Friday, December 19, 2014

New and Improved - Junior Wells' Southside Blues Jam

Way back in the early 90's, I picked up a copy of Junior Wells' 1970 Delmark album, Southside Blues Jam.  I first heard Wells on the Chicago album of the Atlantic Blues series (with his longtime musical partner, Buddy Guy), his appearance on the Chicago/The Blues/Today! series with Guy, and their Blind Pig live set, but I really became a fan after I saw him with his band on the old Lonesome Pine TV series that was broadcast on PBS in the 80's.  That was the first time I ever saw him in person, so to speak, and I was mesmerized by his electrifying performance and his "cool as a cucumber" persona.

After seeing that performance, I started trying to seek out more recordings and eventually tracked down a nice half live/half studio album from Vanguard (It's My Life, Baby!), and then what is considered the essential Junior Wells recording, Delmark's Hoodoo Man Blues.  When I first heard Southside Blues Jam a few months later, initially I thought, "not bad," but with subsequent listens I learned to really appreciate it for a number of reasons.

Like Hoodoo Man Blues, Southside Blues Jam sought to capture the feeling of Wells and his band playing his regular Monday night gig at Theresa's Blues Bar on Chicago's South Side.  Wells' regular band at Theresa's included Buddy Guy and Louis Myers on guitars, Earnest Johnson on bass, and Fred Below on drums, and they were here for this recording.

The fact that Wells was playing with his own band really lends a sense of warmth and intimacy.  Familiarity certainly played a major role in the performances on the album.  The key word for the session is L-O-O-S-E.  Wells takes a few of these songs and builds them from scratch, seemingly making lyrics up as they come to him, and there's a lot of give-and-take with the band during the songs.

"I Could Have Had Religion" starts out as a song about a woman and nearly becoming a preacher, but suddenly, out of nowhere, it moves to a lamentation about the tragedies that had befallen several of the area's stellar bluesmen (Magic Sam' death a couple of weeks earlier, Howlin' Wolf's recent heart attack, Muddy Waters' terrible car accident).  You can sort of tell that even the band was caught off guard by this transition, but everything works out perfectly.  Wells' performance is deep and heartfelt...very powerful.

"Blues for Mayor Daley" is similar in scope.  Wells begins by singing about his birth and upbringing, and his blues beginnings and influences, but he moves into discussing the things that make the blues so great......the power, the passion, the friendships and camaraderie, and the heart and soul that go into everything about the blues.  Soon, he's addressing the mayor, suggesting that he come to Theresa's on a Monday night and experience it first hand.

The other songs on the original album were covers of fairly familiar material.....a couple by Wells mentor Sonny Boy Williamson II ("Stop Breaking Down," "In My Younger Days"), Waters ("Just Make Love To Me," "Long Distance Call"), Memphis Slim ("Lend Me Your Love"), and Guitar Slim ("Trouble Don't Last").  The last song also included Guy taking a turn behind the mic.

A bit about the players......Here, Buddy Guy's guitar work is fierce and imaginative, barely controlled ferocity all the way....but always in the right place at the right time.  I've mentioned before here that Guy can be a bit frustrating to see in person....the force-of-nature guitar work is always there, but the show itself will occasionally meander a bit, with him breaking off songs midway and going off on tangents, focusing more on Hendrix and Clapton tunes than on his own contributions to the blues.  I think Junior Wells brought out the best in Buddy Guy, and this disc is no exception.  They worked so well together, complementing each other's strengths perfectly.

As for the other band members.....Louis Myers was the consummate sideman for years in Chicago, and with Wells, drummer Fred Below and his brother, guitarist David Myers, he formed the Four Aces, one of the premier bands of the Windy City's early 50's music scene.  When Wells left to replace Little Walter in Waters' band, The remaining aces began backing Little Walter and continued to do so for a long, productive period.  Myers had a pretty decent solo career in addition to his work as a sideman, releasing several fine albums on his own.

Fred Below was a blues drumming pioneer who played a big role in the development of Chicago blues rhythmic structure.  A Chicago native, Below got his start playing jazz, even playing with future jazz legend Lester Young while both were in the army.  When Below returned to Chicago after serving, he found out that blues had replaced jazz in popularity, so he turned to blues drumming, joining the Aces.  His jazz background helped him, and the Four Aces, to stand out from the normal Chicago blues bands, and helped introduce the blues shuffle beat to the music.

Stalwart bass player Earnest Johnson backed some of the Windy City's finest over his long career, including Waters, Guy, Earl Hooker, Memphis Slim, and Magic Sam (on Sam's masterful West Side Soul).  Johnson was also bass player at the recently issued Muddy Waters DVD at the Checkerboard Lounge from 1981 with the Rolling Stones, Guy, Wells, Lefty Dizz and others.  He died relatively young in 1982, only in his early 50's.

The final ingredient in the mix was blues piano legend Otis Spann, who Wells had seen the night before the session and invited to participate.  Spann was a major part of the Muddy Waters Band for two decades, recording with Waters from the early 50's until the late 60's, before finally striking out on his own as a solo artist in the mid 60's, when he released several very good recordings of his own on the Candid (two wonderful discs with Robert Lockwood, Jr. on guitar), Testament, Bluesway and Vanguard labels.  These sessions with Wells were Spann's final recordings.  He died in April of 1970 from liver cancer.  However, his distinctive style comes through as strong here as any of his recordings with Waters over the years (in fact, he played on some of the original versions of these songs).

Southside Blues Jam is a great picture of the Chicago blues scene of the late 60's, featuring one of the finest bands of its time in a comfortable, relaxed session.  These musicians complement each other so well.  They're almost telepathic in their playing.  Hours, days, weeks, and years of playing together will do that.  An internet friend who was a part of the Chicago blues scene in the late 70's actually played for Wells and says that period was one of the most enjoyable that he had during his time in the Windy City.  That comes through on these recordings.

Delmark recently reissued Southside Blues Jam, adding an alternate take of "I Could Have Had Religion," a couple more Waters-influenced tunes, a nice cover of an old Little Walter tune ("It's Too Late Brother"), some amusing studio banter between Wells and Myers, a short warm-up jam with Guy and Spann, and a closing improvised jam that finds Wells quoting and sometimes imitating Howlin' Wolf, Albert King, Muddy Waters, Sam Cooke, and Tampa Red.  These tracks bring out the relaxed atmosphere even more.  It would have been a blast to have been a fly on the wall during these sessions just to take in the surroundings and the conversations and the interplay first hand.  Thanks to Delmark's superlative work on this reissue, it makes a previously enjoyable listening experience even better.

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