Friday, October 29, 2010

The Real Blues Brothers

Buddy Guy & Junior Wells
As far as "Blues Brothers" go, Jake and Elwood are mere pretenders to the throne.  In fact, they're probably not even in the Top Five of Blues Brothers all time.  I could think of several others that qualify, even some that are actually brothers (a topic for another day).  Today, we'll discuss a pair that played together, off and on, for nearly forty years, and came as close to being "Blues Brothers" as you possibly can without being related.

Buddy Guy and Junior Wells formed one of the most formidable and longest-lasting partnerships in the blues, their recording history spanning from Wells sitting in on Guy's 1960 session for Chess, which produced memorable tracks like "Let Me Love You," to their swan song as a duo, a live recording at Guy's Legends in the early 90's.  In between, they toured most of the world, opened for the Rolling Stones, recorded with blues legends like Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, Memphis Slim, and others....and rock stars like Eric Clapton, Dr. John, the J. Geils Band, Bill Wyman.....

Despite their closeness in age (Wells was born in 1934 and Guy in 1936), Junior Wells was considerably more experienced than Guy when they met.  Wells moved to Chicago as a youngster and by the age of eleven, he was playing harmonica in blues clubs throughout the Windy City.  As a youngster, Wells met Memphis native Little Junior Parker, who piqued his interest in harmonica.  He soon teamed up with guitarists Louis and David Myers and drummer Fred Below and their band, the Aces, soon became one of the toughest bands in Chicago, rivalling even the Muddy Waters Band.

Guy actually saw Wells perform as part of a concert given at his high school in Baton Rouge in the early 50's.  By that time, Wells had recorded several of his standard tunes ("Messin' With The Kid," "Hoodoo Man Blues," "Come On In This House") and had replaced Little Walter in Muddy Waters' band.  He was not yet twenty years old.

Buddy Guy didn't make it to Chicago until September of 1957.  He had been playing in Louisiana with Raful Neal and he cut a demo, called "Baby Don't You Wanna Come Home" at the Baton Rouge radio station WXOK.  He decided to try his luck in Chicago because that was where the biggest names were playing.  Guy was influenced by two artists as a youngster.....B. B. King and Guitar Slim.  "I wanted to play like B. B. but act like Guitar Slim," he said in his autobiography, Damn Right I've Got The Blues, but it was in Chicago where Guy developed his own distinctive sound. 

There were so many great guitarists in Chicago at the time that Guy initially had difficulty getting work.  Otis Rush gave him one of his first real opportunities at the 708 Club and Guy never looked back.  He eventually gained confidence playing with and against the likes of Rush, Earl Hooker, Louis and David Myers, Magic Sam, Wayne Bennett, and Matt Murphy.

In 1958, there was a "Battle of the Blues" held at The Blue Flame Club.  Competitors included Wells, Otis Rush, Magic Sam, and Buddy Guy.  Wells nearly carried the day, but according to Howlin' Wolf guitarist Abe "Little Smokey" Smothers, Guy won over the crowd with his theatrics, which included throwing his guitar up in the air and catching with one hand while letting the guitar neck slip down while he squeezed the strings.  This emitted a crying sound that ended his solo.  This led to Guy's recordings for Artistic and Cobra and also backing Magic Sam on some of his Cobra recordings.  He then moved to Chess after Cobra folded.

Soon, Guy and Wells fell in together doing regular gigs at Theresa's and Pepper's and became virtually inseparable.  By the mid 60's, Wells was set to record an album for Robert Koester's Delmark Records, a tiny blues and jazz label in Chicago.  Koester had seen Wells perform with Guy's band and wanted to record them just as they played live.  Koester had a different approach from most record labels at the time, like Leonard Chess, who wanted singles for airplay and a style that would attract teen buyers.  He didn't want the three minute versions of the band's repertoire....he wanted the songs played just as the band played them at Theresa's and Pepper's. 

At first, Wells was hesitant because Delmark was a small jazz-oriented label and he figured the record wouldn't sell that well, but when he approached Guy with it, the guitarist was eager to do it.  Hoodoo Man Blues is considered by many to be the first actual album of blues that was originally intended to be an album, not a collection of singles.  The album proved to be Delmark's biggest seller ever, and continues to sell remarkably well today.  On the original release, Guy was under contract to Chess Records and had to be listed in the credits as "Friendly Chap."  However, once you hear the guitar, there's no doubt who is backing Wells.  Here's an alternate take of the title cut, with some interesting guitar from Guy.  According to Bob Koester, Guy was having problems with his amp, so they amplified his guitar through a Hammond B3 for a couple of tracks, giving it a shimmering, eerie feel. 

That was only the beginning.  The duo continued to record together for Delmark and eventually Vanguard (beginning with four songs on the classic collection, Chicago/The Blues/Today!) in the 60's.  They even toured Africa separately and then as a team.  They also recorded separately with their own bands during this time and both released some of their best recordings with these two labels, including Wells' It's My Life, Baby and Southside Blues Jam (both with Guy on guitar) and Guy's A Man And The Blues (with the immortal Otis Spann on piano).  Here's a cut from their first Vanguard session, "Help Me," Wells' tribute to one of his mentors, Sonny Boy Williamson II."

In the early 70's, Atco Records, a subsidiary of Atlantic Records, brought the two together to record with Eric Clapton behind the board.  Clapton had played with them during their European tour with the Rolling Stones.  Unfortunately, Clapton was deep into his heroin addiction and didn't bring his "A" game to the proceedings.  It should have been the duo's big break, but ended up on the shelf for two years before finally being released with members of the J. Geils Band adding instrumentation to a couple of tracks to make a full album.  Though there are some nice moments on the recording, Buddy Guy & Junior Wells Play The Blues' main significance was the fact that it's the first album to feature both Guy and Well's names on the album cover with equal billing.  Here's one of the high points of the album, "My Baby She Left Me," another Sonny Boy Williamson song.

Pleading the BluesThe pair continued recording throughout the seventies, for European labels during their regular tours.  They recorded two sets at Montreux, one in 1974 with Bill Wyman and Pinetop Perkins that was released by Blind Pig as Drinkin' TNT 'N' Smokin' Dynamite, and the other in 1977 with Jimmy Johnson, Dave Myers, and Odie Payne that was reissued in the U.S. by Evidence Records in the 90's as Live in Montreux.  Better yet was a set recorded in studio in 1979 for Isabel Records called Pleading the Blues.  This stellar set featured Guy and Wells with Buddy's brother Phil on rhythm guitar, J. W. Williams on bass, and Ray "Killer" Allison on drums.  It was recorded at the same time that Buddy Guy used this same band to record Blues Giant, which was later picked up domestically by Alligator and retitled Stone Crazy.  All in all, that was a very productive day for both artists.  Unfortunately Pleading The Blues didn't get issued in the U.S. until the mid 90's, also by Evidence Records.

Over the years, they became like brothers, good friends at times, fierce rivals at others.  There was some artistic differences and some personality clashes.  Buddy Guy probably explained it best in his autobiography:  

"When we was in Boston, the guy from the Globe called up and said, 'I understand you guys don't get along.'  I don't know how they could get that, you know.  As long as I been dealing with this guy, if we didn't get along, you wouldn't see us smiling.  So I don't know how people could look at us and feel like we don't get along.  I just get tired of Junior sometimes.  I look into his face more than I do my wife's." 
Junior Wells had his own thoughts about their friendship:

"I don't have a brother, but Buddy felt like a brother to me after we got into doing things and got messing around, shucking here and shucking there about this and that.  I'll tell Buddy things I won't tell nobody.  Buddy talks to me about things he won't talk to nobody else about because he knows it will go no further than what me and him said."

They played together occasionally in the 80's, when record deals were few and far between.  Guy recorded a few albums for the British label, JSP, in the late 70's and 80's, but Junior was silent on the recording scene for the most part during the 80's.  They did appear at the 1989 JazzFest in New Orleans.  I got to see them at JazzFest.  I never saw Junior Wells perform solo in person except on TV appearances, but I did get to see Guy a couple of years later just before he really hit big with his Silvertone debut in 1991.  While I thought he was good solo, I really thought that they brought out the best in each other when they performed together.  Where Guy could sometimes be undisciplined as a solo, he stayed pretty grounded during the appearance I caught of him with Wells, and on other appearances I've seen on YouTube and other places.  From all accounts, Wells was a pretty tough taskmaster as a bandleader and obviously it rubbed off on Guy when they played together.

As mentioned, Guy's star took off in the 90's, when he scored a deal with Silvertone Records and played in some big venues with the likes of Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan.  Wells landed a deal with Telarc in the early 90's, too, and after a couple of disappointments, he really hit his stride with a live disc recorded at Guy's club, Legends, and a disc featuring Wells with a host of slide guitarists.  Soon after, he was diagnosed with lymphoma, suffered a heart attack and lapsed into a coma, passing away in early 1998.

Last Time Around: Live at LegendsGuy and Wells' recording legacy wasn't finished though.  Fortunately, someone had the foresight to record the duo in an acoustic setting at Legends a few years before, in 1993, and Silvertone released the disc about six months after Wells' death.  It was a fitting farewell to one of the greatest and longest partnerships in the blues.  It had been several years since they played together and they were obviously glad to be doing so again, as evidenced by this cut from the album, a medley of Jimmy Reed tunes called, "Seeds of Reed."

Guy, now 74, still continues to amaze and dazzle.  He's got a new disc, Living Proof, out this autobiographical disc of sorts, that ranks with his best since his return to recording in the 90's.  As for Junior Wells.....even though he's been gone a dozen years now, Delmark is keeping his memory alive with some fantastic live recordings from the 60's and 70's that capture him at his best.  There's lots of product out there for both artists, together and solo.....nearly all of it is worth a listen.

No comments: