In the mid to late 1960s blues musicians hoping to appeal to a wider audience were starting to broaden the definition of their sound by incorporating elements of the more pop oriented funk, soul and R&B genres. Young, white, and predominately British, musicians had been mining blues back catalogues to churn out rock and roll hits since the the early part of the decade, with the result that the music’s originators were far too often left out in the cold. While the home of electric urban blues, Chicago, was still home to clubs where the blues was welcomed and appreciated, players travelling outside that base faced a tough challenge finding audiences willing to listen to their music. It took a performer with a particular force of personality and presence to bring an audience out for a night of blues.
Junior Wells had been part of the blues scene in Chicago since the 1950s as both a solo performer and a member of Muddy Waters’ band. In the 1960s he, like so many others, began to adopt elements of popular music and had some success with younger audiences. His 1965 recording Hoodoo Man Blues, was a surprise best selling album and its mixture of blues feelings and contemporary funk seemed to indicate that he was moving away from his roots permanently. Yet, the following year saw him going on tour backed up by the trio he had first gained renown with back in the 1950s, The Aces. Made up of the brothers Louis and Dave Myers, on guitar and and bass respectively, and Fred Below on drums, they were such an impressive trio that when famed blues singer and harmonica player Junior Walker was asked to name his favourite musicians from among those he’d worked with he simply named them.
With Junior Wells being dead for around fifteen years now we’re obviously never going to have the opportunity to seem him performing with the Aces in person. Thankfully, for anybody who has any appreciation for the blues, a recording of one of those gigs they played together back in 1966 has survived and is now being released on CD for the first time by Delmark Records. Live In Boston 1966 not only features some great music, it also includes much of Junior’s in between song patter from that night, which goes a long way to showing why he was such a popular performer, no matter what music he was playing. Junior was not only a great singer and harmonica player, he was also one of the great characters of blues music, and this recording captures each of the aspects that made him great.
The nineteen tracks on this disc are divided between the songs Junior and the Aces performed that night and his free associations between songs. Some of them are just your standard type song introductions, but others are short stories intent on capturing the feel of an upcoming song. Junior’s delivery makes it feel like he’s sharing a joke personally with each member of the audience and if he occasionally makes fun of somebody during his spiel, you have the feeling that he’s laughing at himself as much as anybody else. While he might sound something like a fox in a hen house, he’s more interested in tickling ribs then going for the throat. However, while the intros are funny enough, what makes this disc really special is the music of course.
Junior Wells doesn’t have the best voice you’ll ever hear, nor was he the hottest harmonica player, but what he did have, and by the bucket load, was that certain something that grabs you by the throat and forces your to pay attention to him. Even listening to this close to forty year old recording you can feel the energy he’s putting out on that stage in a Boston. In some ways it doesn’t really matter what he was singing, but how. Listen to him sing and you’ll notice that he occasionally slurs words so you can’t understand the lyrics. Yet listen a second or two longer and you’ll realize it doesn’t matter whether or not every word is distinct because you understand what he’s singing about.
Somehow he’s using his voice as a fifth instrument, an instrument that every so often spits out words that shape the emotion of whatever song is being sung and provide a framework on which to hang the music which carries the true message. When he’s not singing his harmonica takes over and calls out its compliment to the vocals. His playing is as rough and ragged as his singing, but it articulates those words which we can never give voice to. Staccato trills mix with drawn out notes blown hard and fast, slow and mournful or high stepping and strutting. There’s no need to ask after how the subject of the song is feeling because the combination of vocals and harmonica makes it crystal clear.
Some of the material will be familiar to listeners; “That’s All Right”, “Messin’ With The Kid” and “Got My Mojo Workin’” for instance, but whether you know the songs or not you can’t help but notice that Junior puts his own stamp on them. Some of them you’d swear that he’s making things up as he goes along, or at least improvising new lyrics on the spot. Part of what makes this CD so much fun to listen to is that sense of somebody operating without a net at all times. In these days of carefully rehearsed shows with pre-recorded samples and tight arrangements, it’s a real treat to hear something where you know there’s some element of risk involved. It gives the music an edge and makes it all the more exciting – there’s a sense of adventure we don’t get to experience that often any more with popular music.
Every so often Junior turns proceedings over to the Aces and we learn why these guys were held in such high esteem. For the first part of the proceedings they don’t do anything that draws attention to themselves in particular. However, you can’t help but notice how they are loose enough to follow Junior no mater what direction he chooses to go in and tight enough to never miss a beat or slide past a note. However it’s when Junior cuts them loose for the instrumental “Hideaway” that you understand just how good these guys are. Having been forced to listen to power trios in rock and roll for so long I’d forgotten it was possible for there to be such a thing as subtlety associated with bass, guitar and drums.
Below and the Myers brothers give a clinic proving the old adage that less is genuinely more and that you don’t need to play loud and louder to make your point. Below sets the tone by playing some of the smoothest fills I’ve heard outside of a jazz combo, in fact his playing is far closer to that of the great jazz drummers of his era than anything I’ve heard from a blues or rock player. Smart and clean fills circle around a song’s tempo without ever once letting go of the rhythm. Dave Myers’ bass follows suit with a lead that is somehow complex without being flashy and when his brother Louis joins in with his guitar, he matches his sound so closely that at first it’s almost impossible to tell them apart. Only when the bass retreats somewhat do you realize a guitar solo is even being played. I was listening to them play for a while thinking there was something odd going on when I finally figured it out. They were soloing as a unit, not as individuals, and because of that there was a flow and a harmony I’ve never heard in a trio before.
Still, the concert is about Junior Wells, and no matter how good the Aces are, Junior is the one we’re always pulled back to. All he has to do is step up the microphone and begin singing and it wouldn’t matter if he were backed up by a hundred piece orchestra playing at full volume and he would capture our attention. He doesn’t have to shout, scream or engage in any of the fancy theatrics others use for us to notice him. There aren’t many performers who have the ability to reach out and grab an audience simply by walking on stage, and even fewer who can make their presence shine through on a CD. We’re not going to be able to see Junior Wells perform in person ever again, but recordings like this one at least give us some indication of what it must have been like to catch him on stage. If like me you never had the opportunity to see him live, don’t miss out on this chance at the next best thing.