Monday, July 26, 2021

Buddy Guy: The Blues Chase the Blues Away

Buddy Guy was almost the equivalent of Motown's Funk Brothers at Chess Records. He was a frequent sideman, who recorded a few 45s at the famous blues label, but the Chess Brothers never really considered him a star. A group of fanatical blues in the UK thought differently. They included Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. Eventually, Guy became a headliner and now he is probably the dean of living bluesmen. The guitarist looks back on his life and career in Devin Amar, Matt Mitchener & Charles Todd’s Buddy Guy: The Blues Chase the Blues Away, which premieres tomorrow on PBS as part of the current season of American Masters.

Buddy Guy hailed from Lettsworth, Louisiana. It wasn’t conveniently located near anything except cotton share-farms, especially not schools. Guy started working and playing in Baton Rouge, but most of his opportunities turned out to be false starts. He also scuffled hard after moving to Chicago, until a musician by the name of Muddy Waters heard him play.

Yet, for years, the start-and-stop pattern continued for Guy (on his Strat, rather than a Les Paul). Indeed, Amar and company appropriately emphasize Guy’s persistence throughout their profile. Even when British invasion stars starting singing Guy’s praises, Chess still didn’t really understand how to best showcase him (while Marshall Chess appears in
In Their Own Words’ profile of Chuck Berry, he is absent here).

This also happens to be one of the more stylish and poetic films to appear under the
American Masters banner, because of the vintage documentary footage and folk art that illustrates Guy’s early years. It vividly evokes the tenor of Guy’s life and times, in all its hardscrabble ruggedness. The trio of filmmakers also convey a nice sense of blues history through archival interviews with legends like Lightnin’ Hopkins, Willie Dixon, and Muddy Waters.

Sadly, nearly all of Guy’s notable contemporaries and collaborators are no longer with us (including his brother Phil Guy, who is weirdly unmentioned, at least in the broadcast edit). However, there are tributes from real deal admirers like Clapton, Gary Clark Jr., and Kingfish. Most importantly, we hear extensively from Guy, the man himself, both in reflection and on the guitar. He still has the chops and he remembers exactly where he came from.

Clearly, the filmmakers understand Blues music (and Guy’s place within it), because they present it with respect and insight throughout the film. This is a very well-made film, as it needed to be, in order to properly give Guy his due. Highly recommended,
Buddy Guy: The Blues Chase the Blues Away premieres tomorrow night (7/27) on PBS.