When I first began listening to Chicago Blues, a handful of albums recorded in the mid-‘60’s made for essential listening. They included Hoodoo Man Blues by Junior Wells; The Blues Never Die by Otis Spann; eponymously titled sets byThe Paul Butterfield Blues Band and The James Cotton Blues Band; Buddy Guy's A Man and the Blues; Charley Musselwhite's Stand Back; and the three-volume series, Chicago/The Blues /Today. The Chess Vintage series was equally essential, but that drew on previously released singles, not present-day albums.
Wells was featured on five titles in Volume 1 of the Sam Charters-produced Blues Today series, and Buddy Guy was with him there as well as on Hoodoo Man, where for contractual reasons he appeared under the pseudonym, Friendly Chap. (Ironically, the 2011 reissue of Hoodoo Man Blues, while still under Wells’s name, downloads on I-Tunes as Buddy Guy’s date with no recognition of Wells.)
The mid-60's LP’s retained some of the subdued, “sit-down blues” quality that Guy first heard when he arrived in Chicago in 1957. Notwithstanding the occasionally loud, raucous sounds of amplified Chicago Blues, whose classic iterations by Muddy Waters, Little Walter, and Howlin’ Wolf had a seminal influence on high decibel rock in the ‘60’s, there was a subtler quality to what the great originators were playing in taverns and social clubs in black urban neighborhoods. In retrospect, these albums represent a last testament of blues as a black folk form before being co-opted by rock.
Here's Howlin' Wolf with Hubert Sumlin doing it from a seated position in 1964.
Paul Butterfield played a significant role in the blues-rock transition with his 1966 LP, East-West, which featured extended guitar solos by Michael Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop, and a year earlier his Elektra debut famously encouraged listeners to play the record “at the highest possible volume.” Nonetheless, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band was arguably the most idiomatically precise electric blues record then to have been led by a white man. As Downbeat writer Pete Welding put it in 1965, “[Butterfield] developed the necessary musical and intuitive skills to penetrate beyond the surface of the music in a manner and to a degree unmatched by any other white bluesman.” (I’ll have more to report on Butterfield next week in recognition of his 70th birthday anniversary on December 17. )
December 9th is Junior Wells' 78th birthday anniversary. Born Amos Blakemore, he was raised around Memphis, where Junior Parker was a boyhood friend, and arrived in Chicago in 1948 at age 14. The great singer-harmonica player John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson was his original model, and Little Walter and Rice Miller (Sonny Boy Williamson II) soon followed. A 19-year-old Wells made his debut recordings, including his first shot at "Hoodoo Man Blues," in 1953 in the company of Elmore James and Muddy Waters, and they're among the finest of the period. His original group featured Louis and Dave Myers, guitar and bass, respectively, and Fred Below on drums. They called themselves the Aces, but when Little Walter scored with "Juke," he took them on the road and billed them as the Jukes. They were back with Wells in the mid-60's.
(Fred Below, Dave Myers, Louis Myers; Ebony Magazine 1972)
Junior's musical ambition guided him away from what might have been full-fledged membership in the South Side’s notorious Blackstone Rangers gang, but the jive-humored frontman maintained a street tough persona which made it unlikely that he would ever have been considered for the Kennedy Center Honor that the well-spoken Buddy Guy received last week from President Obama. Junior's performance of "Worried Life Blues" on the recently discovered Live in Boston finds him telling his young collegiate audience that the real blues is "dirty, stanky, and low down," qualities he maintained everywhere from Theresa's Lounge, his South Side base, to concert stages worldwide.
For the Vanguard session, Wells knocked out a handful of tunes including “Help Me,” which he dedicated to the song’s composer, the recently deceased Sonny Boy II; it began with Junior saying, “I want to pay tribute to an old fellow and a nice outstanding musician...I was one of his students and he taught me well.” That brief statement, as much as anything I understood at the time, let me know that this music rested within a tradition, but that didn't make it any less relevant or contemporary. The session also featured Wells’s “Viet Cong Blues,” an ominous lament that foreshadowed the antiwar movement and focused on the irony of black soldiers being sent to fight another war overseas while racism still prevailed at home.
Charters lauded Junior and Buddy for “almost breathing together in their blues," but it was Hoodoo Man Blues that was a watershed. Delmark Records owner Bob Koester calls it the first studio album ever made on a working Chicago blues band, and it remains one of the biggest-selling blues LP’s of all time. In addition to its title track and the classics "Early in the Morning," "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl," and "Driftin' Blues (Ships on the Ocean)," the album's opener is a funky dance tune, “Snatch It Back and Hold It,” that showed off Junior’s taste for modern soul music a la James Brown. Due to amplifier problems on the first day of the two-day session, Guy played “Hoodoo Man” through a Leslie organ amp that added even more of a menacing quality to the double cross that Junior relates.
Here’s Wells with Jack Myers, Fred Below, and guitarist Otis Rush performing “Hoodoo Man Blues” on an American Folk Blues Festival tour of Europe in 1966. It’s rare to see Rush backing a harp player, but he does so here with consummate mastery.
And here's Junior with Buddy and Phil Guy on guitars and A.C. Reed on tenor saxophone performing "Little By Little," which Wells had first recorded in 1958 with Earl Hooker on guitar. Wells died in 1998. I miss him to this day.