For Junior Wells, there was just something about working with Buddy Guy.
On Hoodoo Man Blues, a spark-filled mid-1960s Chicago blues album, Wells stops on more than one occasion, while letting loose these flying shards of harmonica blasts, to issue a pleased grunt. So very in the moment, his vocals start with an unguarded joy, a sexual power, then move all the way into open-hearted distortion. At the same time, Buddy Guy – called “Friendly Chap” (get it?) on the original back cover, because he was thought to be under contract elsewhere – scratches out a series of limber notes.
“Snatch It Back and Hold It,” the gauntlet-clanging opener, sets the template for its upbeat triumphs, as Wells hiccups and howls: “Somebody help me, because I can’t help myself!” He then unleashes a scorching series of blurts and trembling shapes on the harp, over a tout rhythm from bassist Jack Myers and drummer Billy Warren. When the track ends, with this echoing abruptness, a riffing, unbridled Wells can only exclaim: “Hey!”
Guy and Wells sound, even then, like long-lost classmates – finishing each other’s sentences as they recall a story no one else has heard yet.
Elsewhere, on the weird little groove of “Good Morning Schoolgirl,” Wells winkingly expresses a series of salacious come-ons that would get him jailed today. There’s a deep-fried reimagining of Kenny Burrell’s “Chitlins Con Carne,” and the shuddering take on Sonny Boy Williams’ title track. Wells even funks up two tracks associated with Elvis Presley, “Hound Dog” and “Hey Lawdy Mama.”
But there was more to it than that. For all of its closing-time wildness, the record also best illustrates how Wells and Guy drew out broader complexities from one another, too. There are times when the sessions for Hoodoo Man Blues, reissued this month with a batch of additional moments of in-studio chatter and a sparkling new booklet with photos and new notes from producer Bob Koester, had the feel of the jazz date — in the sense that the pair made such distinctive use of rhythm and space.
Skip to the alternate take of “In the Wee Wee Hours” from this date, later released as “This is the Blues” on Delmark’s This is The Blues Harmonica. Wells bursts out, but when Guy continues strumming along — showing, really, a spectacular restraint — his partner dials down into a smoky idiosyncratic series of murmurings. Warren slows to an almost funereal pace, too. And the song gets as quiet as it is loud.
Gets me every time.
Wells and Guy made a bunch of other records, notably a subsequent Delmark forgotten gem called Southside Blues Jam, but they never made a better one.