Tuesday, September 22, 2009

September 22: Junior Wells, "Hoodoo Man Blues"

Artist: Junior Wells
Album: Hoodoo Man Blues
Year: 1965
Label: Delmark

While many believe that the image of the musician as the "tough gangster" was an invention of late 1980's hip hop music, the truth of the matter is, the image goes back decades earlier. Whether it was Iceberg Slim and his tales of the streets or performers who made up for what they lacked in talent with mob connections, the relationship between gangsters and musicians is as old as music itself. Known for strutting the stage in a gangster manner, and addressing the audience with one of the "baddest" personas ever seen, blues legend Junior Wells in many ways epitomized this duality. Recording some of the most memorable and influential blues songs of all time, Wells sang and played harmonica like no other before him. Wells had a sound and swagger that made his sound unlike that of anyone else, and this ability to easily differentiate himself from his peers is one of the key factors in his iconic status. After playing alongside Muddy Waters, among many others, Junior Wells went on to become one of the most important figures in the history of the Chicago blues scene. On September 22, 1965, Wells entered the studio with a simple, small backing band to record his debut full length, and the resulting session remains one of the greatest moments in music history, captured and released as Hoodoo Man Blues.

One of the key factors in why Hoodoo Man Blues is so fantastic is due to the large amount of freedom that was given to Wells in making the record. Unlike a majority of his peers, Junior Wells was given almost complete freedom in terms of backing band, song selection, and many other key aspects of the record making process. While most artists were "given" a backing band, and limited to songs under three minutes, Delmark owner, Bob Koester, gave Wells complete freedom, and his was largely due to Koester's deep appreciation for the artistic vision of Wells. Koester would also produce the Hoodoo Man Blues sessions, and it is clear that, along with being a huge fan of Junior Wells, he understood the music perfectly, and the sound on the album reflects his deep understanding of how the music should sound. However, upon its release, Hoodoo Man Blues was largely panned by critics, as many felt that the mood, which is captured on the album like nothing before it, would not be understood by audiences, and that this presented the key problem with the Chicago style of blues music. Yet, as they usually are, the critics were completely wrong, and Hoodoo Man Blues has been cited by nearly every blues musician after as a key influence on their sound. Approaching fifty years since its release, Hoodoo Man Blues remains the best selling album ever released by Delmark Records.

While the song selection and style of Junior Wells is exceptional, it is impossible to overlook the amazing trio of musicians that are also on the record. Due to questions over contractual limitations, the guitarist on Hoodoo Man Blues is cleverly credited as "Friendly Chap." While many may simply see this as a joke or mistake, it is in fact a reworking of another blues legend, Buddy Guy. When the group entered the studio in September of 1965, Koester was unsure of the status of Guy's legal obligation to Chess Records, so on the initial album, he refused to have Guy's name properly listed. Once it was confirmed that Guy was, in fact, clear to do the recording, the album cover was re-pressed with Guy's name listed as the guitarist. Whether he is playing lightly, but brilliantly, as on "In The Wee Hours," or rocking out full-tilt like he does on "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl," Buddy Guy is truly stunning on every song on the album. Furthermore, the interplay between Guy and Wells is often stunning, and it is clear that the two share a chemistry that remains largely unrivaled to this day. Though he would go on to be one of Buddy Guy's most used bassists, Hoodoo Man Blues is basically Jack Myers' first appearance on record, and his performance makes it quite clear why Guy used him so often. The other half of the rhythm section, drummer Bill Warren is equally as fantastic on the album, and his ability to perfectly execute every style and mood that Wells wants serves as a testament to his amazing talent. The energy and mood that the trio creates alongside Junior Wells is a truly stunning thing to experience, and it is largely due to this manner in which the quartet gel that makes Hoodoo Man Blues so phenomenal.

At the center of this amazing musical storm, conducting the stunning musical fury is the man himself, Junior Wells. Wells, born Amos Wells Blakemore Jr., was able to create fantastic moods with his punctuated vocals as easily as he can with his unrivaled harmonica playing, setting him aside as one of the most elite performers in history. While both of his talents are spotlighted on every single track on Hoodoo Man Blues, Wells proves that he is able to play a rocking, slow blues with the same success as he can bring a blistering, high paced song. His gruff, somewhat cocky voice rarely sounds as good as he does on "Early In The Morning," as he almost duets with himself, trading off between classically framed verses and his signature "vocal" styled harmonica playing. From well-known songs like "Hound Dog" and "Chitlins Con Carne," to new, equally brilliant numbers like "Snatch It Back and Hold It" and the fantastic title track, Wells proves that there is truly no limit to what can be done within the blues style. Hoodoo Man Blues even pushes into what can only be categorized as a swinging, almost rumba-style number, with the brilliantly performed "We're Ready." This vast stylistic diversity is one of the key reasons why the album is held in such high esteem, as it clearly laid the groundwork for the expansion of the genre into countless different directions. Though the backing band is absolutely fantastic, the true magic of Hoodoo Man Blues lives within the unsurpassed singing and harmonica playing of one of the greatest bluesmen of all time, Junior Wells.

Throughout the late 1950's and 1960's, many of the so-called "classic" musical styles began to evolve and blend with one another, creating entirely new genres of music. While many felt that this intermingling of styles would lead to a loss of the original spirit, the fact of the matter was, with every change, it only further proved that there were no limits on what could be accomplished musically except for the creativity of any given artist. Due in large part to the musical vision of Bob Koester, Junior Wells was able to freely explore his distinct style of playing, and the resulting album truly revolutionized the blues genre. Wells clearly found a kindred spirit with Buddy Guy, and the manner in which the two work with and around one another remains largely unmatched anywhere in music. Constantly pushing one another on every track, the interplay between Guy's guitar and the vocals and harmonica from Wells are truly a sound that must be experienced firsthand to be properly appreciated. Giving equally as impressive performances, the rhythm section of Jack Myers and Bill Warren provide the ideal backbone for their sound, and the talents of these two allow Wells and Guy to quite literally play anything they want. The sheer range in tempo and style found on Hoodoo Man Blues is truly staggering, especially considering that a majority of artists at the time were being pigeon-holed into a specific sound and style by their record labels. This diversity, as well as the absolutely magnificent playing of every musician catapults Junior Wells' 1965 album, Hoodoo Man Blues, into a class all its own, and it is unquestionably one of the most magnificent and important musical recordings in history.

Standout tracks: "Snatch It Back and Hold It," "Hoodoo Man Blues," and "We're Ready."

No comments: