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.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Recommended Reading

Yes, it's been one of those weeks.  Monday, I was inspired to have a great post for the weekend and I even started working on it that night.  But as soon as I saved it for the night, my computer started going nuts.  Next thing I knew, there was a pink screen with purple characters running across it.  I'm no detective, but I knew this wasn't good.  Needless to say, my computer is now in the shop as my friend feverishly tries to salvage my hard drive, and I'm going through blogging withdrawals.  Now I'm on a borrowed computer, piecing together a post at the last minute.

In previous posts on Friday Blues Fix, I've discussed some great books that I read that helped me find out more about this genre of music that I love so much.  Today, I thought I would share a few of them with you.

Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix & The Post-War Rock 'N' Roll RevolutionCrosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix and the Rock n' Roll Revolution:  Okay, now you're probably thinking I'm nuts listing this book.  To me, that's an indication that you haven't read this book.  Charles Sharr-Murray's book is not just a biography of Hendrix, it's also a riveting, broad-based examination of black music in America, from the blues to jazz to R&B and soul.  The blues section of the book includes some interesting mini-bios of artists like Charley Patton and Robert Johnson and even though it's only about 25 pages long, it's pretty comprehensive, or at least it was to me when I first read it in the early 90's as a relative newcomer to the blues.  All of the above listed musical styles played a part in the development of Hendrix, who was as comfortable playing avant-garde jazz as he was ripping into a rock song or playing an acoustic Delta blues song.  We only scratched the surface with this fascinating artist before his tragic death.  If you like Hendrix's music and you're a fan of any of these other styles of music, you need this book.  Come to think of it, I need this book again myself.  I loaned it to my brother a while back and I think I'm going to reclaim it and read it for the fourth time.

Stormy Monday: The T-Bone Walker StoryStormy Monday: The T-Bone Walker Story:  One of these days, I'm going to devote an entire post to the music of T-Bone Walker, one of the most influential blues guitarists ever.  He was a major influence on B. B. King, who's been a major influence on nearly every blues guitarist that followed him.  That being said, this book by Helen Oakley Dance does have a few issues for me.  Dance was a friend of Walker's and was able to be around him when he wasn't performing or recording.  Therefore the primary focus of the book is on Walker's life and his family instead of his music and while he did lead an interesting life, that's not the reason why someone would buy a book about T-Bone Walker, is it?  What is there about the music is very good, but it's just not enough.  The discography is fairly handy as it features not only his own recordings, but recordings he did with other artists.  The reason I recommend this book is because, quite simply, it's the only book about T-Bone Walker that's out there right now and so it will be the definitive bio until someone else comes along, and everybody who loves the blues needs to know as much about T-Bone Walker as possible.  (By the way, does anybody out there know what ever happened to R. S. Rankin, aka T-Bone Walker, Jr.?)

The World Don't Owe Me Nothing: The Life and Times of Delta Bluesman Honeyboy EdwardsThe World Don't Owe Me Nothing: The Life and Times of Delta Bluesman David Honeyboy Edwards:  This is the real deal, folks.....the history of the blues as far back as we can go, from somebody who was there.  Edwards' life story is incredible from his early days hoboing to his travels with various bluesmen (including Robert Johnson) to his early recordings to his later work as an elder statesman for the blues.  Edwards was present when Robert Johnson was poisoned and recounts that story in detail in this book.  This is not just a history of Edwards, it tells you what was going on in the world around him.  If you've ever heard Edwards tell one of his stories from back then, you will appreciate that the book is written just as he said it.  You can almost read it in his voice, it's so authentic. 

The B. B. King Treasures: Photos, Mementos & Music from B. B. King's CollectionThe B. B. King Treasures: Photos, Mementos & Music From B. B. King's Collection: Dick Waterman helped King put this book together a few years back.  It's a biography of sorts, with King's recollections and thoughts on many different subjects, like race relations and the British Invasion, but it features many never-before-seen or rarely seen photos of King.  There are also a set of sleeves inserted in the book that show replicas of many King-related mementos, such as old tickets, programs, posters, and even King's store account from when he was a sharecropper.  Even better is the CD that accompanies the book.  The CD features interviews with King taken at various times during his career, plus two never-released songs.  This book is the perfect complement to the B. B. King Museum in Indianola, MS and should be in every B. B. King fan's library.

That's all for now.  I hope you will check out some of these books and enjoy them as much as I did.

Next week, we'll look at a pair of artists that epitomized the words, "Blues Brothers."  See you then.

Friday, October 15, 2010

News and Notes

This week, Friday Blues Fix covers a lot of ground in a short time, starting with a tribute to a true musical pioneer whose influence was felt on mulitple genres.

Solomon Burke, the King of Rock N' Soul, passed away this past weekend in an Amsterdam airport at age 70.  Though you may not have heard of Burke, soul music would not be where it is today without him.  Burke influenced countless soul singers throughout the 60's, including Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Joe Tex, and many others, including the Rolling Stones, who covered a pair of Burke's songs during their early years.

Though he started out as a preacher, recording gospel sides for Apollo in the 50's, he eventually moved toward secular music upon signing with Atlantic Records in the early 60's.  His sides for Atlantic mixed gospel and country influences with soul on hits like "Just Out of Reach," "Got To Get You Off My Mind," "If You Need Me," "Everybody Needs Somebody To Love" (later recorded by Wilson Pickett), and probably his best known song, "Cry To Me," which was a hit in the 60's and also in the late 80's, when it became an integral part of the movie, and soundtrack to, Dirty Dancing.  All of these songs have been collected in The Very Best of Solomon Burke.

Though Burke had a magnificent voice with range most singers would kill for (Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler called Burke, "the greatest soul singer of all time."), he never achieved the crossover success of many of his contemporaries, like Pickett, Otis Redding, and Aretha Franklin.  Most of his songs did well on the R&B charts, but barely scratched the pop charts.  He jumped around to various record labels in the 70's, before settling in for a time with Rounder Records out of Massachusetts, where he recorded two incredible albums, 1984's Soul Alive!.....a masterful performance that captured perfectly the fervor of his live shows, down to the frantic screaming of the women members of the audience, and 1986's A Change Is Gonna Come, a great modern recording which showed that King Solomon was as much a force of nature in the mid 80's as he was in the mid 60's.  Here's the opening cut from A Change Is Gonna Come, "Love Buys Love," written by the great Paul Kelly.


He was also a major player in Peter Guralnick's Sweet Soul MusicTHE book of Southern soul music.  If you haven't read this book and you enjoy soul music, you really must add it to your reading list.  While the book covers many other soul pioneers, such as Ray Charles, James Brown, Wilson Pickett, James Carr, Al Green, and Otis Redding, Solomon Burke is the star of the book, pure and simple, and the exposure led to a resurgence in his popularity.

He also recorded a couple of early 90's discs for Black Top Records that were well-received, but the turn of the century saw him at his most prolific, as he recorded several critically acclaimed albums, including Don't Give Up On Me for Fat Possum in 2002, Nashville (a country/soul disc) in 2006, and his final release from earlier this year, Nothing's ImpossibleIronically the last recording produced by the legendary Willie Mitchell turned out to be the last recording from Solomon Burke.

We'll bid the King of Rock N' Soul farewell with this fantastic cut from his latest, "Dreams," which features the best of Burke's singing and testifying, along with Mitchell's classic Memphis soul production values (love those horns and gurgly keyboard)....then a clip from the early part of the decade from the British show, Tops of The Pops, with Burke performing "Everybody Needs Somebody To Love."

There have been some very nice tributes to Solomon Burke on various blogs, including one from Dick Waterman.  Mr. Waterman is one of the few non-performers to be inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame and he's had a fascinating career.  He started promoting concerts featuring blues performers in his native Massachusetts in the early 60's and later formed Avalon Productions, a booking agency that represented blues artists.  He ended up representing artists like Skip James, Son House, Junior Wells, Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, Lightnin' Hopkins, B. B. King, and many others.  He even played a big role in the beginning of Bonnie Raitt's career.  After many of the artists he represented passed away, he did his best to make sure that their estates were taken care of and their heirs were provided for.

Over the years, Waterman had taken thousands of photographs of the various musicians he represented or saw performing at various settings.  In the 80's, he started a second career publishing his pictures.  In addition to blues artists, he has photographed many rock, jazz, folk, zydeco, and country artists.  Many of these pictures can be seen on his site, but he collected a hundred or so of them a few years ago into a book called Between Midnight and Day: The Last Unpublished Blues Archive

If you're a longtime blues fan, you're already familiar with Waterman's work, whether you know it or not.  Many of the iconic photos you've seen, either on album covers or in magazines or on blogs, were taken by Mr. Waterman himself.  You'll see several in this book that fall into that category, but there are also some little-seen ones that will get your attention as well.

Mississippi John Hurt (photo by Dick Waterman)
In addition to the photos, Waterman includes a few anecdotes about each artist featured.  These range from hilarious (Robert Lockwood Jr., Mance Lipscomb, and Mississippi Fred McDowell) to poignant (McDowell, Robert Pete Williams, and Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup), sometimes in the same story.  He pulls no punches either with his personal feelings for some artists (Luther Allison and Bukka White), but at the same time, he's very honest about his own flaws.  I picked this book up last year during my visit to the B. B. King Museum in Indianola and read it from cover to cover the first night.  It is essential reading for any blues fan, so check it out.

Son House (photo by Dick Waterman)
Son House was one of the artists that Waterman represented after House's "rediscovery" in the 60's.  Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters were both influenced by this dynamic artist during his heyday in the 1930's, as he performed in the Mississippi Delta alongside the likes of Charley Patton, Willie Brown, and later, Johnson.  His recordings, for Paramount in the 30's and for the Library of Congress in the early 40's are awe-inspiring.  Son House played and sang the blues like a man possessed, particularly on the six sides he recorded for Paramount. 

Listen to House's Library of Congress recording of "Walking Blues" below and take in the atmosphere of the session with the give and take between House and the other artists (Fiddlin' Joe Martin on mandolin, Leroy Williams on harmonica, and Willie Brown on second guitar) and the sound of steam locomotives passing through in the background.  Though this song is sometimes credited to Robert Johnson, House actually recorded it during his 1931 session with Paramount, but it was never released and a test acetate wasn't found until years later. 

House was a morose sort.....he wavered between playing the blues and becoming a Baptist preacher for years.  He battled constantly with the more gregarious Patton during their time performing together, but he slowed down quite a bit after Patton's death in 1934 and left the blues behind completely in the early 40's, and ended up working with the railroad in Rochester, New York, while various blues scholars beat the bushes trying to find out what happened to him. 

When he was rediscovered in the mid 60's, he hadn't played a guitar in years and literally had to be retaught to play like Son House (by Al Wilson of Canned Heat).  Soon, he began playing at various festivals and was even recording again.  While he had lost some of his guitar playing skill over time, that fierce passion was still present and his performances were just as impressive as they had been 25 - 30 years earlier.  Eventually, he developed health problems and retired in 1976.  He died in 1988.  I think Cub Koda said it best......"Son House was the Blues."

"Death Letter Blues" was the first song I ever heard by Son House and it was proof enough for me that he was the real deal.  Check out this performance from the mid 60's.