The Blues That Got Away: Buddy Guy Breaks Out

Born in Lettsworth, Louisiana, Buddy Guy is one of the last living legends of the blues. A master guitarist in the Chicago blues tradition, Guy has been considered the living link between blues and rock 'n' roll, and he has influenced many guitarists in both genres and beyond, including Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric "Guitar" Davis, among others. It wasn't always that way, however; Guy initially struggled in his career. Although he was a revered session guitarist with Chess Records in the early 1960s, his raw, uninhibited style was dismissed by founder Leonard Chess as "noise" and Guy struggled to expressed himself artistically satisfactorily on subsequent solo recordings with Chess, Vanguard, and Atco Records. Meanwhile, popular rock guitarists as diverse as Carlos Santana, Eric Clapton, and Keith Richards were inspired and blown away by his wild style in concert.

By the late '70s, Guy's career was in the doldrums (along with the blues in general). While he was still performing regularly with his harmonica-wielding partner Junior Wells and running a blues club in Chicago (the Checkerboard Lounge, which recently closed -- RIP), Guy was without a recording contract in the US. However, a couple of European record labels, Isabel Records (in France) and JSP Records (in England), were interested in capturing Guy's style on tape. With this label support, he cut four records between 1979 and 1981 that were more representative of his unique trailblazing sound than his earlier recordings. Among these was Breaking Out, released by JSP Records in 1980.

The second of his three JSP discs, Breaking Out found Guy employing heavier, more overdriven guitar tones in the studio, the likes of which he had helped to pioneer in his concerts (including use of feedback as early as the late 1950s) but that were more commonly associated with rock guitarists such as Hendrix. This created a raw, distorted sound that was perhaps a shock for dedicated blues listeners who were more familiar with Guy's cleaner Chess and Vanguard recordings (the original release may also have suffered from less-than-optimal sound quality, as the Penguin Guide to the Blues described it as a "sonic dustbin"), but was overall more representative of Guy's artistic vision. Indeed, the powerfully raw sound was probably also a sort of catharsis for Guy during this difficult period, which JSP founder John Stedman described as "a cry of pain". The lyrics for most of the songs are fairly generic in the blues tradition, but Guy is in stellar form throughout on both vocals and guitar. Highlights (for Me) include a remake of a song that Guy recorded in the '60s called "Poison Ivy" (here retitled "Break Out All Over"), where the distorted guitar is texturally akin to an ivy-associated rash, and "You Called Me In My Dream", which is a fairly early recorded example of Guy's blend of heavy blues and funk (something he later did more overtly during his 1990s comeback). The guitar tones are tamer on a sublime cover of the R&B classic "You Can Make It If You Try" and the slow-burning blues of "She Winked At Me". My favourite track, however, has to be the instrumental "Me and My Guitar". It is pretty much what the title says -- Guy and his guitar duking it out for five minutes over a funky blues-rock track, with some adventurous bass playing and lush supporting chordal work in the background. The 2008 CD reissue includes 5 bonus tracks by Guy's brother Phil that were recorded and released by JSP during the same era (with Buddy backing him up). Among these is a bouncy jazz-tinged instrumental, "Breaking Out On Top", which features Maurice John Vaughn on saxophone and Phil handling the bulk of the lead guitar (although Buddy contributes some smooth complementary leads throughout and a brief fiery solo). Another interesting bonus track is "Ice Around My Heart", a 9-minute jam that is very loosely based on T-Bone Walker's "Cold, Cold Feeling" lyrically, but with a different melody entirely; Buddy contributes a playfully timid solo halfway through, while keyboardist Professor Eddie Lusk plays both piano and a textural synthesizer throughout, likely imitating the sound of a string section a la "The Thrill is Gone" (although it ends up sounding like a distant persistent vacuum cleaner at certain points!). Overall, with the bonus tracks, you can hear some similarities between the two Guys' (no pun intended) sounds, but they have distinctive qualities in their tone and approach to the instrument that complement each other superbly.

Throughout the album, Buddy Guy is backed by a stellar band that includes Phil on rhythm/lead guitar, Nick Charles (later of Billy Branch & The Sons of Blues) on bass, Ray Allison on drums, and the aforementioned Lusk and Vaughn, among others. These cats played together frequently in the late '70s and early '80s, and their musical chemistry and love for the blues are evident in spades on this disc.

Many fans point to Stone Crazy as being one of the few (older) Guy recordings that truly represented his groundbreaking live sound. While I agree that Stone Crazy is a great recording, I feel that Breaking Out features more of his live fire, and it likely provided the blueprint (or at least a good part of it) for his comeback recordings when Guy returned to the limelight in the '90s and beyond.

Tune in to CJSR's Señor Blues every other Saturday to hear tracks from Breaking Out and other similarly underrated, rare, or lesser known blues genes as part of the semi-regular "Blues That Got Away" segment.

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