Junior Wells: Southside Blues Jam

Junior Wells and his men straddle two decades and lay down 15 gems.
Junior Wells
Southside Blues Jam

Originally released by Delmark in 1970 and now re-released on CD with seven previously unheard tracks, Southside Blues Jam features Junior Wells (vocals and harp), Otis Spahn (piano), Buddy Guy (guitar, vocals), Ernest Johnson (bass) and Fred Below (drums) at the height of their powers at a time when the line-up (Wells and his backing band) was a Monday night fixture at Chicago’s legendary Theresa’s Lounge. Recorded live in the studio during December/January ’69-’70 in a Windy City wracked by racial and anti-war tension, corruption and growing poverty on a Mayor Daley basis, there’s certainly no false advertising involved here, folks. Loose, to the bone and not exactly over-produced, Southside Blues Jam is all about soul and hearing some true blues masters go for it. Little wonder the record was hailed as a masterpiece by all hands from Rolling Stone to the Rolling Stones upon its release.

The mid-tempo shuffle “Stop Breaking Down” (a Wells original, not the Robert Johnson classic) serves to kick off a record that in spirit is more a sweat-drenched set on the Southside. Spahn’s dark, rich-toned piano is particularly delicious and compliments Wells’ voice and harp perfectly. The Muddy Waters styled “I Could Have Had Religion” follows and is one of the album’s centerpieces. Over a riff just a bit reminiscent of “Rolling Stone”, Wells expresses his willingness to get religion (only his woman’s low-down ways won’t allow it) before ruminating on the state of the blues and the recent misfortunes that have recently struck some of its masters: “Down like everybody else / the Howling Wolf had a heart attack / And it almost killed poor me / I went on down to the funeral home when Magic Sam died / It hurt me so bad sometimes I have to fight for my sleep at night / You know that Muddy Waters is in the hospital / And he can’t even hardly get around / And that’s what makes me feel I want to fight tonight.” Heartfelt, harrowing and as deep as the blues can get, it’s one of the best things Junior Wells ever recorded.

From there it’s straight on into what could arguably be the best version of Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You” ever laid down. From Spahn’s classic piano lick and lean accompaniment to Johnson and Below’s steady groove, to Junior’s assured delivery and perfectly sculpted harp work, the song is tremendous. Notes from Guy’s clean, low volume Stratocaster appear like the tapping of a lover’s fingernails on a bedside table waiting for her man to get down to business. Brilliant. Otis Spahn reminds us on the next track, “Lend Me Your Love”, that he basically wrote the blueprint for electric blues piano accompaniment as a member of Muddy Waters’ classic 1950s band. There’s some great interplay here between Wells and Guy as well. The 2:00 a.m. wee small hours blues don’t get any better than this. Showing no let up, the band then launches into a tight version of Muddy’s “Long Distance Call” (here entitled “You Say You Love Me”). Check out the interaction between Guy’s great guitar fills, Wells’ dark, Nutella rich harp and Spahn’s stately piano — perfect. From there Junior once again examines the state of the blues as well as the ills of the Windy City in “Blues For Mayor Daley”. In a rare foray into more topical material, Wells lays down his action plan for resolving the problems of late ’60s inner city America: “If Mayor Daley were to hold my hand / I could teach something to this old man / That I just can’t explain / I wanna tell him about the blues baby.”

“In My Younger Days” begins with Wells shouting “Hey! Ain’t this funky?” as if on the bandstand rather than in a recording studio. A swinging shuffle, it features a heaping spoonful of Wells’ transcendent harp work. Up to this point his “Mississippi saxophone” has been rather restrained, but here Junior opens his bags of tricks and blows. The final track from the original release arrives in the form of Bobby Patterson’s “Trouble Don’t Last Always” and as closers go, it doesn’t get any better. Almost a mini blues opera, it starts as slow blues sung by Guy. Just after the two-minute mark, Wells enters with a mind-bending harp solo and takes over as MC as he lays down what Buddy has been singing about. Sly, humorous and at the same time as serious as the Wolf’s heart attack. Junior and Buddy then take it to the mountain as they engage in some amazing vocal sparring with Junior playing the slick Malcolm X to Buddy’s Dr. King. Things reach a climax with Wells telling his guitarman to “play that guitar!” before emitting a scream that’s cathartic. Things wind up (perhaps just a bit strangely) with a quick reading of “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl”. The blues don’t get better than this.

Listeners will be happy to know that the outtakes are, for the most part, just as good. “It’s Too Late Brother” is an obvious rewrite of Little Walter’s “My Babe” but that doesn’t mean it’s not great. The band stretches out (Spahn is just jaw dropping here) while Wells gets into an almost psychedelic bag scatting through his harp microphone. On “Warming Up”, we hear Spahn and Guy unlimbering their able fingers and having a laugh in the process. On “Love My Baby”, Buddy Guy pulls out the licks that had already made Jimi Hendrix one of his biggest fans and would eventually see him recording albums with more guest stars than late-period Sinatra. A slightly heavier take of “I Could Have Had Religion” follows and is interesting for its lyric differences (among other things Wells sings that he’s been a soldier in Vietnam and never thought he’d get home). “Rock Me”, a tribute to the then hospitalized Muddy Waters (he’d been in a near fatal car accident shortly before the recording sessions) is next and could have easily been first class material on the original release. The dynamics and feel this band could create must be heard to be believed. Yet more top harp work from Junior. “Lexington Movie” is a brief spoken bit that’s both hilarious and a time capsule of another time. Things wrap up with the riffing blues-rocker “Got to the Blues” with Johnson’s bass thumping like a Southside Jack Bruce and Wells effortlessly mixing that amazing voice and sublime blues harp (there’s a great imitation of Howling Wolf included free-of-charge). Great to finally hear it after four decades.

Southside Blues Jam is the sound of five great musicians paying homage to the past, standing their ground in a turbulent era when the blues was in sharp decline among young Afro-Americans and finally realizing, a bit reluctantly, that the torch was being passed on to them. This great record reminds us of what capable hands it was ultimately placed into.

RATING 8 / 10