s playing as “noise.”
Guy had moved from Louisiana to the Windy City in 1957 at the tender age of 21 years old, following in the footsteps of many Southern musicians. Much as the great Chicago bluesman Tampa Red helped a young plantation worker by the name of McKinley Morganfield (a/k/a Muddy Waters) after he immigrated to the city, so too did Waters help those who came behind him with finding housing and gigs. Guy landed with Chess Records as a session guitarist backing artists like Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Koko Taylor, and others. To get around the straitjacket placed on his playing by Chess, Guy covertly recorded with his friend and fellow legend Junior Wells under the pseudonym ‘Friendly Chap’, sessions that subsequently resulted in Wells’ classic 1965 album Hoodoo Man Blues.
For I Left My Blues In San Francisco, Guy was saddled with a slate of blues and R&B covers and a wealth of studio musicians that included talents like Matt “Guitar” Murphy, Phil Upchurch (Rotary Connection), and Lafayette Leake. But the label tried to force Guy into the role of a contemporary soul artist by smoothing out the guitarist’s rough edges. It was an unsatisfied Guy that left the safe harbor of Chess Records and was quickly signed to Vanguard Records by music historian and producer Sam Charters. Charters had been responsible for bringing the blues to the primarily folk-oriented label by signing artists as diverse as harmonica wizards James Cotton and Charlie Musselwhite, and country bluesman ‘Mississippi’ John Hurt to the Vanguard roster.
With Guy, Charters had found an explosive blues guitarist in the vein of Magic Sam and Otis Rush who would appeal to rock ‘n’ roll (i.e. white) record buyers. To his credit, Charters eschewed a large studio contingent when producing A Man & the Blues and allowed the guitarist to record with familiar musicians like pianist Otis Spann and fellow Chess session guitarist Wayne Bennett. Charters also let Guy perform a number of his own original songs for the album. With A Man & the Blues recently reissued on vinyl by Craft Recordings in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the album’s release, it’s worth taking another look at why Guy’s sophomore effort has endured to this day.
A Man & the Blues kicks off with the Guy-penned title track, a slow-burning Chicago blues number that sizzles with Guy’s guitar intro and Spann’s background piano. It’s as close as Buddy comes to mimicking one of his idols, B.B. King, and his smooth-as-silk vocal delivery offers a fine counterpoint to the imaginative interplay of single-note guitar solos and rollicking piano play. It’s a performance that threatens to explode but for Guy venting the kinetic energy through his guitar. The mostly-instrumental “I Can’t Quit the Blues” is another Guy original, its up-tempo, Southern soul revue-styled performance and raucous instrumentation putting it in another league altogether from the opening track. With Spann pounding the keys honky-tonk style and a trio of saxophones blaring in the background, Guy embroiders the song with his lively fretwork.
It was de rigueur during the late ‘60s for labels to try and shoehorn traditional blues artists into the bourgeoning soul genre by having them cover a popular R&B song. Vanguard rolled the dice with Guy and his cover of Barrett Strong’s early Motown (1959) hit “Money (That’s What I Want),” which probably didn’t end up like they thought it would. Guy’s rowdy vocals on the song are more Koko than B.B. if you catch my meaning, while his fiery guitar solos are accompanied by Jack Myers’ spry bass lines and Spann’s rhythmic piano licks. Although the song has been covered by everybody from the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to Jerry Lee Lewis and the Searchers, nobody did it quite like Buddy.
Slowing the pace, Guy’s reading of Mercy Dee Walton’s 1953 R&B chart hit “One Room Country Shack” displays a darker mood befitting the song’s socially-conscious lyrics, with Bennett’s shuffling rhythm guitar and Spann’s piano fills providing an instrumental backdrop for Guy’s tortured vocals and cacophonic guitarplay. Guy’s unique take on the English nursery rhyme “Mary Had A Little Lamb” was released as the only single from A Man & the Blues. Although it underperformed on the R&B chart, the song would become a longtime fan favorite, Guy’s energetic fretwork and shouted vocals accompanied by a wall of saxophones, helping push the blues into the future with its soul-drenched instrumentation.
Guy’s “Just Playing My Axe” is mostly that, a semi-instrumental track akin to Bo Diddley records like 1959’s “Say Man,” the song featuring random stream-of-consciousness lyrics shouted above the din. Guy leads his talented band through the jaunty performance with his stinging guitar licks and the swinging horns paving the way, the band conjuring almost three minutes of pure R&B bliss. A cover of B.B. King’s classic “Sweet Little Angel” offers a devastatingly bluesy rendition, Guy providing the song with possibly his best performance on the album, his heartbreak vocals punctuated by Spann’s piano, which is loud in the mix, and flurries of emotional guitar notes.
Trombone player, songwriter, and bandleader Pluma Davis had songs recorded by B.B. King and Bobby “Blue” Bland, and his wonderful “Worry Worry” is a blistering blues dirge done right by Guy and the band. A near-perfect example of 1950s-style blues with a slight jazz flavor, Guy’s guitar playing sounds more like King here than he did on “Sweet Little Angel.” Spann’s trilling piano-play builds the song’s foundation, and the rest of the band provides slight musical accents, but otherwise it’s just Guy’s soulful vocals and slashing guitar that drive the performance. A Man & the Blues closes out with another mostly-instrumental tune that showcases Guy’s six-string abilities and the immense talents of his studio band. “Jam On A Monday Morning” is a R&B rave-up guaranteed to bring an audience to its feet, Spann rocking the ivories, Myers plucking the fat strings and, of course, Guy’s flamethrower guitar.
A Man & the Blues has proven itself an influential classic of blues music, inspiring more than one generation of musicians to pick up a guitar and play. Fellow blues legend Walter Trout considers it “one of the greatest blues albums ever made.” Trout says “when I first heard it as a teenager, I was completely floored. The interplay between Buddy and Otis Spann is almost supernatural. They have a conversation with their instruments and they are both tuned into each other in such a profound and deep way and the music is incredibly powerful while being understated and subtle. I think it is Buddy’s greatest work and a landmark in the history of this genre.” Citing Guy’s influence, Walter adds, “on my album Blues for the Modern Daze, I recorded a song called ‘Blues For My Baby’ and I did it specifically as a tribute to this amazing album by Buddy Guy.”
Nashville blues guitarist Mark Robinson was also influenced by Guy, stating “Buddy Guy is one of the last direct connections to the Delta blues, to the music and the artists. He played with all of the great Chess artists in the ‘50s and ‘60s; he played with and inspired many of the icons of the ‘60s, and he continues to play with current blues and rock artists…his early guitar playing was innovative and exciting, inspired by the older bluesmen, but faster, crazier, and with a harder edge. Buddy has probably had a bigger impact on current blues and rock guitarists than any other blues guitarist.”
Guy’s A Man & the Blues remains a blueprint of traditional guitar-based blues, a bona fide classic that has survived the test of time, finding a new audience in every generation of young blues fans. At 82 years old, Buddy Guy is one of blues music’s revered elder statesmen. The guitarist continues to tour and record, winning a Grammy™ Award for 2015’s Born To Play Guitar and releasing The Blues Is Alive and Well earlier this year. It was with A Man & the Blues that Guy first found his voice, however, and a half-century after its initial release, this timeless recording continues to inspire.
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