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Buddy Guy: The blues chases the blues far

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

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

Guy narrates the film, and the first-person narrative is compelling. Images from the beginning of his life are presented via evocative paintings, interspersed with archival 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 initially failed to connect with Leonard Chess, who had launched the careers of many blues guitar heroes. On the eve of coming home with his tail between his legs, Guy received a blow from Otis Rush. Rush called Guy at the 708 Club, Muddy Waters provided another seal of approval, and Guy was kicked. He began to line up gigs and polish his chops. “I wasn’t good enough then and I don’t think I am now,” he says.

But Guy brought a bit of flair and excitement to his onstage demeanor, influenced by his time in the Baptist Church. Soon, features of his concerts included screaming, kicking in the legs, and leaving the stage to sneak around and play on the sidewalk.

John Mayer brings a scholarly perspective to the blues idiom, which is typically more of a bucket-gut emotion.

But the centuries-old history of the first blues musicians being ripped off echoes in the documentary; the value of music publishing rights has long been known to only a very few. As much as artists like the Rolling Stones revered Chess Records, the label was not very useful to Guy in terms of keeping his promises.

As time goes by, Guy puts his guitar in the tow truck that he drives during the day and gets a few concerts. Unbeknownst to him, his guitar work behind top American bluesmen is being scrutinized by white teenagers in England. “The British were ready for anything that sounded good,” observes Buddy. “America was not 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 for 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 openly touted Buddy’s importance, not only covering Guy’s compositions (hello music publishing profits), but heralding Guy’s influence at every opportunity.

As it turns out, neither Fleetwood Mac nor Deep Purple were the first artists to suffer from managers with fake versions of touring bands on the road; Junior Wells toured with a fake Buddy Guy. Soon, discerning people knew how to look for the real My friend.

John Mayer offers other articulate insights into the role of Guy, proving that Mayer continues to be a catwalk artist for another generation to discover the great music that came before it.

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

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

This well-crafted documentary highlights a lasting but underestimated influence on a myriad of musicians.

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