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October 15, 2011

In the Dust #6: Junior Wells’ Chicago Blues Band ‘Hoodoo Man Blues’

by @thoughtontracks

Once a week In The Dust rolls up its sleeves and digs to the back of the rack to find that record, the one you never knew you always wanted, the one that’s lost, but not forgotten.

hoo·doo

noun

1. Magic healing and control, especially in African-based folk medicine in the United States and the Caribbean. Also called conjure.

2. a. Bad luck.

     b. One that brings bad luck.

verb

1. bewitch

Almost mystically so, Hoodoo Man Blues, Junior Wells’ first full-length record as a bandleader, began with a feeling.

Bob Koester, a Record Producer and founder and Chicago label Delmark record, had heard Don Kent, of Yazoo Records, and others whisper about a kid who played the harp. They said he’d been playing since the age of seven. They said he learned it from Sonny Boy Williamson II. They said he was good, so good, in fact, that he replaced Little Walter to blow for Muddy at 18. Koester knew he had to find this kid. He remembers his first encounter with Junior well:

I first heard Junior Wells on the States 78’s of “Hoodoo Man“, etc. during my days in St. Louis. I later heard the Muddy Waters band on a trip to Chicago, at the Club Zanzibar c.1957 and was perturbed that Little Walter had left and a new guy had taken his place but when I requested Key To The Highway and Muddy said, “I think Junior Wells does that better than I do.” Junior certainly cut Walter in the vocal department.

By the time Koester found him, Wells had stirred more than just a whisper, but had yet to record a full record. He had already made a name for himself within the Chicago bluesman scene, blowing for The Aces, Muddy Waters and solo for labels such as States, Profile and Chief, where his single, “Little By Little” rose to #23 on the Billboard R&B charts, but he was still relatively unknown outside of those who played the blues on Chicago’s South Westside.

Wells had a few scattered singles under his belt but nothing in which Koester could find the confidence to give him his own record. Wells was only 21. Koester was not sure if Wells could carry 2 sides, 30+ minutes, 10+ tracks. He also doubted that Wells’ music would find the audience necessary to fund the expense of sidemen and ample recording time, given their unusually crisp, urban style, one that featured band uniforms and synchronized movement, which was, of course, a world away from blues, bordering more closely on Motown.

But Koester had a feeling about Wells, one he kept with him since the first moment he saw him blow with Waters in ‘57. Wells’ voice, musicianship, and sense of movement made him a naturally infectious performer, and Koester liked it too much to resist.

He gave Wells the record, and even allowed Wells’ to choose his own band and his track list, without restrictions. The sessions followed resulted in what is one of the greatest blues records ever made, and one of the most genuine, accurate documents of the Chicago blues sound in existence today.

The track list Wells selected is about half original and half blues standards, of which it featured “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl,” a song written by his mentor, Sonny Boy Williamson II, “Hound Dog,” by Leiber and Stoller, “Early In The Morning,” a traditional, and “Yonder Wall,” by fellow Chicago axe-man and “King of the Slide Guitar,” Elmore James.

Perhaps the most noteworthy decision of the entire session, Wells’ invited a 29-year old Buddy Guy to play guitar. This, as it was for the 21-year old Wells, Guy’s first crack at a full studio album. Wells’ rounded out the rest of the group with top-notch session men and Southside bar bluesmen.

The pair of Wells and Guy proved to be an unstoppably ebullient and explosive combination. From the first hit of the first track, “Snatch It Back And Hold It”, the pure force their relationship is palpable. The guitar, drums and bass play in unison a fanfare of a single note, but in this single note is more confidence, attitude and pure ferocity than many whole records of the time. This cocky snarl is accentuated by Koester’s, and all of the Delmark people’s, urge to bring the purely carnivorous Chicago blues sound out the bar and into the perfect acoustics of a recording studio, while leaving its spirit unadulterated. The sound is so raw, so live, so pure, allowing Wells’ natural charisma and masterful harp, Guy’s guitar and the innate infectiousness of their particular blend of Chicago blues-funk-soul to carry itself. “Somebody help me! / I can’t help myself,” Wells screams, as if under his own spell. As with classic blues lore, Wells must seek a way to shake off his hoodoo. The band is just too nasty, the music has a mind of it’s own, and Wells is caught in the undertow. The only way he can release himself is to wail and blow it out until the tidal wave spits him out.

Hound Dog,” the Leiber and Stoller classic that launched the careers of, first, Big Mama Thornton and, later, Elvis Presley, is re-imagined as a crisp, frenetic sweat-storm and platform for Wells’ electrified harp lines and Guy’s masterful picking. Clocking in at an astonishingly lean 2:11, it is more a display of Wells’ Chicago Blues Band’s mastery of their craft than homage to the blues itself. In the energy of “Hound Dog” and the dogged efforts of his drummer Bill Warren, there is a certain trance-like quality, which is echoed by Guy’s repetitive complimentary guitar, peaking the album’s energy, solidifying that the listener is under his hoodoo, before it brings it back down in preparation for the record’s slowest, smoothest number, “In The Wee Hours.”

Bring with it the sizzling, sultry swing of the Southside Chicago barroom, “In The Wee Hours,” is the finer of Wells two attempts at slow-groove on the record. Following the frantic intensity of “Hound Dog,” “In The Wee Hours,” functions as a sleepy, hypnotic lobotomy, slicing the crown from the listeners head and slowly sinking its long, dark fingers deep inside to slice and tweak and toy, destroying in the process any previous conceptions of how profound a sub-four minute song can be, how good Chicago blues can be and how indescribably hot Junior Wells and his Chicago blues band can serve it up. Wells’ harp wafts lightly over the steamy, clean lines of Guy’s sensual and cryptically suggestive guitar. The delicate, light touch of Warren’s drums and Jack Myers’ subtle, driving bass add indispensible accoutrement to the midnight-moonlight atmosphere in which Guy and Wells are free move. Almost completely devoid of lyrics, the song has Junior, as in “Snatch It Back And Hold It,” pleading for help. He sings “I just need somebody / Somebody got to help me / Oh, Lord, to sing these blues / Lookie here, Lookie here, baby,” before embarking on a mournful, ethereal harp solo. Guy lends as much help as he can muster, summoning a lean, choppy solo that stands as one of his finest licks on the record, but the tone Wells’ harp is so lost, forlorn, spectral it is clear that Wells is still hopelessly under the spell, beyond assistance, hoodoo’d by the blues and desperately trying to play his way out.

The album’s title track comes soon after, leading off side A with another fanfare, a classic blues turn around in which the band bangs out together, compounding the swinging 4/4 blues rhythm to create a rambling, tumbling feeling that propels the listener into the center of the groove, where it is instantly apparently that Buddy Guy’s guitar sounds remarkably different. Guy’s amplifier stopped working part way through the Hoodoo Man Blues sessions, and so they chose to wire his guitar through the Leslie speaker of a Hammond B-3 organ, the effect of which is distinctive and has since inspired guitarist for generations. It adds a welcomed mystically to the track, in line with the spirit of hoodoo, and a poignant juxtaposition to Wells’ lyrics. Wells’ past pleads for assistance have fallen on deaf ears, and in “Hoodoo Man Blues,” he is determined to explain his case to, hopefully, sympathetic and potentially loving ears:

“Lord, I wonder, what’s exactly the matter / Child you know the time / It seemed like hours / Everything had changed / But I hold up my hand / Lord, I’m trying to make you understand / Lord, now, everybody tell me / Somebody done hoodoo’d the hoodoo man”

Wells is reaching out, as the hoodoo has consumed his life and he can no longer keep it to himself. The blues has grown to rule him and distort his sense of time, state of being and relationships. Somebody truly done hoodoo’d the hoodoo man.

Wells is truly afflicted, as is Guy, Wells’ band and Koester. Hoodoo Man Blues stands as, until recently, Delmark’s best-selling release of all-time, inflicting with the hoodoo man blues Bonnie Raitt, The Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, the author and many more.

In the remainder of the record, Wells never does relieve himself of the hoodoo, though he still tries. Perhaps this is the perfect sentiment for the debut record of an artist who would spend a lifetime under its spell: a hoodoo man chasing the blues.

Written by Ben Brundage

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