Sorting great Guy from good Guy a big job

Sorting great Guy from good Guy a big job
April 20, 2010
by Mike Devlin
Times Colonist

When sifting through a blues legend's catalogue of work, you'll only find gold if you sleuth with an ear for quality.

Case in point: Buddy Guy. Though he's a certifiable giant of the form, the excessive amount of material available today -- Guy's music has been issued on dozens of record labels -- makes sorting the good from the not-so-good feel as if you're rolling a stone uphill.

Needless to say, Guy is worth the grunt work. The 73-year-old is beloved by musicians and fans for his powerful, expressive guitar-playing, a fusion of everyone from Muddy Waters to Willie Dixon, and for his gruff, street-wise manner of singing.

Guy returns to Victoria tonight for a performance at the Royal Theatre. He isn't getting any younger, so if you miss this one you're a stone-crazy fool.

Need convincing? Let's call these songs from the Grammy-winning Chicago bluesman, food for thought.

1. Mustang Sally, from Damn Right, I've Got the Blues (1991). Though it was written by Sir Mack Rice and popularized by Wilson Pickett, most in the modern era consider Mustang Sally to be Guy's signature song. A vocal workout more than anything else, Mustang Sally is a tribute to his lovely, well-weathered voice. This is one heck of a showcase.

2. Damn Right, I've Got the Blues, from Damn Right, I've Got the Blues (1991). Guy's comeback (which also doubled as his long-awaited commercial breakthrough) was a reminder of his power and presence. Stars like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Bonnie Raitt and Mark Knopfler lined up for cameos, but Damn Right, I've Got the Blues was his planet. Everybody else was just visiting.

3. Baby Please Don't Leave Me, from Sweet Tea (2001). If I were going to put the spotlight on one latter-day Guy album, it would be Sweet Tea. And if I had to pick one song from that album as proof of the singer-guitarist's ongoing excellence, the obvious choice would be this riveting Junior Kimbrough original. Baby Please is the rawest, most provocative song Guy ever recorded.

4. Let Me Love You Baby, from The Complete Chess Studio Sessions (1992). During the first half of the 1960s, Guy was churning out classics for the Chess label, which were compiled on The Complete Chess Studio Sessions. Among the gems during his early years was this bouncy Willie Dixon original, notable particularly for Guy's wild-man delivery and expressive guitar work.

5. Stone Crazy, from The Complete Chess Studio Sessions (1992). His years at Chess featured a who's-who of heavy-hitters, among them Matt "Guitar" Murphy, Otis Spann and Sonny Boy Williamson. Despite the star power present, Guy still had the goods above all: On this slow-burner, he shrieks, shouts and struts with glee.

6. Someone Else Is Steppin' In (Slippin' Out, Slippin' In), from Slippin' In (1994). Damn Right, I've Got the Blues put Guy back in the spotlight for good. Purists who thought he favoured rock over blues, however, had a problem with many of his recordings from the era. Those with closed ears missed out on the Grammy-winning Slippin' In (overseen by Jimi Hendrix producer Eddie Kramer), whose title track is hot to the touch.

7. In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning, from Hoodoo Man Blues (1965). Because he was still under contract with Chess, Guy had to record under the alias Friendly Chap for this estimable effort from Junior Wells's Chicago Blues Band. As a singer and harp-blower, few were better than Wells, but the project is indebted to Guy's restrained guitar work, heard to fantastic effect in this cover of the song made popular by Frank Sinatra.

8. My Time After Awhile, from Live: The Real Deal (1996). One of his earliest successes recast in the live setting with solid support from GE Smith and the Saturday Night Live band? That's an easy sell, especially for those who like their Guy a little rough around the edges. In the live setting, he's a radical performer, equal parts James Brown and Muddy Waters. The spirits of both, along with a rootin' tootin' live audience, turn up on this mesmerizing live cut.

9. Mary Had a Little Lamb, from A Man and the Blues (1964). Though it was his first record outside the comfy confines of Chess, there was no stopping Guy on A Man and the Blues; it features not only some of his signature cuts but also one of his best-known originals, Mary Had a Little Lamb. Fittingly, it was one of Guy's many disciples, Stevie Ray Vaughan, who made the song his own for his career-starting debut, 1983's Texas Flood.

10. Hard Time Killing Floor, from Blues Singer (2003). Though he rarely gets full credit as an acoustic guitarist, Guy impressed during 2003's Blues Singer, a sensational bare-bones outing. Many thought he played it too safe -- the usual suspects (Eric Clapton, B.B. King) are here, and the source material (John Lee Hooker, Son House) hardly challenges -- but his Skip James cover that kicks at the door of darkness until it bleeds daylight is unmissable.

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