Junior Wells – Pleading the Blues (1979)

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by Nick DeRiso

The year was 1959. The occasion was a “Battle of the Blues” at the Blue Flame Club in Chicago.

Young harmonica player Junior Wells — who got his start as Little Walter Jacobs’ replacement in Muddy Waters’ band back in ’52 — probably didn’t imagine he would come in second. After all, he had already ready put down both Otis Rush and (a favorite of mine) Magic Sam.

Still to come, though, was this fleet-fingered, skinny young Louisiana cat — Buddy Guy. It was the beginning a beautiful friendship.

In case you’re wondering how he did this, check the liner notes to “Pleading the Blues,” by Wells and featuring Guy, on Evidence Records. As the climax to his blistering solo, Guy tossed his guitar in the air, then caught it by the neck … one handed. As it slid through his fingers, Buddy created this high levee moan. Crowd: gone wild.

That chance meeting set in motion more than a relationship. This early, and profound, respect translated into a partnership that somehow superceded Wells’ early work with one of the most important people in the blues.

Wells and Guy would produce some of the most unabashed and deeply cool West Side blues recordings.

Finding an unearthed collaboration between these two guys is not just about rediscovering what you’ve always loved about both — Wells’ blistering showmanship, Guy’s incisive guitar work — it’s also a kind of reaffirmation. Listening to “Pleading the Blues,” f-i-n-a-l-l-y issued in 1993, you once again realize: The blues is, well, ALRIGHT.

Actually recorded for the French Isabel imprint, the 1979 sessions work as a kind of companion piece to Guy’s “Blues Giant” recording of the same year. Until then, it had never been released stateside.

“Pleading,” as “Living Blues” writer Jim DeKoster aptly noted, sounds something like an updated version of Wells’ 1965 breakthrough recording, “Hoodoo Man” for Delmark.

There’s the gentle blues shuffle of “It Hurts Me Too,” made famous by Elmore James. There’s the electric-blues muscle of the title tune. Finally, as a bonus track, there’s the funky, clearly James Brown-influenced “I Smell Something.”

This is a fine recording — and certainly one of Junior’s best little-known releases .. along with “Southside Blues Jam” (Delmark), also with Guy and featuring fellow ex-Muddy sideman Otis Spann.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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