When it comes to surviving the blues, Buddy Guy wrote the book. A session player for Chess in the '60s, a sideman in Muddy Waters's band, and later, partner to harmonica player and vocalist Junior Wells, Guy's career began with a bang. Then the lean, mean years hit the blues in the '70s, when Guy was in his prime. Enduring European tours, one-nighters in down-and-out roadhouses and seedy motels, Guy moved through the disco era and arena rock to come out on the other side of the alternative movement as a guitar god. For those who wonder how Guy sounded during the toughest years, there's The Complete JSP Recordings: 1979-1982. But prior to those frustrating and somewhat embittered times -- so truly reflected in "DJ Play My Blues" from the JSP set -- there were three Guy albums on Vanguard. Though each are now available on CD, Vanguard has also put them together as
a box set, Buddy Guy: The Complete Vanguard Recordings, with the addition of a couple of previously unreleased cuts and bonus tracks.
The first two CDs in the set were produced by Sam Charters, who so vividly documented the electric blues of Chicago in the '60s on the Chicago! The Blues Today series. For A Man and the Blues, Guy is joined by a band that includes Waters's pianist Otis Spann, another Chess session player, Wayne Bennett (who went on to become Bobby Blue Bland's longtime guitarist), and noted Chicago drummer Fred Below. The result is a set that simmers with slow blues roots on the title cut and the devasting take on Southern poverty "One Room Country Shack." There are also down-home covers of the R&B hits "Money (That's What I Want)" and "Poison Ivy," illustrating how the popular music of the era bounced back to the blues arena from which it originally arose, and a Guy version of "Mary Had a Little Lamb," which would inspire Stevie Ray Vaughan nearly two decades later.This Is Buddy Guy, the second CD in the set, was recorded live in Berkeley in 1968 with a pick-up band. Though the production qualities are not up to the studio material and the back-up band not particularly tight, Guy's guitar solos are flashy and fired-up while his vocals are sweet, even when
he's squealing. Jazz producer Michael Cuscuna brought in pianist Junior Mance and alto player Gary Bartz for the final Vanguard session, Hold That Plane! Recorded in 1970, there's a touch of funk in the cover of "Watermelon Man," but the rest of the set slows down so Guy can spit out meaty guitar solos. Today, Buddy Guy is a polished performer who has honed his natural talent into a slick presentation of all facets of the blues. How he got to where he is now is revealed piece by piece in his Chess, Vanguard, and JSP periods. Vanguard stands out as a transitional era in which Guy experimented with the rock, jazz, and R&B aspects of his art.