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Book Review

When I Left Home, My Story

Buddy Guy with David Ritz 

Buddy Guy book cover art large

By Nicole Auriemma & Linda Cain

George Buddy Guy’s life is a rags to riches tale of how the son of a poor family of sharecroppers – who lived in a shack that had no electricity, running water or glass windows – left behind his loved ones in Louisiana to head for the bright lights of Chicago, in search of his dreams and to seek out his heroes in the blues. Not only did Buddy get to meet and work alongside the legends who inspired him – everyone from Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, John Lee Hooker and B.B. King – he also overcame many obstacles, as a stranger in a strange land, and worked extremely hard to achieve success beyond his wildest imagination.

The book’s coauthor David Ritz, who is also the coauthor of many bestselling musician autobiographies including Ray Charles and Etta James, chronicles Buddy’s life with great attention to detail and injects each chapter of this fascinating story with colorful language and exciting anecdotes that keep the reader turning pages to learn more about this world renowned guitar icon.

“The Wolf made sixty-five. When I think of how hard he lived, I’m amazed he made it that long. When he died, I couldn’t help but think how much I loved these men who were my teachers, fathers, and friends. I had to be the luckiest guy alive to take the train on September 25, 1957, and get to Chicago when these beautiful guys were still going strong,” recalls the Louisiana transplant.

Beginning with the first chapter, the reader learns about Buddy’s hardscrabble rural lifestyle and his close-knit family. As a young boy, he first heard blues from itinerant traveling musicians and the jukebox at the general store in town.  From the moment he heard a 78 rpm of John Lee Hooker’s, “Boogie Chillen”  in 1949,  the 13-year-old Buddy became hooked on the blues and was compelled to learn to play the guitar. For Christmas, his loving father bought him a used two-string acoustic guitar for “four dollars and thirty-five cent”.

When I Left Home is not only a biography of Buddy Guy, but a history lesson of how the blues was born in the United States and spread across the ocean to influence future rock legends like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Keith Richards.  Buddy reminisces about meeting the British blues rockers, along with U.S. guitar heroes like Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. All of them point to Buddy’s innovative guitar style as a major influence.

Buddy doesn’t mince words when recalling his tumultuous professional and personal relationship with his talented, but troubled, musical partner Junior Wells.  “The thing that made the bumpy ride with Junior Wells worthwhile was the music. Even though we never made big money as a team and even though no one could never convince Junior that he wasn’t gonna replace James Brown, our chemistry was nothing they could make in a science lab. It was magical.”

 Buddy also has great stories about Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Lightnin’ Slim, Lonnie Johnson, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Little Walter (to name a few). The reader learns how each of these bluesman influenced Buddy and why he became a legend himself.

 In each chapter Ritz shows us many sides of Buddy -- as a son, a student, a teacher, a friend, a husband, and a father. While taking us along the journey of Buddy’s life, Ritz illustrates many of his subject’s characteristics and the lessons he learned throughout all of these roles in his life, like getting his first deal at Chess Records.

 “The Stones hung around while I recorded ‘My Time After a While’ and afterward gave me some kind words. Them Stones have always been good to me. Later in my career they came in at just the right time. They paid me big respect, and I give back the same respect. Wasn’t for them and other guys like Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, blues wouldn’t have the worldwide recognition it has today.”

 It is hard not to grasp how humble, ambitious and grateful Buddy was, and still is to this day. The author presents Buddy’s personality in a way that makes the reader feel they got to know Buddy on a personal level.

Buddy has dedicated the book to Muddy Waters, “the father to us all.”  When I Left Home illustrates how deeply the blues influenced this living legend’s life and how he stopped at nothing to share his music with the world. This autobiography is highly recommended reading, especially since the author arranges the book in a way that makes it fun to read and hard to close.

After ending the final chapter, Ritz leaves us with one of Buddy’s quotes in which he says, “I’m believing that the blues makes life better wherever it goes----and I’ll tell you why: even when the blues is sad, it turns your sadness to joy. And ain’t that a beautiful thing?”

Hopefully future editions of When I Left Home will include a couple updated chapters on the many recent honors bestowed upon Mr. Buddy Guy, including his performing at the Red White and Blues concert at the White House for President Barack Obama and being presented with the Kennedy Award, America’s highest cultural honor, alongside Led Zeppelin, Dustin Hoffman and David Letterman in Washington, D.C. on December 2, 2012.

Now ain’t that a beautiful thing?



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