This article originally appeared in Issue 9 of
Playing blues in bars is a way of life. It requires equal parts of showmanship, talent, guts, and endurance. Musicians see bars differently than patrons; the customers can come and go, sample the scene and sounds, then move on, but you’re there all night. You stand on a stage and blow thru the smoke and the noise, and your eyes wander and watch. You get to know the regulars, the lushes who only come to lap it up, the working chicks and the non-working cats, the tight-lipped fuzz, the heads and the freaks, the losers and the listeners. You get to know the feel of a place, you can tell an hour before the fight starts by the way the air hangs and how the jukebox sings between sets.
Early there’s not much action. You set up and play easy riffs, mostly making it on musicianship alone. A few sparks get lit, some die, some’ll grow later on. The listeners collect near the stage, the others hang out in back by the pool table conning chicks or talking karate blows…some sit half interested and watchful at the bar, waiting for all the things people wait for in bars. You get a few requests, some orders. Depending on how bad you need the gig, and how you feel, you either play the songs, tell the cat to go to hell, or ignore him.
Later it starts to fill. The bartenders are hustling now, and the shots are getting shorter. Everybody’s looking to connect for something, and your music is faster louder and gutsier—you start to get into it. Out of the corner of your eye you see some little leg woman squirming in her chair like she wanna dance so you play raunchy a few bars just for her. You watch some downtown cat trying to jive a local, and she gives him a hard elbow that doubles him over. He leaves fast and there’s a little laughing in your song.
At the peak of the rush it’s people wall-to-wall and you drive steady, loud as you can. The smoke is heavier and the lights dimmer, a few people listen, most only feel the bass punch as background kicks, but when you finish your set you get some yells anyhow.
The last set sometimes is the longest. You’re tired, and all the loss of every loser seems to hang in the smoke. The music is slower now, and deeper. Once in a while the magic happens and you touch the same chord in everybody all at once, and the whole joint is with you, inside the sound, and when you’re done wailing, nobody claps, they just nod and it’s understood. But more often there’s the special brand of loneliness that comes when you play one just for yourselves, from the soles of your feet on out; the lights dim, the noise fades, and you’re out there alone together, somehow naked and empty in the glare of the spotlight, all lost in the sound of the story-—and when you finish, the bartender yells, “Hey, play something lively!” The music goes on out and the music comes back—you ?ll the bar with blues and it comes back with its own feeling and they all get mixed together—the scene makes you as much as you make it. The night finally shuts you down and you have one more drink in the empty bar, blinking in the sweepers’ lights. Then maybe a party, or more likely home to bed, to sleep, to wake, to do it all again tomorrow.
It takes a special breed of cat to last gigging around, and Junior Wells is one of the biggest and the best of that breed. And this LP comes the closest of any I’ve heard to capturing the feel of this kind of life. Seven of the twelve cuts were done in Universal Studios in Chicago (where Chess works the magic) and five at Peppers Lounge, the South Side home of Chicago blues.
Wells is one of the younger generation of blues singers—he combines the “urban soul” of James Brown style with the truth and guts of Muddy Waters electrified Mississippi Delta blues, and makes the mixture work. He’s got flash, and he’s got soul, and he’s got talent, something for everybody. On the basis of this LP, I’d say he’s the logical contender for the King of Harpmen title that Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) left vacant when he died. The studio band features Wells on harp and vocal, Buddy Guy on lead guitar, Walter Beasley on rhythm, Leroy Stewart on bass, and Little Al on drums. The rhythm lays down a good solid beat and Guy and Wells cook on top, Guy with his controlled B. B. King guitar style (but soul mixed with dexterity), and Wells with his fantastic sense of dynamics as his harp ranges from screaming to moaning low. And Wells’s vocal work throughout the album is the best l’ve heard of him on record since the days of the States sides. There are only two so-so titles here, “Country Girl” and “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright”—but they’re so-so only in relation to the rest of the album —they’re a long ways ahead of most of Wells’s imitators. There are three jump numbers: “Checking on My Baby” (beautifully controlled harp and guitar breaks), “Stomach Ache” (a gimmicky number with “oooh, ah, oooh ah ouch”s, but groovy) and “Shake It Baby” (a very James Brown-like dance number). The remaining studio cuts could be called “classic” blues: “Stormy Monday” done here with a beautifully rich heavy tapestry of sound and a boss jazz/blues solo by Guy, and “You Lied to Me” (actually “That’s All Right,” a Little Junior Parker tune)—with an outa sight unison harp-guitar solo in counterpoint that ought to make a few people think twice.
Good stuff, but the gold is in the remaining five live cuts. It’s true of most any musician that he wails better when he’s feeling loose and at home, and Wells at the Pepper Lounge is no exception. (Same band, but drop Beasley and substitute Freddy Below on drums.) All the cuts have more fire and drive than the studio ones—he’s working, reaching out, and you can hear the difference. For example, the title cut (“It’s My Life, Baby!”—in case you forgot) is half instrumental, half vocal, with nice gutty guitar and harp breaks, with Wells using his “spitting” style to good advantage. Wells introduces “It’s So Sad to Be Lonely” (a SBW tune), “You have to get the blues now, low down and dirty …” and leads into a beautiful version of this great blues. Guy’s gutty guitar and Wells’s crying harp style pay the best tribute to the old master by doing his song the way it oughta be done. (Turn it up loud and groove with it.) “Early in the Morning” is another SBW tune—but SBW l. Wells says, “We got to slow down and get down in the alley. Only way to get down in the alley—play the blues about them little girls. Young…tender…old…don’t make no difference.” And the screaming harp break proves he ain’t kidding. “Slow, Slow” is the only instrumental here, and it feels like a late-night cut—with memories of the complex jazz/blues-mood cuts that Little Walter used to do. Only difference is Wells’s sense of dynamics and contrast—his control is perfect, and the cut is a gas even without a spooky echo chamber. “Look How Baby” is the last cut, and it’s down-in-the-bottom, no-bullshit blues. THIS is where it’s at, baby, no matter what else you heard. Slow, slow and heavy, the bass booming out heavy notes that hang forever…everybody reaching out to grab a piece of truth…Guy goes high, goofs, pulls back down and gets into it and you can feel it all pull together, everybody grooving on the same scene, yeah man, play it like it is—wham! And that’s what happens. The magic, the lonely sad happy magic of grabbing everybody’s truth and putting sound around it for just a little while.
On the whole, a gas of an LP; congratulations to Vanguard and producer Sam Charters. (And here’s a listening tip; if you ain’t dug blues in stereo on a pair of Koss Pro-4 headphones, you haven’t lived yet.) Wells and Guy are two giants of the contemporary blues scene and this is their finest work on record to date. This LP does for the current scene what the Chess “Best of” LPs by Little Walter and Muddy Waters did for the early Chicago scene. And that’s saying a whole lot.
I take it back…As long as there’s cats blowing like this, Chicago blues will never die.