Blues Classic Better Than Ever

It was 1965 and Junior Wells was no longer the precocious teenager who had gotten the likes of Muddy Waters, Elmore James and Otis Spann to back him up on his 1953 and 1954 hit singles. Now 30, he was a fixture of that generation of electric Chicago bluesmen. He toured, and worked regularly at Theresa’s on the South Side. And he was about to make an album that has long been a staple of any modern blues collection.

Albums were not yet a big part of the blues scene. Most were greatest hits compilations, often of older artists being “rediscovered.” Blues was a music of 78s and 45s sold in barbershops and corner stores. But blues was also getting a wider audience in 1965, and albums in general were becoming a bigger deal to listeners of all popular music genres. And so it was that Bob Koester got Junior Wells into Sound Studios with his Chicago Blues Band of Buddy Guy (guitar), Jack Myers (bass) and Billy Warren (drums) to record Delmark DS-612, Hoodoo Man Blues.

Wells’ raw, earthy voice, punctuated by harmonica, is spellbinding. Smoother than Howlin’ Wolf, as sexy as Muddy in his prime, he struts, coos, laughs, threatens and generally commands your absolute attention. On a song like the opener, “Snatch It Back and Hold It,” he is as urban as the blues gets. If you didn’t know who you were listening to, you’d probably be wondering when James Brown made a blues album. Tight, taut and full of attitude, he takes charge. On a slow blues like “In the Wee Wee Hours,” he ruminates on the harp, sometimes rumbling the low notes, sometimes wailing with piercing little yelps.

There have been a lot of great blues singers. Few have worked in front of an ensemble this tight. Hoodoo Man Blues is as much Buddy Guy’s album as Wells’; most of my friends used to refer to the album as “Buddy Guy and Junior Wells album.” It didn’t need a title; this was the one (although they would make others, some damn fine). By the mid-60s, Guy had perfected his electric blues style, playing stinging single note lines and small pieces of chords that moved effortlessly from backing Wells to countering him to seizing the reins.

The guitar/harmonica duo is a venerable blues tradition, sometimes played by one person (Jimmy Reed), sometimes by duos like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. It’s an interesting combo—sometimes the harp is like a horn, sometimes like a small organ. The guitarist has many choices—chords, notes, match the rhythm, counter the rhythm. Wells is probably not the most versatile harp player, but Buddy Guy does so many brilliant things around him that they keep it fresh and exciting. On the title track, for example, he uses his amps tremolo to sound like a church organ.

Add to that mix Jack Myers on bass. Myers is no ordinary bass player. He and Guy have a good thing going, each occasionally doubling the other, or even switching parts briefly. The net effect of Wells, Guy and Myers, along with tasty drummer Warren, is that something new is always happening. And it’s always tightening up the song, making it impossibly funky or edgy or sad.

This album marks one of many high points for Chicago blues. Wells made some other good albums after this, notably Southside Blues Jam, but I’ve never heard one better than Hoodoo Man Blues. There are those who prefer his early ‘50s sound, but I’m not one. If you can find Blues Hit Big Town, Delmark’s 1977 reissue (DL-640) of those early ‘50s sides, you can hear the difference.

Wells is still absorbing his influences. His harmonic playing sounds a lot like Jimmy Reed and probably Sonny Boy Williamson (the first one) as well. Even with most of Muddy’s band behind him, the music has as much a Southern swamp boogie vibe as Chicago. The ’53 version of “Hoodoo Man” is slower, darker. The 1965 version is much snappier and more sinister.

Other than B.B. King’s Live at the Regal, I’m hard-pressed to think of a better early or mid-60s blues album of then contemporary musicians. These are bluesmen in the prime of their powers. Their audience is changing from black to white beneath them, but maybe they haven’t realized that yet and are still playing the blues full on.

The recording is outstandingly made, as well. In fact, this exact record got me back into collecting vinyl. About six years ago, I was travelling to Chicago a lot for work and discovered Jazz Record Mart, Delmark founder Bob Koester’s store. Seeing as the LP my wife had brought into our marriage from the late ‘60s was kind of worn, I decided to pick up the CD there. The CD and newly pressed LPs were both on sale for$10 and I took a chance on buying both.

The contrast was remarkable. Wells sounded like he was in another room on the CD. Those evil laughs? They were just twitters. That stinging guitar? Not so stinging. It was then that I vowed that I would buy LPs when available, at least of music that was made for them originally, and especially of great vocalists. And I haven’t been often disappointed when following that logic.

Analogue Productions’ reissue doesn’t disappoint, either. The RTI pressed vinyl is well made and very quiet —there were no clicks or pops on all four sides. Mastering engineer Kevin Gray has chosen to retain Stu Black’s original mix, with drums left middle, bass left back, Wells’ voice a tad left of center, harmonica in the middle, and Guy with most of the right channel. It’s not a classic image, but it works fine for me.

Listening to both of my old 33 1/3 copies, the AcousTech pressing is definitely cleaner and more present. The bass has more articulation, the drums more life. The one thing that gave me pause is that Guy seems a tad more prominent to me, and therefore Wells slightly less prominent. The 45 has more of an ensemble feel, the original more of singer fronting backing band. It’s not crazy different— I’m exaggerating to make the point—but some may quibble with it as being too clean. I decided I liked it better, mainly because Guy is so darn good. Seriously, this is one of the great blues guitar performances on record.

The packaging is authentic, but adds nothing new. As has been said about a number of other 45rpm reissues, for $50 you might wish for a little heftier sleeve.

But that’s a nit. This album is DYNOMITE and this pressing is sweet. A truly great album done truly well. Now, if someone can just do the same for Live at the Regal and Magic Sam’s great West Side Soul, another Delmark classic…

Music Direct Buy It Now

Janine's picture

Great music. This stuff is worth checking out. - Carmack Moving and Storage