Junior Wells

Blues lore has it that a preteen Amos "Junior" Wells shoplifted his first harp and got caught. The presiding judge asked why he was so desperate for a $2 harmonica, and a tearful Wells pleaded poverty. So moved was the judge, the story goes, that he paid for the instrument himself and set Wells free. As a condition, Wells was ordered to send the judge a copy of his first record. Several years later Blues Hit Big Town arrived in the kindly jurist's chambers, and the rest is history -- of a much more documentable sort.

This collection is a vital chapter in that history. Wells's landmark Hoodoo Man Blues was cut three years after the last of these recordings, and it is clear that Wells had been fruitful before that fateful Delmark session. As a glimpse into the late-'50s and early-'60s "pre-discovery" Chicago blues scene, this is an invaluable collection.

Wells's 66 years in the blues began in Memphis, where he was born in 1934. After moving to Chicago in 1946, he sat in with Big Maceo and Tampa Red, two originators of Chicago blues. Based on the strength of these gigs, and those with his own Three Aces, Wells was tapped to replace Little Walter in Muddy Waters's band. He was but 17 years old. Wells seemed to have all Chi-town at his feet, but Uncle Sam had other plans. After being drafted into the army, Wells was replaced by James Cotton in 1953.

Four years later, as a solo act, Wells recorded the first of these sides. (Even though he had, by then, begun his on-off partnership with Buddy Guy, the blues guitarist does not grace this CD.) The material ranges along the gravitas spectrum from the deepest blues, the best of which is "So Tired," to wacky, freewheeling novelty numbers. With their rare harmonized lead vocals, songs like "Little by Little" and "You Sure Look Good to Me" sound something like the Five Blind Boys on a devilish bender, backed by Howlin' Wolf's band.

A couple of quibbles: First, the sound quality is less than stellar, and second, owing to the fashions of the time, Wells's harp is very seldom unsheathed. Nevertheless, Wells was a compelling performer as a vocalist, and with the likes of Earl Hooker (who contributes an astounding choogling solo on "Universal Rock"), Willie Dixon, A.C. Reed and Syl Johnson alongside him, the musicianship transcends the disc's sonic handicaps.

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