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PBS’ American Masters spotlights Buddy Guy

The outstanding music documentary Buddy Guy: The Blues Chase The Blues Away, which premiered at NYC’s Tribeca Festival in June, will air as part of PBS’ American Masters series on Tuesday night, July 27th.
Buddy Guy. (Photo courtesy of Scheme Engine-Sony)

Buddy Guy. (Photo courtesy of Scheme Engine-Sony)

By John Curley

Buddy Guy celebrates his 85th birthday on Friday, July 30th, so the broadcast premiere of the film Buddy Guy: The Blues Chase The Blues Away by PBS’ American Masters series on Tuesday, July 27th at 9 p.m. Eastern serves as terrific early birthday celebration for the legendary American bluesman. The film, which is a very comprehensive look at Guy’s life, premiered at New York City’s Tribeca Festival in June of this year. It provides a glimpse at his childhood as the son of sharecroppers in Lettsworth, Louisiana as well as his move in the 1950s to Chicago, his partnership with Junior Wells and his later-in-life solo success. Among those interviewed in the film about Guy’s influence on them are John Mayer, Kingfish, Carlos Santana, Eric Clapton and Gary Clark, Jr.

As the film opens, Guy is shown standing in an empty field in Louisiana. He says, “The first music that touched my heart came from the birds. They caught my ear while I was in the field and they had me wondering about all the creatures made by God. Some crawl and some hiss, and some poison you with their bite. Others flew and sang. When they sang, the world was filled with beautiful sounds. I closed my eyes so that everything disappeared, but the sound of a beautiful bird.”

His road to stardom was a difficult one. Early in the film, Guy reminisces about having to walk miles to school as a child while the white children rode buses to their schools, and he would watch the buses drive past as he made his way to school. For high school, Guy had to go to Baton Rouge, which was 70 miles from his hometown. He got a job pumping gas there to support himself.

Guy caught the blues bug when he heard John Lee Hooker’s 1948 single “Boogie Chillen’.” The song had a profound effect on him. Of the experience, he said, “From then on, the blues turned my life upside down. From the plantation to the concrete jungle of Chicago, had me going places and doing things that, when I look back, seems crazy. The blues turned me wild.”

Asked to play with a band by a customer that heard Guy play his guitar at the gas station in Baton Rouge, he was soon let go by the band because they asked him to sing, and he was too shy to do so. Which is quite ironic, given the very demonstrative onstage act that Guy would later develop.

The reasons for Guy’s move to Chicago in September 1957 were twofold: he wanted to see Muddy Waters play as well as escape the segregation of the Deep South. He wasn’t looking to be a musician at the time. He wanted to work during the day and go to see the blues greats play at night. But he had difficulty finding a job. He was out of money and almost returned home to Louisiana. He began to perform at clubs and one night, Muddy Waters came to see him play. This first meeting of the two blues titans has a poignant side. Guy had no money and hadn’t eaten for three days. When he told Waters that he was hungry, Waters made him a salami sandwich.

Buddy Guy and Junior Wells perform. (Photo courtesy of Gallery Victor Armendariz and the Art Shay Archive)

Buddy Guy and Junior Wells perform. (Photo courtesy of Gallery Victor Armendariz and the Art Shay Archive)

On the subject of blues musicians gravitating to Chicago, Gary Clark, Jr., says, “A lot of these cats migrated from the South. It was kind of a more acoustic sound and they got to the city and needed to be heard. People started becoming electrified. That right there changed the course of music to this day.” And discussing Guy’s string-bending technique, Clark says, “You’ve gotta be a badass to come up something that people are still trying to copy decades later.”

In 1958, another blues legend, Howlin’ Wolf, offered Guy a job in his band. Guy states that he was afraid of Howlin’ Wolf due to his reputation, but they ended up becoming good friends.

Guy’s relationship with the British musicians he inspired is looked at in the film. He met the Rolling Stones when they were at Chess Records in Chicago in 1964. Of the meeting, Guy recalls, “I had never seen a white man with hair that long.” In February 1965, Guy took a vacation from his day job driving a tow truck to go to England to play some gigs there. He played with The Yardbirds on that trip.

Eric Clapton saw Guy perform at London’s Marquee Club at that time. Clapton recalls, “It was an unbelievable experience for me. I’ll never forget it.”

Of that England trip, Guy states, “Some of my friends in England didn’t know that a Strat could play the blues until they saw me in England in 1965.” Clapton says that seeing Guy play the Stratocaster convinced him to get one. He had been playing a Gibson Les Paul.

Clapton discusses the rude awakening that he experienced on his first trip to America when he discovered, to his astonishment, that most Americans had no idea who bluesmen like Guy were. And Guy gives credit to his British musician friends for always citing him as an influence.

Buddy Guy at Biddy Mulligans in Chicago on May 25, 1980. (Photo by Paul Natkin)

Buddy Guy at Biddy Mulligans in Chicago on May 25, 1980. (Photo by Paul Natkin)

Guy is shown playing with the Rolling Stones in a clip from the Stones’ Shine A Light film. And the Stones are shown performing with Muddy Waters at Guy’s Chicago club, the Checkerboard Lounge, in 1981. A beaming Guy is shown performing “Sweet Home Chicago” with, among others, Jeff Beck and Mick Jagger, at the White House in 2012, as President Obama sings a bit of the song.

The British musicians were also influential to Guy in that they made him want to turn up his amp. He had been discouraged to do so at Chess Records, so he left. Of that period, John Mayer states, “Buddy’s tone didn’t start to take shape until he left Chess Records.” And Carlos Santana adds that Guy’s “tenacity of tone” opened a door for him and other musicians.

On the subject of meeting Junior Wells, Guy states, “I’m grateful to God that we hooked up like we did.” And he adds, “With Junior by my side, we made music that I never could have made alone. He inspired me.” Guy speaks fondly of a 1970 tour that he did with Wells and other musicians in Canada. They traveled by train and would sometimes jam on board the train while it was in motion.

Guy was upset when he discovered that Wells had toured with a guitarist billed falsely as Buddy Guy. But after he and Wells ended their professional partnership, they remained friends. And Guy spent a lot of time visiting Wells in the hospital before Wells passed away.

Toward the end of the film, Guy and Clapton discuss performing with Stevie Ray Vaughan in Wisconsin on the last night of Vaughan’s life. Of Vaughan, Guy states emphatically, “Stevie Ray Vaughan did for music what Michael Jordan did for basketball.”

Guy’s life coming full circle is exemplified by the scenes at the film’s end of him at the dedication of Buddy Guy Way, the renaming of the street on which he grew up in Lettsworth. It’s quite touching.

On his feelings about the blues, Guy states, “Funny thing about the blues: You play ‘em because you got ‘em. But when you play ‘em, you lose ‘em. If you hear ‘em, if you let the music get into your soul, you’ll lose ‘em. The blues chase the blues away.”

The film, which runs 82 minutes, is a production of RCA Records and Scheme Engine in association with American Masters Pictures. The film is directed by Devin Amar, Matt Mitchener and Charles Todd. John Beug and Sheira Rees-Davies are the producers. Michael Kantor, Camille Yorrick, Devin Amar and Sheira Rees-Davies are Executive Producers. Sony Music Entertainment is the distributor of the film.

The film’s trailer can be seen below:

Guy discusses his admiration for John Lee Hooker in this clip from the film:

Guy reminisces about his first guitar and plays a bit of John Lee Hooker’s “Boogie Chillen’” in this clip from the film:

Kingfish and Gary Clark, Jr. demonstrate Guy’s playing technique and Guy discusses the Grammy Awards that he has won in this clip from the film: