One day. One guitar. One piano. And one harp.
That’s all Buddy Guy, Junior Wells and Junior Mance needed to record Buddy and the Juniors, a seven-song set recently reissued by Hip-O Select that features the three blues heavyweights gathering for performances that combine to make one of the greatest lost genre-specific releases of all time.
The year was 1969. Buddy Guy – whom Eric Clapton has cited having more of an influence on him than Elvis Presley or The Beatles – was on the outs with Vanguard, the record label at which he had been an artist. He recruited an unknown entity who had co-produced his final Vanguard release, 20-year-old Michael Cuscuna, to produce the recordings that make up Buddy and the Juniors and help organize the effort. Having exhausted all options, the recruit turned to a friend who worked at Blue Thumb, a less-popular record label, to help cover the costs. As it goes, the Blue Thumb budget allowed for only one day of recording time with no backing band.
Thus, Buddy and the Juniors was born. As Cuscuna himself explains in the extensive liner notes that accompany this re-release, “The origin of this album is stranger than most. Essentially, it lies in a college radio show and the acrimony between an artist and his label.” Indeed. Without the frustration Vanguard provided Guy, this collection wouldn’t be nearly as impressive as it proves to be, even more so now that it has had 40 years to marinate.
The two best performances here are also the final two the group recorded on that December day. They are also the two most improvised. Unfortunately, they are also the only two lacking the presence of Mance, as his piano playing would have made these two inspired takes even more riveting. Those two performances in question? “Talkin’ ‘Bout Women Obviously” and the instrumental “Riffin a.k.a. A Motif Is Just A Riff”, two recordings that prove to be essential for any so-called fan of the blues.
The former is an off-the-cuff nearly 10-minute freestyle that illuminates the camaraderie Wells and Guy had clearly established through the years. The back-and-forth of both the playing and talking immediately transports any listener to the New York studio, providing an atmosphere that is more country than city. The latter, meanwhile, features an infectious acoustic guitar riff that allows Wells to ferociously attack the song with his signature harmonica tones. Cuscuna’s favorite track on Buddy and the Juniors, the performance is extended after hearing Guy’s faint voice proclaim “One more time!” just when you think the fun is about to end. This, in turn, provides yet another platform for Wells’ stellar harp playing to shine all the while, cementing the funky melody Guy’s guitar pounds into any listener’s brain.
But that’s only the beginning. From there, Buddy and the Juniors settles in nicely with the help of Mance’s honky-tonk-like piano playing. Willie Dixon’s classic blues standard “Hoochie Coochie Man” receives an invigorating take as the trio combines forces to make a somewhat over-played classic seem filled with life and inspiration. Guy’s own “Buddy’s Blues” allows for some lightning-quick piano riffs and harmonica funk. And Big Boy Crudup’s “Rock Me Mama” is a sheer example of how much Guy and Wells enjoy playing with one another, as the solos fired back and forth prove how well the two live and breathe the blues. Guy’s vocal track is also noteworthy as the words flow easy and passionately, two elements of performance the guitar player ultimately perfected over the years.
“Buddy was pleased with the results of this album and I was genuinely relieved that whole scheme came off as well as it did. The album didn’t sell well. ... But I do remember this as being a wonderful and satisfying experience”, Cuscuna writes in the liner notes. Wonderful and satisfying are two massive understatements when looking back at Buddy and the Juniors as a whole. Not only does it feature quite possibly the best guitarist/harp player duo that blues music has ever seen, but it also allows one of the greatest jazz players to kick his shoes off and add a bit of soul to the songs with his extensive piano expertise. An absolute must-own for any fan of the blues, this rare set of recordings proves its greatness today as it continues to garner acclaim more than four decades after its release.
To think of all of where came from. One day. One guitar. One piano. And one harp.