By Elaine Bowen Hegwood, MSJ
It’s a crazy notion, but Chess Records in Chicago regarded his playing as “just making noise,” until after they learned that British artists such as Eric Clapton were playing the blues to wide appreciation. But the blues that these other artists were playing—or attempted to play—was, in fact, their imitating what George Buddy Guy had perfected. These and other revelations were shared by Guy and a host of other industry professionals in “The Torch,” a documentary about the life of one of the last living blues greats and legends.
The documentary was presented as the closing night film at the 55th Chicago International Film Festival. It was such an honor for Chicago’s adopted legend, who landed in the Windy City in September of 1957 because he wanted to see just how far his skills could take him, as opposed to working with his sharecropping family in Lettsworth, Louisiana. As a youth, Guy started plucking around on a guitar fashioned from a lighter fluid can and window screen wire. This was all he had to work with until a neighborhood man took him and bought him his first guitar.
Once in Chicago, Guy also worked in local clubs with Willie Dixon, Otis Rush and Koko Taylor, among others. On the other hand, Guy has influenced Jimi Hendrix and The Rolling Stones. Fast forward a couple of decades and now Guy is plucking his notes on a custom “Fender Buddy Guy Polka Dot Stratocaster,” which is considered one of the best guitars on the planet.
The documentary reveals that Guy is a delightful artist, very giving and committed to a promise that he made to his mentor, the late Muddy Waters—who offered Guy a salami sandwich inside his “fancy car” when Guy was flat broke and disillusioned about his success in Chicago—to pass the torch to as many musicians as possible to ensure that the blues genre doesn’t fade away. One of his more prominent protégés is Quinn Sullivan.
I commend CIFF on presenting “The Torch” as a tribute to Guy, whose club Buddy Guy’s Legends welcomes patrons from the world over who want to see the master play. And, in turn, Guy, 83, has been all over the world playing. It was also great that Mayor Lori Lightfoot proclaimed October 27 as “Buddy Guy Day,” but the lack of Black representation on the Red Carpet reception for Guy leaves much to be desired. This reporter found it downright disrespectful and insulting to Guy that only one Black, a cameraman from local media, was noticeable. (Or maybe I was so livid during the moment that I didn’t notice anyone else).
I had been granted credentials to welcome and/or present a question to Guy while he was on the red carpet, but was headed off at the pass, so to speak, by someone whom I assumed wasn’t a CIFF official, but who most likely was a gatekeeper associated with the documentary itself. I was told that my credentials email hadn’t reached the appropriate people and that I may not be able to ask a question. This even after I pulled up said email on my phone. The Crusader didn’t even have a place marker, as other media did, including Spanish language Hoy. To prevent any friction, I relented and just attended the screening. Although Guy and I made eye contact and I tendered a smile, and as much as I was on a mission to report, I wouldn’t add any more disrespect to him—not any more than the exclusion of Black media in his own town had, in my opinion, already done.
For 20 years, Attorney Randy Crumpton chaired the Black Perspectives committee of the Chicago Film Festival, showcasing stories from the African Diaspora. He passed away last spring, and the festival did honor him this year for his tireless commitment. During those years, Crumpton had a hand in bringing stars to Chicago Film Festival events—honoring many of them in the process—including actors Halle Berry, Viola Davis, Taye Diggs, Morgan Freeman, Ruby Dee, Terrence Howard and Sidney Poitier, as well as directors Spike Lee, Steve McQueen and Barry Jenkins. And, he was “absolutely instrumental” in bringing “Black Panther” costume designer Ruth E. Carter to the fest, said its artistic director, Mimi Plauche in press materials. Given this, I would like to view his unfortunate absence from the planning of the Black Perspectives slate to account for the lacking media representation at “The Torch” screening.
The wealth of films about and for the Black community was excellent this year. However, the Chicago International Film Festival needs to step up its game on equal representation on red carpet events, particularly those showcasing Black talent.
I will keep readers informed when “The Torch” is in wider distribution. It is a great “rags to riches” film.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., is the Entertainment Editor for the Chicago Crusader newspaper. She is also the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood–South Side of Chicago.” For book info, firstname.lastname@example.org.