Buddy Guy turned 84 in 2020, and he’s been a blues legend for a long time. It’s a good thing he’s lasted so long, because he got a late start. He had already turned 30 before he got to make his first solo album, and he was 50 before he became a bona fide star.
“Buddy Guy: My Time After Awhile” documents that difficult beginning and extended victory lap by intercutting performance clips (mostly from Switzerland) and a long interview with Guy himself. With a broad-brimmed straw hat pushed back on his head and a welcoming grin on his face, he sits in his own nightclub, Buddy Guy’s Legends in downtown Chicago, and tells one fascinating anecdote after another.
He tells of a rural Louisiana childhood so impoverished that his family had neither a car nor electricity when he was very young. As a result, he would walk to school barefoot, carrying his only pair of shoes the whole way to save them from wear, only putting them on when he neared the front door. He would eventually slide wires out of the family’s screen door to make his first guitar.
But it was also a childhood where New Orleans legend Guitar Slim might show up at the local grocery store and play his guitar between his legs or behind his head, with ringing chimes and squealing distortion — a visionary a generation before Jimi Hendrix and an enduring role model for Guy. By the time the latter was a teenager, he was playing music for money in Baton Rouge; at 21, he took the train to Chicago.
Guy admits he was happier about the salami sandwich that Muddy Waters gave him afterward than the compliment from his childhood hero.
He was not an immediate success. After six months without steady work, he had to fight off hunger pains to engage Otis Rush in a “Battle of the Blues.” In this video, Guy admits he was happier about the salami sandwich that Muddy Waters gave him afterward than the compliment from his childhood hero. Before long, Guy was playing behind Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Koko Taylor and Big Mama Thornton — in the clubs and in the studio.
“Behind” is the key word. Guy wasn’t singing, and he had to keep his Guitar Slim tendencies to himself. Even when he teamed up as a duo with Junior Wells, the harmonica icon handled the vocals and usually took the first solo. Guy begged Chess Records for a chance to be a leader, but Leonard Chess, the label’s head honcho, kept putting him off. Chess was probably right. The label’s older, working-class, Southern-born Black audience wasn’t looking for experimental guitar. But another, younger, biracial audience was.
In his own live shows, Guy was channeling Guitar Slim into guitar solos that spit and barked, soared and wailed. When Guy joined Willie Dixon’s American Folk Blues Festival on its annual trip to Europe, British guitarists such as Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck heard Guy’s pyrotechnics and began to imitate him.
“When they did it,” Guy told me in 2018, “it became easier for us. I was playing distortion and feedback long before them in my live shows, but Leonard Chess didn’t like it; he wouldn’t allow that ‘noise’ on his records. But when the British guys heard me do it and played it themselves, Leonard wanted to do it. He said, ‘I was too dumb to hear it before.’”
This video contains a handful of clips from the American Folk Blues Festival tours, including two performances with Thornton and a guitar duet with a boyish Clapton. Guy finally released his debut solo album for Chess in 1967, quickly followed by two studio albums and a live album for Vanguard. At long last, his name had migrated from small print on back-album covers to large print on the front. Finally, his piercing high tenor was out front, and his full guitar arsenal unleashed.
Even though he was now leading his own band at blues festivals, no American label released a new Buddy Guy solo album between 1972 and 1991. On 1972’s “Hold That Plane,” he sang, “It’s your time now, but I gotta feeling it’s gonna be my time after awhile.” And it was. In 1991, Guy released the first of 14 albums with Sony Music’s Silvertone/RCA labels, and six of them won Grammy Awards. At long last, he was a star in his 50s.
In 2006, Silvertone/Legacy released a box set, “Can’t Quit the Blues,” collecting Guy’s music on three CDs: pre-1990 tracks on the first disc and Silvertone tracks on the other two. The fourth disc, a DVD, offers this documentary film. As his old colleagues died, one by one, Guy became the last man standing, the personification of Chicago blues, the torchbearer for an invaluable tradition.
“When I started,” Guy told me, “I was competing with all these greats like Otis Rush, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and B.B. King. They all told me, ‘Whoever’s left has to keep the blues alive.’ Now they’re all gone, so it’s up to me.”