February 06, 2006
Released: February 6th, 2006 (Castle Records CMRCD1270)
Featuring: Bill Wyman, Pinetop Perkins, Terry Taylor and Dallas Taylor
Messin’ With The Kids
At the 1974 Montreux Jazz Festival, blues legends Buddy Guy and Junior Wells joined forces with the rhythm section of Bill Wyman (Rolling Stones) and Dallas Taylor (Crosby, Stills And Nash) for a rampaging set of R&B that has passed into festival legend. With Guy's guitar and Junior's harp at their blueswailing best, satisfaction is definitely guaranteed.
"Junior Wells simply breathes fire into his harmonica - Buddy Guy's guitar solos are hot and wild" - Detroit Metro Times.
Partnerships in Blues are a rare phenomenon, albeit more often the result of convenience rather than choice - ask Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, if you could. The Blues historian can reel of a list of buddy acts: Tampa Red & Georgia Tom, Tampa Red & Big Maceo, Leroy Carr & Scrapper Blackwell, big Joe Williams & Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters & Little Walter, Terry & McGhee. Some genuine, some put together by their record company. And then there's Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, who have been called 'The Original Blues Brothers'.
Separated by a mere two years, their fortunes differed radically from the time Guy first witnessed Wells as a member of Muddy Waters' band in 1954, and Wells' death forty four years later. In that time, both struggled to find their niche as the public first fell out of love and then back in again with The Blues. As Soul music became the thing in the 1960s, both made efforts to cross over. For once, Junior Wells fared better than Buddy Guy, but an untogether record company and a determination to be the next James Brown (while sounding like a poor imitation of the real James Brown) hurt him considerably, with fans who still saw him as a Bluesman.
In fact, it's not difficult to see Junior Wells' entire career not just as a struggle for recognition, but also as a protracted attempt to establish a distinct musical persona. He had the misfortune to reach his first peak when Little Walter Jacobs thrust every other harmonica player into the shade. His collaborations with Mel London in the early 60s produced a series of forceful R&B singles that failed to catch on nationwide. He might have made it in Soul music but failed, and thereafter he couldn't seem to decide what his musical priorities were. Despite his association with Buddy guy, there were years of obscurity for Wells and the late flowering of his talent in his final years was curtailed by sudden illness and death.
He was born Amos Wells in West Memphis, Arizona on December 9, 1934, to Sylvester Wells and his mother Lena. Sylvester hired himself out for whatever work was going, while Lena tidied hotel rooms in Memphis. She also prepared bootleg hooch with Sunnyland Slim, as Junior found out later. Eventually, she lit out for Chicago and her son, having already taken his first steps with the harmonica, joined her some years later.
After moving to Chicago, Amos made regular trips back to West Memphis, refining his harmonica skills with his pal Herman Parker, who was called Junior, too. He also met up with Rice Miller, who evidently gave him some tips, taking his fee, if Junior is to be believed, in fifths of whiskey. Back in Chicago, he'd become a tearaway, a member of the Calumet Aces, forever at odds with the 26th Street Gang and the Marshall Hill guys: "I'd probably be in the penitentiary or dead," he said later, "because I thought I was a little hoodlum in the first goddamn place! That's what I wanted to be."
The adult Junior Wells became a fantasist of no mean skill, never happier than when he was spinning a yarn. In the real world, his harmonica playing impressed those that heard it, among them brothers Dave and Louis Myers, then working house-rent parties with Big Boy Spires (Wells was adamant this name was 'Spy'!). He met and sat in with them one evening in 1949, when they played across the street from where he lived at 22nd and Prairie. Since neither brother aspired to being a front man, the ebullient, self-confident Junior fit their bill exactly.
They made their name around town as The Three Deuces, playing upbeat music for dancing without the aid of a drummer. When it came time to get one, they took Muddy's drummer Elga Edmonds' advice and auditioned Fred Below, a bebop drummer straight out of the Army. It took Below three weeks to become a Blues drummer but once he had it down, he became the best in Chicago and the band went from The Three Deuces to the Four Aces (this may be a bit of a story, too; there's a photograph of the band with Eugene Lyons handling the drumsticks).
In the Summer of 1952 Little Walter had his first hit, 'Juke', accelerating this departure from Muddy Waters' band. In an exchange that's never been fully explained, least of all by the protagonists, Little Walter left Muddy and hooked up with The Aces, while Junior Wells took his place with Muddy. He didn't stay long, for in the Spring in 1953, he was inducted into the Army. He went AWOL as soon as he could, but ended up in the stockade at Fort Sheridan in Highwood, Illinois.
Perhaps he was AWOL when he made his recording debut in June 1953, cutting 'Hoodoo Man' with pianist Johnnie Jones, the Myers brothers and Odie Payne. A second session took place just under a year later and this time Otis Spann and Muddy Waters were present, as well as The Aces. Three years passed before he recorded again, this time for Mel London, a shrewd operator who knew how to get the best out of him. That best included 'Little By Little', 'Messin' With The Kid'; 'I Could Cry' and 'I Need Me A Car' - with 'Kid' eventually becoming something of a signature tune.
The germ of Wells' partnership with Buddy Guy ewas created in September 1965 when Bob Koester, owner of Delmark Records, too Junior into the studio to reproduce a typical set from his gig at Theresa's Lounge. Wells recruited Buddy Guy; he'd played on Guy's second Chess session in December 1960 and they'd become regular sparring partners in the years since. Because of Guy's chess contract, he was billed as 'Friendly Chap'. Their collaboration on Hoodoo Man Blues was so successful that promoters and record label chiefs began to think they had potential as a commercial partnership.
Guy had arrived in Chicago in September 1957, with his Gibson Les Paul, an amp and a 150-foot lead, a demo tape he'd recorded four months earlier in his valise, and a dream of joining the city's Blues elite. George 'Buddy' Guy had been born on a farm outside Lettsworth, Louisiana, some fifty miles north of Baton Rouge on July 30, 1936. He had two older sisters, and two brothers followed him. An early addiction to the radio developed into an interest in the guitar, further concentrated when he first saw Lightnin' Slim play.. Once he had his own guitar, his technique improved quickly; in a few short years of working with musicians like Raful Meal, he knew he wanted to play like BB King and perform like Guitar Slim.
Guy has a tale, often told, of his hard times in his early weeks in Chicago, although his brother Sam reckoned he had $100 with him when he left Louisiana. The tale usually ends with Muddy Waters dragging him into his car, slapping him a couple of times and handing him a salami sandwich. Soon he was playing the 708 Club three nights a week, for $25 a night. The tradition of Blues bands sitting down to play was still the fashion, so Buddy's Guitar Slim-inspired theatrics brought him welcome attention. Enough to get him his first record deal with Eli Toscano's Artistic label, but Buddy's singles made up just two of the five Artistic releases before it and Cobra shut up shop.
Within a year, Buddy moved to Chess, Chicago's leading label. Over the next few years he released a number of singles that did better critically than commercially, 'First Time I Met The Blues', 'Let Me Love You Baby', 'When My Left Eye Jumps' and 'Hard But It's Fair'. Then came the Folk Festival Of The Blues album, cut in July 1963, his 'Don't Know Which Way To Go' the inspiration for British guitarist like Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. The irony was that as he gained a Blues reputation in Europe, touring as a member of the 1965 AFBF troupe, he and Chess were trying to turn him into a Soul man. Although Buddy stayed with the label until 1967, the releases became fewer and less rewarding.
A move to Vanguard was logical, since he'd already backed Wells on a live album cut for the label at Pepper's Lounge in 1966. That was the year Wells toured Europe, while in 1967 he travelled in Africa on behalf of the State Department, something that Buddy Guy did two years later and would again in 1975, as a double-header with Wells. The album projects proliferated, with dates for Quicksilver, Blue Thumb and Atco, the latter produced by Eric Clapton. But prior to that last date, the pair were invited to open for The Rolling Stones on their tours of Europe and America.
"That tour was one of the most exciting things I ever did," Guy told his biographer, Donald E Wilcock. "To open for the Rolling Stones was a great experience, but it was one of the hardest things I ever did, because they were so famous." Trouble was, their billing was sometimes non-existent, so that at some European venues they had to battle through their audience's lust for the headline act. But more often than not, they succeeded by sheer determination and artisty. Their album date with Clapton was blighted by his heroin addiction and his inability to take charge. Buddy Guy & Junior Wells Play The Blues was held up for two years before its release. 1972 was also the year that Buddy bought the Checkerboard Lounge, one of Chicago's prime Blues clubs.
Buddy and Junior continued to work as a double act but their peak activity on the Stones tour was two years in the past. But it was the Stones connection that brought about the session contained here. Bill Wyman was contacted by Montreux Jazz Festival organiser Claude Nobs, who asked him to put together a rhythm section to back Muddy Waters. It turned out that Nobs had also booked Buddy and Junior to appear, along with pianist Pinetop Perkins. Wyman recruited drummer Dallas Taylor, a lynchpin of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's band, and a guitarist, Terry Taylor (no relation), from rockers Tucky Buzzard, with whom he'd worked frequently in the past.
"So, the three of us went to Montreux," Wyman told Willock, "and we set up a rehearsal with Muddy. We got up there and met Buddy again, and Junior and Pinetop. We rehearsed two halves of two numbers. And Muddy said, 'Great! That'll do.' We went back to the hotel with Buddy and Junior. They said, 'Look, we don't like our backing group. Would you like to back us too, on the first set?' Delighted! So we just went on, and we didn't really have a rehearsal with them either. We went on the next day and did the whole set. Buddy was just counting the times in and Dallas Taylor as really good, because he had to get it the first time, whatever it was."
A flavour of the positive tension onstage can be heard in the opening 'Ah'w Baby/Everything Gonna Be Alright', as the band play themselves in and Junior carries on as though he's been on stage all night. The slide guitar heard in 'How Can One Woman Be So Mean?' is played by Terry Taylor, and Junior carries on taking the lead on a version of Rice Miller's 'Checking On My Baby'. By now, with Buddy leading from the front, the band has become locked tight, ready for the next challenge. That's the ultra-slow 'When You See The Tears From My Eyes'. And Buddy steps up to deliver an intense, emotionally charge vocal and an equally frought extended guitar solo.
At this point in the set, he let the band relax by talking to the audience for a while, ending up with: "You may think I'm putting you on but please believe me, we get a better thrill out of playing over here than we do at home. We always get asked the question, during the course of a tour, do you ever get lonesome from not being at home?'" While the audience reacts, he cues the band for the next key as he concludes, "People can make you feel at home. And when I get that feeling like that, I go to D natural and play a tune go something like this." And he leads off into another slow Blues he'd recorded for Chess with Junior's help in 1960, 'Ten Years Ago'.
Junior took centre stage once more to bring the set to its climax with a sequence of songs, his own signature tine, 'Messing With The Kid', an updated version of his first success, 'Hoodoo Man Blues', finishing with another Rice Miller favourite, 'My Younger Days'. Interesting to note how each artist plays to his strength, Buddy guy the intense super-gifted singer/guitarist, and Junior Wells, equally gifted blueswise, but much more aware of stage-craft in what and how he sings and plays.
Their set went down extremely well that night and it's been well-received by the record-buying public over the years, underlining the fundamental quality of their performance. Those that knew them reckoned that thy kept on with their double-act too long, bringing it to an end at the close of the 1970s. Both men hit hard times over the next couple of decades, but first Buddy's and then Junior's careers took an upturn, as awards and nominations proliferated. After Junior's death in January 1998, Buddy's record company issued Last Time Around - Live At Legends, his and Junior's last acoustic set, recorded at Buddy's club, five years earlier in March 1993. Buddy continues to be the reluctant King Of Chicago Blues, and some of the seeds of his coronation were planted here.
Full track listing
Messin' With The Kids