Eric Clapton once described him as the best guitar player alive. In fact, it's been through the support of his many famous and respected admirers that blues master Buddy Guy has come to the attention of rock audiences, from touring with the Rolling Stones in 1970 to soliciting guest appearances from Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Mark Knopfler for Damn Right, I've Got The Blues, the Grammy-winning 1991 album that both reestablished his stature in the music community and marked his greatest commercial success to date.
Guy began playing his instrument as a teenager, inspired by such Southern blues greats as Lightnin' Slim and Guitar Slim. The young guitarist left Baton Rouge in 1957 to test his chops in Chicago, the urban capital of the electric blues. Guy was on the verge of starving when a merciful stranger led him to the 708 Club and persuaded that evening's performer, Otis Rush, to allow him to sit in. Guy's impromptu performance earned him a steady gig at the club, and he was soon playing regularly at other local venues. His fierce, visceral style caught the ear of venerable composer/bassist Willie Dixon, who helped Guy land a contract with the noted blues label Chess Records. Though Guy was originally signed by Leonard Chess as a singer, he became a house guitarist for the company, playing on records by such legendary artists as Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf in addition to making radiant recordings on his own. (Waters was an early Guy supporter, having caught his show at the 708 Club).
Since Guy's arrangement with Chess prevented him from getting credit for his work with artists on other labels, he eventually switched to Vanguard. Some of his most memorable work on Vanguard was done in collaboration with the great harmonica player Junior Wells [see entry], who Guy first met in a Chicago club and with whom he maintained a close association until Wells' death of cancer in early 1998. (The duo's last concert, recorded in 1993, was released as Last Time Around —Live at Legends). Some of Guy's most acclaimed solo albums have been recorded live, including the Alligator release Stone Crazy!, one of his personal favorites, which captures a 1978 performance in France.
Although many of Guy's fans insist that he is best appreciated in concert, his recordings through the '90s have proved critical and popular favorites. Among them are three star-studded Grammy-winning albums: 1991's Damn Right, I've Got the Blues, 1993's Feels Like Rain (featuring Bonnie Raitt, Paul Rodgers, John Mayall, and Travis Tritt), and 1994's Slippin' In (with the Double Trouble rhythm section, pianist Johnnie Johnson, and guitarist David Grissom). Heavy Love (1998) features Jonny Lang and Steve Cropper. In 1993 Guy received Billboard's Century Award. He tours constantly, appearing at blues clubs and festivals around the world. Guy owns a Chicago club called Buddy Guy's Legends, where he can be found both performing and enjoying the playing of other acts when he's in town.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).