Buddy Guy: The Blues Chase the Blues Away

The sound of birds, free from the constraints of gravity or society, were Buddy Guy’s first musical influence. John Lee Hooker was his second.

This lovingly assembled documentary traces Guy’s path from a child of Louisiana sharecroppers to a prime influencer of guitarists from Beck, Clapton, Page, Richards, Santana to more recent fretboard wizards like John Mayer and Gary Clark, Jr.

Guy narrates the film, and the first person narrative is compelling. Imagery from early in his life is presented via evocative paintings, intercut with stock footage. Guy is generous with his other influences: Guitar Slim, BB King, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters.

Like so many others, Guy headed north when he could. Landing in Chicago in 1957, Guy was initially unable to connect with Leonard Chess, who had launched the careers of many blues guitar heroes. On the eve of heading back home with his tail between his legs, Guy was given a shot by Otis Rush. Rush called Guy down to the 708 Club, Muddy Waters provided a further stamp of approval and Guy was given a toehold. He began to line up gigs, and honed his chops. “I wasn’t good enough then and I don’t think I am now,” he claims.

But Guy brought some flair and excitement to his stage demeanor, influenced by his time in the Baptist Church. Soon, hallmarks of his gigs included screaming, leg kicking and leaving the stage to thread his way out to play on the sidewalk.

John Mayer brings an erudite perspective to the blues idiom, which is usually more of a gut bucket emotion.

But the age-old story of early blues musicians being ripped off ripples through the documentary; the value of music publishing rights was long only known to a very few. As much as artists like the Rolling Stones revered Chess Records, the label was not very helpful for Guy in terms of fulfilling promises.

As the goes by, Guy packs his guitar in the tow truck he drives by day, and gets a few session gigs. Unbeknownst to him, his guitar work behind larger American bluesmen is studiously examined by white teenage boys in England. “The British were ready for whatever sounded good,” observes Buddy. “America wasn’t ready.” Clapton on his first visit to America had the same reaction, “these people are right here under your nose and you don’t know who they are.”

A recent performance clip of the Stones and Buddy Guy says it all: the song ends with Jagger reintroducing their influence as “Buddy Motherfucking Guy” as Keef pulls his guitar off and hands it to Guy, “it’s yours.”

Stevie Ray Vaughan was another artist who overtly touted Buddy’s importance, not only by covering Guy compositions (hello music publishing profits) but heralding Guy’s influence at every opportunity.

It turns out neither Fleetwood Mac nor Deep Purple were the first artists that suffered from managers with bogus versions of touring bands on the road; Junior Wells toured with a bogus Buddy Guy. Soon discerning folks knew to look for the real Buddy Guy.

John Mayer offers further articulate insights about Guy’s role, proving that Mayer continues to be a gateway artist for another generation to discover the great music that came before.

Carlos Santana observes that Guy “added a turbo to the guitar, a tenacity of tone.”

Guy’s humility is evidenced in one of the closing scenes, when he shakes his head in awe about the memory of singing the blues with Obama in The White House.

This well-crafted documentary shines a light on an enduring but underrated influence on myriad musicians.

The documentary is scheduled to air on July 27 on PBS: American Masters, check your local listings.

 

 


Brad Auerbach has been covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.

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