Junior Wells – Blues Brothers
Cleopatra Blues CLO 1936
13 songs – 44 minutes
One of the most beloved entertainers ever to grace a blues stage, Junior Wells left us in 1998, but he lives on in a new way today with collection that takes his original vocal and harmonica gymnastics and remasters him with new backing from several of the top guitarists on the scene today.
His longtime partner-in-crime, Buddy Guy, is nowhere in sight, and some of the tunes here have a little harder edge than you’ll remember with backing from Joe Louis Walker, Bernard Allison, Kirk Fletcher, Colin James, Eric Gales, Tyler Bryant, Mike Zito, Popa Chubby, Guitar Shorty and Albert Castiglia. Rhode Island-based harp player James Montgomery appears on six of the 13 cuts, adding a little fire, but consistently paying homage to the front man.
Wells was definitely one of a kind. A native of West Memphis, Ark., he learned harmonica from Junior Parker and Sonny Boy Williamson II before relocating to Chicago with his family, where he began playing in clubs at age 14. His first recordings in 1952, when he replaced Little Walter behind Muddy Waters, then establishing himself as a leader with several hits on States Records during the decade.
One of the flashiest dressers in the business, Junior possessed a vocal style that was as distinctive and as hard to duplicate as the clothes he wore. A genuine trendsetter of the first order, he was a three-time Grammy nominee, and his 1965 Delmark LP, Hoodoo Man Blues, is considered to be the first great album of the modern era. This disc – a partnership between Cleopatra Records and the Wells estate – was released to reignite his flame for another generation.
“Blues Hit Big Town,” the first of six Wells originals in the set, opens the action with James on the strings, providing counterpoint to Junior’s own high-end work on the reeds. Travers joins for a faithful cover of Sonny Boy I’s familiar “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl,” comping steadily in rhythm as Montgomery shines. They give way to Bryant, a former child prodigy from Texas, who adds Lone Star flavor to “Messin’ with the Kid,” the Mel London tune inspired by Junior’s daughter that became his trademark.
Montgomery channels Slim Harpo for “Baby, Scratch My Back,” which provides Castiglia the opportunity to reinvent the guitar runs he delivered dozens of times as a Wells bandmate for the last two years of his life, and he doesn’t disappoint, searing in a way that would have made Junior smile. Sleepy John Estes’ familiar “Worried Life Blues” finds Zito at his bluesy best before Mandel stays faithfully in the pocket for “When the Cat’s Gone the Mice Play.”
Next up, Gales adds a little hot sauce to “Lovey Dovey Lovey One,” delivering tasty solos that bear no resemblance to the original, but fit hand-and-glove, before Fletcher shows his understated mastery as Junior croons “You Gotta Love Her with a Feeling.” Then 86-year-old Guitar Shorty – the man who taught Jimi Hendrix the ropes — shows he hasn’t lost a step on “Two-Headed Woman.”
“Snatch It Back and Hold It” – the crowd pleaser Junior penned with Buddy — follows with Joe Louis delivering stinging runs before Chubby provides steady, percussive runs for the Wells original, “You Don’t Care,” and stylish fills. The disc concludes with Allison at his West Side best for “It’s a Man Down There” and Walker returning for a rousing take on “Hoodoo Man Blues.”
Available as both a CD and limited-edition vinyl release, Blues Brothers honors Junior Wells in the best way possible: All of the guitar players here add their own touches, but without the over-the-top histrionics on which many of them have built their careers. If you want those kind of fireworks, buy their albums. But if you love Junior – as I do – you’ll love what you hear.