Phil Guy was born 76 years ago, on April 28, 1940.
He was the fifth child and third son of his sharecropping parents, Sam and Isabelle Guy. Along with his parents, sisters (Annie Mae and Fannie Mae), and brothers (Buddy and Sam, Jr.), Phil grew up picking cotton and pecans on the Lettsworth, Louisiana plantation – about 60 miles northwest of Baton Rouge. Phil hated picking cotton. The Guys were very poor. They had no electricity or running water.
When Phil was eight years old (and oldest brother Buddy twelve) the family made enough profit from their crops to obtain electricity. One light bulb lit up their home. Their father also splurged that year on a radio and old phonograph. They were immediately captivated by the sounds of Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker.
The two brothers were drawn to the blues. Buddy started down the music road first, with a guitar made from screen wire and a lighter fluid can. He then progressed to a $2.00 guitar with two strings; eventually a stranger was impressed and bought him a Harmony f-hole guitar.
Phil was not allowed to touch Buddy’s guitar. However, when Buddy moved to Baton Rouge to attend high school and live with Annie Mae, he left his old guitar hanging on a nail on the wall of their country shack. Naturally, Phil took the guitar down and tried to play it. He couldn’t figure it out as he was left handed. So he forced himself to learn how to play right handed.
Phil began taking the guitar out on the levee. Even though he could only play one rhythm line of a Jimmy Reed song, the echo on the levee captivated him. Phil would play that one line over and over.
When Phil was fifteen, musician Lightnin’ Slim stopped by a club in nearby Torres with his amplified guitar. Phil had never seen anything like it. Slim gave Phil his first chance to play an electric guitar.
During that time, Buddy joined harp player Raful Neal’s band in Baton Rouge, where they played at many local joints. But Buddy yearned to see and learn from the idols he had listened to during those years: Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Howlin’ Wolf, and B.B. King. On September 27, 1957 at age 21, Buddy moved to Chicago where his idols lived. Before he left, he told Raful that his younger 17 year old brother could also play the Blues.
Phil began cutting his musical teeth in Raful Neal’s band, replacing Lazy Lester as rhythm guitarist. He stayed with Raful’s band for over 10 years until Buddy summoned him to come to Chicago and play in his band.
In 1969, Phil’s (29) and Buddy’s (33) musical styles had gone in different directions. Phil was more into funky songs by Jimmy Reed and James Brown. His method was a deep picking, penetrating and searing style like Albert King. Buddy’s approach was skilled Chicago Blues like Muddy Waters, straight picking yet mixed with electrifying Guitar Slim style showmanship and powerful vocals. Whenever these two Blues Brothers jammed together, their styles complimented each other exquisitely.
Soon after his arrival in Chicago, Phil joined Buddy and his band on a U.S. State Department sponsored trip to Africa. Phil thought the trip was a huge success. He had said that “The Africans had heard of James Brown and Muhammad Ali, but they knew nothing about the Blues.” Following one of the performances, Phil put his guitar on top of the equipment truck. Driving 30 miles over the bumpy roads, his Fender Telecaster, “Ludella” fell off. When Phil realized what had happened, they drove back and retrieved it. It was one of two guitars Phil ever owned. (“Ludella” hangs on a special spot now above the bar at Buddy Guy’s Legends, with Phil’s picture next to it.)
The Guy Blues brothers and Junior Wells had several high profile gigs in Europe, including opening for the Rolling Stones in 1970 and jamming with Eric Clapton.
In the summer of 1970, Buddy and Phil joined rock and roll superstars, Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead and other acts on “The Festival Express,” an extravagant train tour through Canada. Phil recalled of that trip that it was a great musical experience and that he had been a hippie back then.
Phil spent quite a few years as a backing musician. Besides playing with Buddy, Raful Neal and Junior Wells, he backed up Son Seals, Albert Collins, Koko Taylor, Memphis Slim and Big Mama Thornton. The mid 1970’s through the 1980’s were dry years for the Blues. Phil needed to support his family so he picked up whatever work he could.
Phil struck out on his own in the 1990’s and formed his band Phil Guy and The Chicago Machine. He performed in the U.S. with his band and in Europe and other countries with band backups. Over the years, band members included Hassan Khan, Ronnie Hicks, Randall Matthews, Vernon Rogers, Doug MacDonald, Marty Sammon, Tim Austin and Rick Hall. Phil had 9 CD’s; his last and favorite one produced in 2006 was “He’s My Blues Brother.”
Throughout Phil’s musical career, he did most of his own booking engagements himself. In 2004, Phil asked author/writer Lisa Mallen to be his manager. There were many festivals and clubs that he hadn’t performed at and that he wanted to go to. She took on the role and built his website, designed his business cards, and booked him at the festivals and clubs where he wanted to perform.
Sadly, just as things started rolling and gaining momentum for Phil, he was diagnosed in January 2008 with prostate cancer. He performed most of the year and then hung up his guitar after his last festival, The Mississippi Valley Blues Festival in Davenport, Iowa on July 4th, 2008. He passed away August 20th, 2008.
Phil will always be remembered as a great musician and performer. He was a nice man who treated everyone the same, whether they were family, friends or fans. He had a great personality and an awesome sense of humor. He is survived by his wife, Jeniece, and several adult children.