Friday, November 4, 2016

One Very Productive Day

For Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, October 31st in 1979 had to be one of the most productive days they ever enjoyed as musicians.  The pair was busy touring overseas in Europe and were spending some time in France.  Sad to say, but at the time, blues artists frequently enjoyed larger followings in Europe and other countries than they did in their home country (a condition that exists for some blues artists even to this day).  It was difficult for many blues artists to even record an album in the time, neither Guy or Wells had recorded a domestic album in several years.

While they were touring in France, Guy was approached by French promoter Didier Tricard, who asked if the guitarist was interested in cutting an album while there.  Guy agreed, on the condition (half-jokingly) that Tricard named the record label that was being created for the album after Guy's mother, which Tricard agreed to do.

It had been seven years since Guy had stepped into a studio to record Buddy Guy & Junior Wells Play The Blues, a solid, yet frustrating release on Atlantic Records that included Eric Clapton, Dr. John, and the J. Geils Band.  On the album recorded with Tricard, Guy employed his working band, which included his brother Phil on rhythm guitar, J.W. Williams on bass, and Ray "Killer" Allison on drums, and was given total artistic control and freedom.  He could record what he wanted the way he wanted, and that's just what he did.

The album, originally released by Isabel Records as Blues Giant, was without a doubt Guy's rawest and most honest recording at that time.  There were only six tracks on the album, but no one complained.  He opened with "I Smell A Rat," which can best be described as "nine minutes of organized chaos."  This was one of the first Buddy Guy tracks that I ever heard, and it blew me away with the wild guitar, the nearly hysterical vocals and the powerful rhythm section holding everything in place.

Guy also cut "Stone Crazy," retitled here as "Are You Losing Your Mind," with razor-sharp lead guitar and vocals seemingly on the edge of despair.  The remaining four cuts are the rocker "You've Been Gone Too Long," the smooth "She's Out There Somewhere," the slow burner "Outskirts of Town," and the fiery closer, "When I Left Home."

The album didn't make much noise in the U.S. at the time, but when Bruce Iglauer picked it up for release on Alligator Records in 1981 and re-titled it as Stone Crazy!, it became one of the label's best-selling discs and continues to sell well today.

That alone would probably be considered a very good day by most bluesmen's standards, but Guy's day was just beginning.  That same evening, his musical partner Junior Wells recorded an album with Guy and his band in the same studio for Tricard.  It was called Pleading The Blues.

As raw and unleashed as Guy was on his own album, he was impressively understated, reserved, and totally under control when backing Wells on this disc.  The harmonica player was in top form on this session, both vocally and blowing his harp.  His last recording had been Delmark's On Tap in 1975, so he was making up for lost time, too.

Pleading The Blues included seven tracks, opening with the title track, a smoldering eight minute cut that featured Wells' pleading vocals and Guy's busy fills.  Phil Guy provided crystal clear rhythm guitar on both of these albums and he and his brother really work well together.  Next up is my favorite Wells reading of the Tampa Red classic, "It Hurts Me Too."

Wells also shows his soul side on a few tracks, including the Brook Benton hit, "I'll Take Care Of You," and a pair of funky tunes ("Turn Out The Lights" and "I Smell Something"), where he goes into his James Brown schtick.  When I first saw Wells do this, I thought he was copying the Godfather, but I later heard from some other blues fans that Junior Wells was doing James Brown before James Brown was doing James Brown.

You really have to take your hat off to the rhythm section of Phil Guy, Williams, and Allison.  You would be hard-pressed to find two more different sessions mood-wise, but they handle the rhythm chores on each with relative ease.  Apparently, Tricard was an ideal producer.....apparently, he pretty much turned everything on and sat back and let the magic happen.

Pleading The Blues was not released in the U.S. until the early 90's, when it was issued by Evidence Records, who did blues fans a huge service at that time by reissuing dozens of recordings that had never been released stateside or suffered from poor distribution upon earlier releases.  In fact, this was how I was able to hear a lot of these great recordings, as we discussed here several years back.

At the time that I first heard it, Stone Crazy! was one of my favorite albums, but over time, I've come to enjoy Pleading The Blues more for its subtlety and balance.  I guess at the time I first started listening to the blues, I was more in a rock vein, but my listening tastes slowly moved toward the blues side of blues-rock and came to appreciate their collaborative effort more.  It's still a blast to pull from the shelf and listen to every once in a while, though.

After these two albums were released, both artists were largely silent in the studio for over a decade.  Guy released a couple of albums on JSP Records in the UK in the early 80's, but didn't record again until he signed with Silvertone in the early 90's and cut Damn Right I've Got The Blues, which helped him obtain his first real mainstream success.  Wells recorded Harp Attack for Alligator with Carey Bell, James Cotton, and Billy Branch in 1990 and later signed with Telarc Records, where he cut several albums prior to his death in 1998.

Phil and Buddy Guy

Phil Guy enjoyed some success as a solo artist before passing away in 2008 from prostate cancer.  Ray "Killer" Allison died this past month (October 5th) at the age of 60.  J.W. Williams is still going strong in Chicago, leading his band, the Chi-Town Hustlers.

Though both Buddy Guy and Junior Wells went on to greater success, blues fans can check out Stone Crazy! and Pleading The Blues to hear both of them during one of their most creative periods.


Anonymous said...

Nice piece, Graham, really enjoyed it - thanks. For decades Stone Crazy was the one essential Buddy Guy record. I don't know how sure we can be about the "total artistic freedom" granted to Guy on Stone Crazy, however - maybe Mr Tricard deserves more credit. Guy self-produced another album the same year, recorded in the Checkerboard Lounge and released on JSP as The Dollar Done Fell, on which we must assume he gave himself total artistic freedom - and the difference in style between the two albums, not to mention quality, is huge. It's still worth a listen, though. Alan Harper

Graham said...

I can't remember where I heard that.....about artistic freedom on Stone Crazy. I'm pretty sure that it was from Guy's mid 90's autobiography, Damn Right I Got The Blues (can't remember for sure and it's tucked away in storage right now). That was a pretty good book with some good information. Could very well be that Mr. Tricard did more than assumed. Most of the recordings I've heard that he was responsible for are all top notch. Glad you enjoyed reading, Alan.