Buddy Guy: A Man and His Blues
RECORD/ARTIST “Sit and Cry (the Blues)”/Buddy Guy
WHY IT COUNTS Buddy’s very first single.
STUDIO Cobra Records, Chicago. “There was a little record store in front with 45s and 78s,” Buddy recalls. “You walked through to some old garage in the back, and that was Cobra Records. Just a car garage, man, but that’s where I was gettin’ that real sound you hear on that record.”
BACKSTORY Buddy left his native Louisiana and arrived in Chicago on September 25, 1957, hoping to land a contract with premiere blues label Chess Records. Initially, Chess passed, but rival label Cobra, headed by Eli Toscano, eagerly signed the new arrival to its subsidiary imprint, Artistic.
THE TRACK A slow, mournful blues meditation in G, punctuated by lachrymose sax drones and skittering piano. Buddy’s unrestrained vocal style is already very much intact on this debut release, and the expressive guitar lines and clean, concise 12-bar solo ably serve as counterpoint.
PRODUCTION NOTES The song’s slightly unusual chord structure audibly confounds the backing band at points, especially when they hit the bridge. Buddy makes a strong showing nonetheless.
BUDDY’S GEAR A Gibson Les Paul Goldtop, purchased on installment back in Louisiana. “The amp was either a little Gibson with two speakers in it or a Sears Roebuck,” Buddy adds.
KEY PLAYER Willie Dixon (1915–92) wrote the song and played bass on the date. This was the first of many Buddy Guy recordings that would be penned by Dixon, the blues’ own Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and William Shakespeare rolled into one. Dixon’s songs were recorded by Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and many others. Buddy still vividly remembers his first meeting with Willie, an imposingly large man who dwarfed the big upright bass that was his signature instrument:
“Willie Dixon come and got me and told me he was gonna take me to dinner. I figured, I just got here from Louisiana; I don’t have an education; now’s my time to just be cool—watch and learn. So we walks into this barbecue joint and Willie orders a whole fuckin’ chicken. I’m figurin’ we gon’ take a fork and knife, carve up the chicken, and me and him would eat it. But when the chicken come out, he picks it up, breaks it in half with his bare hands and start to eat the whole fuckin’ thing himself. He looks at me like, What you gon’ have?”
POSTSCRIPT Shortly after this session, Buddy’s Les Paul was stolen from the bandstand at a club where he was playing. Cobra Records didn’t last much longer either. “I think Eli Toscano got killed or drowned or something,” says Buddy. “I heard a lot of different stories about that.”
RECORD/ARTIST “The First Time I Met the Blues”/Buddy Guy
DATE Recorded March 6, 1960
WHY IT COUNTS Buddy’s first single for Chess. One of the greatest and most influential blues recordings of all time. Beloved by Jimmy Page and many others.
STUDIO Chess Records, 2120 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago; now a historic landmark.
BACKSTORY After two singles on Artistic, Buddy easily made the jump to Chess, where he went on to cut a series of singles and served as a session guitarist to immortals like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. “You’d get $30 for making a session,” Buddy recalls. “And that was the best money you could make in Chicago. Working in clubs you’d only make, four, five or six dollars a night. Even Muddy was only making $12.”
Buddy’s producers and bosses at his new label were the brothers Phil and Leonard Chess. Polish immigrants and former liquor salesmen, the Chess brothers built the Chess and Checker labels into a blues empire, releasing classic discs by Muddy, Wolf, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Elmore James and Jimmy Rogers, not to mention seminal early rock and roll sides by Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. Buddy didn’t always see eye to eye with the Chess brothers, but the entrepreneurial siblings nonetheless produced some of his finest recordings and played an important role in developing many of his key stylistic trademarks.
THE TRACK A chilling blues allegory, “The First Time I Met the Blues” recounts a fateful crossroads encounter with the blues itself, here personified as an ominous manifestation of all life’s sufferings. Buddy’s plaintive vocal is underscored by some of the most stinging guitar playing ever committed to tape: frenzied bursts of pent-up emotion delivered with a razor-thin tone that cuts like a suicide’s arterial slash.
PRODUCTION NOTES Speaking of razor blades, the Chess brothers were by no means averse to slicing a master tape to suit length requirements or other commercial exigencies. Deft tape editing produced the eerily powerful opening to “The First Time I Met the Blues.” There is no instrumental prelude of any sort. We’re plunged straight into Buddy’s agonized vocal, immersed in the narrative before we know what’s hit us. “There originally was an intro,” Buddy reveals. “I could never start in singing like I did on that track without an intro. I had to get into it first. But I had a bad habit back then: some of my intros were too long. So they’d cut ’em out.”
The Chess siblings also suggested the keening, high-pitched vocal register Buddy employs on the track and which would become a signature element of his singing style. “Little Brother Montgomery [who wrote the Song] had made a hit of ‘The First Time I Met the Blues’ [in 1936],” Buddy remembers. “The Chess brothers told me I could do the song in a higher voice. They were kind of trying to lead me in the direction of B.B. King. Ain’t but one of them. But they want me to sing it kind of high. It’s one of the most talked-about songs I ever did for Chess.”
BUDDY’S GEAR This is perhaps the earliest track to feature Buddy’s Sunburst 1957 Fender Stratocaster, one of the most sacred artifacts in all of blues history. The guitar was purchased— just barely—shortly after the theft of Buddy’s Les Paul in ’58.
“I had to get down on my knees and beg this lady at this famous blues club called Theresa’s Lounge at 48th and Indiana,” he remembers. “And she finally loaned me the money for that Strat. I think it was $149 or $150, with case, strap and everything.”
Buddy chose a Stratocaster because it was the instrument of choice for his ax hero, Guitar Slim, whose highly theatrical stage performances inspired the style of showmanship that Buddy would later pass on to Jimi Hendrix. Buddy’s much-battered ’57 Strat was his main guitar until 1976, when it too was stolen. Before then, it was most often mated with a ’59 Fender Bassman amp. These two pieces of gear are very much the sound of early Buddy Guy recordings. Buddy quickly got into the habit of cranking the Bassman to the max and using the Strat’s volume and tone controls to achieve the rich tonal variations heard in his work.
“When I would record with Muddy and them, we used to drink wine, beer and whiskey and set it on the amp. So all the control knobs on my amp had frozen with dirt, booze, cigarette butts and all that. But that was okay, ’cause I didn’t need to move them anymore.’ All I had that worked on that amplifier was the on-and-off switch.”
KEY PLAYERS “The First Time I Met the Blues” was the first of many Buddy Guy sessions to feature the redoubtable Jack Meyers on electric bass, still a relatively new instrument when the record was made. (The first commercially available electric bass, the Fender Precision, was introduced in 1951.) “When the Fender bass first came along, I remember seeing this kid Jack Meyers play it with [guitarist] Earl Hooker’s band,” Buddy recounts. “Hooker actually owned the bass, so the only time that boy could play, he had to work with Earl Hooker. But I found out that Willie Dixon had a Fender bass that he’d pawned at a place on 47th and State. So I told that boy, ‘If you wanna play with me, I’ll go get that Fender out of pawn from Dixon.’ And I gave it to Jack, ’cause he was a good little bass player.”
On Buddy’s records, Meyer was often paired with ace Chess session drummer Fred Below (pronounced BEE-low), who here pounds the toms like some lost soul condemned to play the strip clubs of Hell for all eternity. Apparently, Below was a bit of a cutup in the studio. “They finally had to build a pen around him, like a cardboard box,” Buddy recalls, “so he couldn’t mess with anybody.”