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Legendary Chicago bluesman Buddy Guy looks back on career, life in PBS documentary

The Chicago icon is celebrated in the American Mastes episode “Buddy Guy: The Blues Chase the Blues Away.”

Buddy Guy poses for a portrait to promote the latest installment of the PBS biography series, “American Masters” on July 28, 2021, at his blues club Buddy Guy’s Legends in Chicago.
Buddy Guy poses for a portrait to promote the latest installment of the PBS biography series, “American Masters” on July 28, 2021, at his blues club Buddy Guy’s Legends in Chicago.
AP

NEW YORK — Blues guitar legend Buddy Guy has influenced some of the greatest rock guitarists of all time, including Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Gary Clarke Jr. But the factors that led to his inspiration may not have happened if Guy hadn’t taken a stand — literally.

“When I came to Chicago, most blues musicians, including Muddy Waters, they all was sitting in a chair playing. And I said, ‘I can’t play like them, but I think I can outdo them. I can stand up and jump off the stage and get some attention,’” Guy recently told The Associated Press.

Jumping around on stage, playing the guitar behind his back, and picking with his teeth brought him lots of attention, especially from an experimental guitarist from Seattle who was recently discharged from the Army named Jimi Hendrix. The future virtuoso not only reinvented the sound of the electric guitar, but he also drew on the showmanship Guy displayed.

“I’m blessed with that because I didn’t know that many people would look at me and feel that way,” the multi-Grammy winning Guy said.

Now the 84-year-old blues great becomes the subject of the latest installment of the PBS biography series “American Masters.” The episode, now airing on PBS stations, “Buddy Guy: The Blues Chase the Blues Away,” dives into his lengthy career.

Honored and humble about being recognized, Guy says he saw his contemporaries as better guitarists, so he had to find his own style. That came from being inspired by different types of music, ranging from gospel to country — a mix he equates to a Louisiana culinary specialty.

“You can call my guitar playing gumbo, because if you cook a gumbo in Louisiana, you throw every kind of meat you can. And that makes it more delicious than what it was if you just put one meat in it,” he says.

Yet, all of the styles he put into his playing required extreme perseverance. Growing up in the Jim Crow era South and raised in a sharecropping family, Guy became fascinated the first time he saw someone play guitar. But actually having one to put in his hands and play created an obstacle he needed to overcome.

He would try and make his own, including using rubber bands as strings, before increasing his ingenuity to the wire strands from the window screens in the family home. But the ever-dwindling screens came to the attention of his mother. “My mom noticed mosquitoes in the house because something was wrong with the windows.”

He recalls getting his hands on a real guitar during a Christmas celebration when its player took a break to get drunk, providing Guy with some time to figure out how to play what he had seen. His dad eventually bought him a guitar for “a couple of dollars” and he never looked back.

But mastering the instrument was one thing, finding an audience was another. By the time Guy came on the scene, the blues were a struggling art form. There was nothing lucrative about playing music in those days because there wasn’t a crossover to a mainstream audience.

At the time, he says white audiences didn’t have an appetite for the blues, with a few turning up at shows every “once in a while.”

“Nobody was making a decent living off of playing the blues,” he says. “It was going from town to town.” Sometimes he said he just made enough money to make it to the next town.

“Nobody was making a decent living off of playing the blues. It was going from town to town,” Buddy Guy says, of the early days of his career.
“Nobody was making a decent living off of playing the blues. It was going from town to town,” Buddy Guy says, of the early days of his career.
AP

It was the love of music that kept him and his counterparts playing. But that would soon change in the 1960s with the arrival of a new sound on the airwaves.

“The British,” Guy said succinctly.

More appropriately, he credits the Rolling Stones, whose guitarist Keith Richards and singer Mick Jagger especially admired Guy’s playing and the blues in general. The band named itself after Muddy Waters’ hit ‘Rollin’ Stone’ and introduced one of their idols, Howlin’ Wolf, during an appearance on the TV variety show “Shindig!”

After that, Guy says the blues exploded.

Riding the wave of Waters, BB King, Otis Rush and other players, Guy found his own style and became one of the most recognizable blues artists of the Chicago blues sound. In 2005, Clapton and King inducted Guy into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

While Guy saw the blues rise from a personal passion to main influence of the biggest rock bands in history, he said his passion has not changed. “I’m playing my guitar for the life that I’m living in this point and time,” he said.

Nowadays, he’s a man on a mission to keep the blues alive because he said there’s just not enough places for people to hear it. “The blues is not being played or heard on your big radio stations anymore,” Guy said.

Guy says even his son was unaware of his significance as a blues player until he was old enough to go a blues club. “He said, ’Dad, I didn’t know you could do that.’ And he’s been a blues player ever since,” Guy said.