Tuesday, February 15, 2011

February 15: Junior Wells, "Snatch It Back And Hold It"

Artist: Junior Wells
Song: "Snatch It Back And Hold It"
Album: Hoodoo Man Blues
Year: 1965

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Across a number of genres, one can argue that “attitude is everything,” though it’s importance is not often fully realized, as most “attitude driven” sounds all fall into a similar style.  Yet when one is able to see a stark contrast within a single genre of music, one can fully appreciate the swagger than an artist brings to their sound.  When one thinks of terms like “swagger” and “attitude,” there is perhaps no better representation than one finds within blues legend, Junior Wells.  Completely personifying the idea of the “dangerous dude,” his stage presence was legendary, and this persona comes through clearly on his earliest, and finest records.  Having first learned from fellow legend, Little Junior Parker, Wells honed his talents within the Chicago blues scene of the 1950’s.  Quickly developing his down, distinctive sound, Wells truly revolutionized the place of the harmonica within blues music, and along with Little Walter, he stands as the most important blues artist to ever pick up the instrument.  Bringing a tone and mood to his compositions that highlighted the seedier, darker, if not more dangerous side of the blues, even today, Wells’ songs quickly transport the listener to a run-down bar in the middle of the city.  Without question, Wells can be heard in his finest form on his iconic 1965 classic, Hoodoo Man Blues, and it stands as one of the few records that succeeded in bringing the overall mood of a nightclub into the studio environment.  With every track on the album being an absolute classic, one can quickly understand just why Junior Wells is held in such high regard by hearing his masterful 1965 song, “Snatch It Back And Hold It.”

As “Snatch It Back And Hold It” begins, it may not even appear to most as a blues song; as in both its tempo and arrangement, it is certainly non-traditional.  The song is strangely upbeat, perhaps leaning more towards a soul sound than blues, and yet whatever one labels it, the instant groove cannot be denied.  The light, almost stuttered guitar quickly takes center stage, and this is of little surprise, as the performer was none other than Buddy Guy, being billed as “Friendly Chap” due to issues with his own recording contract.  Drummer Bill Warren reinforces this unique skip that the song possesses, as his playing is an amazing contrast of a light approach that packs a solid punch.  One can almost equate his performance to a jazz approach, and yet much like the guitar, it manages to somehow find its way into a blues sound.  However, while both Guy and Warren were already well known for their talents, perhaps the most significant presence on “Snatch It Back And Hold It” is that of bassist Jack Myers.  In the years that followed, Myers would be come one of Guy’s “go to” bass players, and it is this song that was his first known appearance on record.  The way in which the trio come together as the backing band is nothing short of stunning, as they all manage to find the balance between volume and mood, and the swing that they bring to the song makes “Snatch It Back And Hold It” one of the most unique blues tracks ever recorded.

However, while his backing band is nothing short of phenomenal, as soon as he enters the picture, there is no question that this is Junior Wells’ band.  Whether it is his singing or his harmonica, his presence overpowers the other players, and the amount of emotion he is able to convey is truly uncanny.  Even without any prior knowledge of Wells, the persona that he created for himself is instantly clear, as his voice has a seductive, yet slightly seedy, if not unpredictable tone.  Combined with his gritty growl and soaring vocals at some points, Wells’ singing is absolutely captivating, and listeners cannot help but be completely drawn into his sound on “Snatch It Back And Hold It.”  Strangely, one can see his swagger as perhaps going a bit overboard, as one can interpret the line, "...I'm not doing too bad baby, you know I ain't got no brand new bag..." as a bit of a shot at James Brown, who released that single earlier in 1965.  Yet one can also interpret this as him giving a not to the blues roots and perhaps arguing that he is simply moving the classic style forward.  Regardless of which way one reads his lyrics, perhaps the only thing that is more powerful than Junior Wells’ presence as a singer is his performance here on the harmonica.  Without question, it is moments such as this that quickly vaulted him to the status he retains to this day, as one can point to his work on “Snatch It Back And Hold It” as the transition of the instrument from blues into use in a more rock-based environment.

Simply put, there is not another recording in the entire history of music that even comes close to the overall impact of Junior Wells' "Snatch It Back And Hold It."  Whether it is due to the brilliant swagger in his singing, his stunning harmonica performance, or the superb playing of the legendary members of his backing band, there is not a note or feeling out of place anywhere on the song.  This can be seen as true throughout the entire Hoodoo Man Blues record, yet "Snatch It Back And Hold It" is clearly the strongest offering on the album.  This transition from blues into rock fit perfectly with the era, as so many genres were merging and while many felt this was ruining the "purity" of genres, it was albums like Hoodoo Man Blues that pushed music forward.  One cannot deny that one of the main reasons the album was so important was due to the "hands off" approach from producer and label owner Bob Koester, as he encouraged Wells to put no limits on his creativity.  After hearing only a few moments of "Snatch It Back And Hold It," it is clear that this idea worked perfectly, as one can hear many different sounds fusing together to form something that wasn't quite blues, nor jazz, nor rock; it was simply Junior Wells.  Truth be told, though many artists have attempted to capture a similar mood in their music, none were able to bring the feeling of a dim nightclub into the studio as perfectly as Junior Wells, and few songs convey this mood, along with a magnificent musical performance as one finds in his classic 1965 song, "Snatch It Back And Hold It."

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