Friday, May 20, 2011

Essential Recordings: Buddy Guy - A Man & The Blues

One of the neat things about starting a blues collection when I did in the mid 80's was that there was very little chance of making an unwise investment.  At the time, most blues sections in record stores consisted of about two rows of LPs, CDs, or cassettes, and most of those selections were from familiar names......B. B. King, of course, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, maybe some Lightnin' Hopkins or John Lee Hooker on the traditional side, then you had Bobby Bland, Little Milton, Lattimore, Johnnie Taylor, Denise LaSalle, and Bobby Rush on the soul side.  There were also usually several albums from Alligator Records (Albert Collins, Son Seals, Lonnie Brooks, Johnny Winter, Lonnie Mack) and Hightone (Robert Cray, Joe Louis Walker, Otis Rush) and Rounder or Black Top Records (Johnny Copeland, Roomful of Blues, Ronnie Earl, Duke Robillard). 

Now, as you look over that list of artists, you'd be hard-pressed to think of any bad releases from any of them.  Everything I picked up in the stores or via mail order was something new and incredible that made me want to hear more music just like it.  How cool is it to strike gold every time you go digging???!!!

Buddy Guy

One such time occurred in October of 1987.  I remember it because I had just finished taking a grueling eight-hour engineering exam and was unwinding a little bit before making the ninety-minute drive home.  I decided to hit one of the malls in town and check out a record store.  I had not been in this one since I started listening to the blues, so I wasn't even sure if they had a blues section, but they did.  They had several selections from a record company I was not familiar with called Vanguard Records.  I picked up a couple of cassettes from the from Junior Wells and one from Buddy Guy.  I had found several of their songs on some collections from Atlantic and Chess, but had not seen any complete albums by either of them until that night.

The Buddy Guy album was called A Man and the Blues and I had heard nothing about it.  I knew Buddy Guy from mostly reputation.  I had heard that he was a big influence on some of my other favorites (Clapton, Hendrix, etc...), but had only heard a few tracks.  Naturally, I was curious about an entire Buddy Guy album.

Buddy Guy had recorded on a fairly regular basis for Chess Records over the years (1960 - 67), producing classic tracks like "First Time I Met The Blues," "Leave My Girl Alone," "Let Me Love You," "Ten Years Ago," and "My Time After A While."  His vocals were nearly as potent as his no-holds-barred guitar.  He also recorded with many of the other Chess musicians as well as with his friend and musical partner Wells on his essential recording for Delmark, Hoodoo Man Blues.   

Fred Below

When Guy came to Vanguard Records in 1967, his first solo release was A Man and the Blues.  Backing him on the disc were a trio of blues legends.  Rhythm guitarist Wayne Bennett had backed Bobby Bland for years, Fred Below's distinctive jazz-influenced drumming had graced many of Muddy Waters' Chess sides, and Otis Spann was THE Chicago blues pianist, having spent years with Waters' band.  This was indeed an all-star cast! 

Otis Spann

Though this was Guy's first album as a leader, it still ranks with his best.  For years, he has been a fan favorite all over the world for his unbridled performances.  His guitar playing always seemed on the verge of absolute chaos and he was barely able to contain himself as a vocalist either.  To me, all that is well and good, but sometimes it doesn't hurt to turn things to "simmer" for a while and that's exactly what this release does for the most part.  Guy's guitar work is tasteful and even restrained at times....kept to a slow burn for the most part.  There are horns (including A.C. Reed) on several of the R&B-geared tracks ("Money," "Just Play My Axe"), but some of those tracks sound dated today.  The best tracks are the slower ones that feature Guy, Bennett, Spann, and bass player Jack Myers only.  These tracks stand the test of time incredibly well.

The secret weapon of the disc is Otis Spann.  As good as this album is, Spann takes it to a whole new level with his almost-telepathic interplay with Guy.  Spann's style was sparse and economical, but he said more with fewer notes than any piano player.  In his autobiography from the mid 90's, Damn Right I've Got The Blues, Guy discussed the band behind the album, and raved about Spann's presence on the disc.

"This was my favorite lineup:  Wayne Bennett on guitar, Fred Below on drums and Jack Myers on bass.  This was unrehearsed.  We just went in and started playing the blues.  That's how good these guys were.  They could feel what should be played to make the sound right.  Otis Spann was on piano.  He wasn't just saying, "I can outplay you."  He was answering me, expressing the feeling I had when I finished the verse.  Any other piano player on 'One Room Country Shack' would have run me crazy.  He's like just sitting there saying, 'Go ahead and say what you gotta say.  Then, I'll show you how it feels with my fingers.'.......Otis Spann was the best pianist I ever heard.  When he was ready to play on the low keys, he'd take the whole stool, pick it up and go sit down there.  He'd make you feel so good." 

That's not to say that there weren't some good up-tempo tunes as well.  One of the best was "Mary Had a Little Lamb," probably most familiar to modern blues fans as a mainstay in Stevie Ray Vaughan's repetoire, dating back to his debut release, Texas Flood.  Guy's playful version sizzles with intensity, despite the lighthearted lyrical content, and on this track, we hear some of his best, most unrestrained guitar work on the disc.

Best of all is Guy's interpretation of the timeless "Sweet Little Angel."  Though this one was long associated with B.B. King, Buddy Guy OWNED this song after recording this doubt about it.  Spann shines on piano here, as well.  As good as this song has been done by other artists, dating back to Robert Nighthawk's "Sweet Black Angel," this has to be the definitive version.

Over forty years after its release, this album remains one of Buddy Guy's best recordings.  Though his subsequent recordings have usually had more fireworks, none of them possessed the subtlety and beauty of this release.  You can't truly say you've heard Buddy Guy unless you've heard A Man and the Blues.

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