Photo: Scott Legato/Getty Images
How Buddy Guy Finally Broke Into The US Top 50 More Than 50 Years Into His Career
"I'm 74 years young, there ain't nothing I haven't done," Buddy Guy claims on the opening track of his 15th studio album. It’s not an unreasonable boast. The Chicago Blues legend honed his craft as a sideman for all-time greats Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. In turn, he influenced Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and pretty much any guitar virtuoso who spent their teenage years devouring the music of Chess Records. And he’d already picked up five GRAMMYs, a National Medal of Arts and an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by the time Living Proof hit the shelves in 2010.
However, at the time of its recording, there was one thing that Guy hadn’t done: break into the US Top 50. Yes, despite shaping the history of blues music, the Louisiana native’s highest chart peak then stood at No.68 for his 2008 LP Skin Deep. He’d had to wait until 1991’s Damn Right, I’ve Got The Blues, more than 30 years into his career, to reach the Billboard 200 at all.
Thankfully and belatedly, the blues scene’s elder statesman finally got the chance to tick off this feat with a record that celebrated the struggle to get there. Indeed, serving as a taster of his 2012 memoir When I Left Home, Living Proof is a largely autobiographical affair which sees Guy both delve deep into his rich past and reflect on the time he’s got left.
On the aforementioned "74 Years Young," the adopted Chicagoan proudly looks back at his life on the road ("I’ve been all around the world, everywhere is home/ Drink wine with kings and the Rolling Stones"). Backed by some powerful gospel harmonies – courtesy of Fleetwood Mac backing singer Bekka Bramlett and early ‘90s one-hit wonder Wendy Moten – the spiritual title track acknowledges the faith that helped guide Guy through his tougher times ("I had no money, I had no clothes/ I had no shelter from the bitter cold/ When you’re too weak to walk/ He’ll carry you through").
And on the bluesy trudge of "Thank Me Someday," Guy takes it back to where it all began: the little tent room shack on the Louisiana cotton plantation where he taught himself how to master the six-string. It’s a charming origins story which also suggests that he’s still keen to inspire the younger generation ("I give the little ones my guitar/ I tell 'em, ‘Close your eyes and play/ Don't even worry about the neighbors").
It’s not the only personal tale which looks toward the future. "Stay Around a Little Longer" is a particularly touching duet between Guy and his longtime hero B.B King where both parties promise that they still have plenty more to give. The former soon proved these weren’t empty words: 2013 follow-up Rhythm and Blues posted his biggest first-week sales ever to peak at a record high of No.27.
Sadly, this joint effort proved to be one of the late King’s final recordings, although the pair did reunite on stage two years later with none other than Barack Obama for a White House performance of "Sweet Home Chicago." But as its title suggests, the plaintive ballad "Everybody’s Got to Go" indicates that Guy holds little fear about joining his musical inspiration on the other side, either.
Not that Guy sounded remotely like a man on the wrong side of 70. Sure, his gravelly voice may occasionally display the wear and tear that comes from playing smoky blues clubs for over half a century. Yet on the likes of "On the Road," a soulful stomper featuring Stax Records staples The Memphis Horns, and "Key Don’t Fit," one of several cheeky odes to his way with women, Guy unleashes the kind of full-throated growl that recalls Tom Jones in his Las Vegas-headlining era.
And then, of course, there’s the electrifying solos which would put any Guitar Hero champion to shame. You regularly half expect Guy to burst out of the speakers such is the ferocity of his technique, particularly on closer "Skanky," an instrumental slice of roadhouse R&B which builds to a feedback-drenched wall of noise. The slick, smooth interplay of Carlos Santana on the album’s second collaboration, "Where the Blues Begins," also highlights how much grittier and gnarlier Guy is than most of his peers. Far from mellowing in his old age, the blues pioneer seems more determined to pummel listeners into submission than ever.
Of course, Guy had an impressive caliber of musicians on hand to help him recreate the passion of his live performances in the studio, too. John Mellencamp regular David Grissom took on second guitar duties, while Double Trouble’s Reese Wynans and The Notorious Cherry Bombs’ Michael Rhodes appeared on keyboard and bass, respectively.
But it was the man behind the drum kit that proved to be Living Proof’s driving force. Tom Hambridge, who’d previously worked on GRAMMY-nominated efforts by Susan Tedeschi and Johnny Winter, not only provided the stomping beats. He also produced and co-wrote each of its ten tracks. The introspective lyrics of "74 Years Young" and "Stay Around a Little Longer" may sound like they’ve come straight from the horse’s mouth, but, in fact, they were penned by Hambridge in the wake of various casual conversations with Guy about his rags-to-riches life story. It’s a testament to both parties that you never question Living Proof’s authenticity.
Guy’s trust in Hambridge certainly paid off, anyway. As well as reaching a then-career best of No.46 in the U.S. charts, Living Proof also gave the icon his sixth GRAMMY and his fourth in the Best Contemporary Blues Album category. Rolling Stone, meanwhile, hailed it as the “best batch of blues Guy’s cooked up in years.” Little wonder then that after being asked what he considers to be living proof of in a press release to promote the record, Guy essentially answered: perseverance.