Book Review: When I Left Home: My Story
Book Reviewed by Robert Fleming
When I Left Home, the memoir of legendary blue guitarist Buddy Guy, with support from noted writer David Ritz, traces the musician from his sharecropper roots in Lettsworth, Louisiana, in a shack with no water or light, to his first strummings on a battered guitar with two strings and his initial exposure to the blues overheard when a neighbor played the classic Lonnie Johnson’s tune, “Tomorrow Night.”
Guy doesn’t spare the reader his grueling apprentice time before his skills approached professional level. It was trial-and-error as Guy taught himself to play the basic blues chords, growing better over time, until he hopped a train for the Windy City in 1957. With a rough demo cut and his Les Paul Gibson guitar, he settled into Chicago’s bustling blues scene but it was tough going at first; in fact, he called his father to send train fare back home after six months.
But it didn’t take long to find session work with some of the finest blues musicians there: Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Otis Rush, and Howlin’ Wolf. Guy’s electrifying stage persona and blazing guitar runs made him a crowd favorite with the local and national bands. He was transformed as a brilliant songwriter and session guitarist for many of his blues idols. The book features some great anecdotes about the early Chess Record sessions and about the wild characters who developed the urban Chicago blues sound. Look for his colorful descriptions of Junior Wells, Little Walter, and John Hooker.
After being a sideman with Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, he became a band leader in the 1960s, and his patented licks were copied by many of the guitarists of the day: Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and even Hendrix. He played with the Grateful Dead at the Fillmore East and toured with Mick Jagger and the boys.
Some consider Guy “the greatest blues guitarist ever.” In his words, he put it very plainly: “The blues came through them in a beautiful tone, straight from the heart of the guitarist to the hearts of the folks listening. The softness of those notes did something to the soul.” (Pg. 83)
All of the hard work paid off. Guy won six Grammies and the Billboard Magazine’s Century Award. Also, he was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005. He still lives in Chicago and runs a blues club on the Chicago’s Southside.
Assisted by Ritz, the co-author of celebrity books by Ray Charles and Etta James, Guy gives the reader an intimate look at the raw origins of the urban blues and the rowdy pioneers who created it. His observations are candid, bold, and occasionally very funny. It still has that down-home feel like cheese grits, scrambled eggs, and buttermilk biscuits. The book should be considered a blues classic.