Blues Bytes


January 2007

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Junior Wells
Live At Theresa's 1975
Delmark Records

Junior Wells

For most of their 2006 blues releases, Delmark dug back into their vaults. This essential disc from Junior Wells, Live At Theresa's 1975, completes a hat trick that began with Otis Rush’s All You Love I Miss Loving and Magic Slim/Joe Carter’s That Ain’t Right.

Like the Rush CD, Live At Theresa’s was recorded by Ken Rasek, and some of it was originally broadcast on Chicago’s WXRT radio station. Live At Theresa’s may be the best of the three as it shows the friendly and neighborly atmosphere of a 1970s Chicago ghetto blues club being held at the helm by its commander.

The dignified CD is a testimony to a time when blues was a neighborhood institution played by people who had grown up together. The music was created as a means to free them of their pain. Bruce Iglauer recalls, “(Theresa’s) had wood paneling on the wall, beer signs, and Christmas tinsel wrapped around the overhead pipes 12 months a year.” There wasn’t a bandstand or a PA system for the featured entertainment, who performed Friday to Monday. It was only a dollar to get in and the drinks were cheap. During Wells’ occupancy at Theresa’s Hole, the club owner herself hired and paid the sidemen, so they weren’t officially his band. These recordings were made January 10 and 13, 1975. On these two winter evenings the hired help included Phil Guy (guitar), Byther Smith (guitar), Sammy Lawhorn (guitar), Earnest Johnson (bass), Vince Chapelle (drums), and Levi Warren (drums).

Live At Theresa’s is gritty and slick at the same time. It presents traditional electric Chicago blues at its finest. What other art form unashamedly describes life via lyrics like (“If you love your woman / you love her with a thrill / because ifin’ you don’t / some other man will”). Not much of the background noise has been filtered out. In fact, you can hear the patrons in the background during the songs. All of Wells’ in-between song banter has been left in, too. It displays his charismatic interaction with his audience at the intimate 40-person capacity club. The camaraderie is paramount, and is best displayed via an impromptu Happy Birthday played in honor of Marc PoKempner’s “borning day.”

For those who have followed Wells for years, these songs are like a homecoming. Many of them came from his current album at the time – Delmark’s On Tap. The weaving guitars of Guy and Smith interlock notes on "Little By Little." Smith’s smooth vocals are given the lead on "Help The Poor," while he continues to play single and succinct guitar notes. Not surprisingly, "Juke" features the greatest amount of Wells’ harp which rolls you down the street like a garbage can tossed about in the wind. Guy slashes his strings on "Scratch My Back," and sounds like brother Buddy on the rockin’ "What My Mama Told Me." The latter is a highlight due to the guitar solos and harp solo. "Snatch It Back And Hold It" gets an ultra funky rendition courtesy of Phil. Throughout, Junior is in his element and having a great time, as on the mellow-paced "Goin’ Down Slow" where he admits, “You’ll have to excuse me coz I’m drunk.”

Hoodoo Man Blues, by Junior Wells, was the first album to capture the live Chicago blues band sound in the studio. If released in 1975, Live At Theresa’s might have been the first live album to accurately capture the live Chicago blues band sound in a club. Like Steve Tomashefsky’s liner notes and Marc PoKempner’s photographs, the CD reveals both the music and the culture. Though it doesn’t contain Wells’ best vocals and the audio isn’t up to today’s standard, Live At Theresa’s is everything a blues CD is supposed to be. Its analog album sound is raw, edgy, and unpolished. Combined together, it’s the sweetest sound you’ll hear because it’s all about an experience that cannot be replicated.

--- Tim Holek

Delmark Records outdid itself last fall when it released the sensational 1976 Wise Fools Pub appearance by Otis Rush. Their most recent effort, Junior Well’s Live At Theresa’s 1975 is easily a release of equal magnitude, capturing the Chicago legend on his home turf with a crack supporting band in tow.

As with the Rush performance, Ken Rasek recorded this appearance for Chicago radio station WXRT (as part of their “Un-concert“ series), and the recording is as good and sometimes better than the Rush show, capturing the essence, if not the actual imagery, of a regular night at Theresa’s, where Junior Wells held court for nearly 30 years.

Wells’ band consisted of Sammy Lawhorn and Byther Smith on guitar, along with Nate Applewhite on drums and Ernest Johnson on bass. To add some stability and polish to the proceedings, which were recorded over two nights (January 10 & 13, 1975), Wells brought in guitarist Phil Guy (a mainstay of the Junior Wells/Buddy Guy touring band at the time) to sit in. Applewhite wasn’t able to play during these dates, so Levi Warren and Vince Chapelle split time on drums.

The set list was familiar fare to Wells fans at the time. Several songs appear from his On Tap album, which Delmark had released the previous year. He opens the proceedings with his classic “Little By Little,” followed by the funk workout “Snatch It Back And Hold It.” Over the years, some fans found Wells’ James Brown imitations tiresome, but there have always been claims by people who were there that Junior Wells was doing James Brown long before the Godfather of Soul was.

A memorable reading of “Love Her With A Feeling” (one of the On Tap songs) is followed by a blistering version of Little Walter’s “Juke.” Phil Guy and Byther Smith complement each other well during the first half of the disc and Smitty gets his moment in the spotlight with a vocal on B. B. King’s “Help The Poor.”

Sammy Lawhorn takes over on guitar for Smith for the second half of the disc and it consists of several Wells standards, such as “Come On In This House,” “What My Mama Told Me,” “Key To The Highway,” and a lengthy version of “Goin’ Down Slow.” Lawhorn was a brilliant talent who never reached his full potential due in part to substance abuse problems, but he acquits himself very well here.

Sprinkled throughout the recording is Wells’ chatter and teasing with the regulars. Theresa’s would only hold about 40 people, so it was definitely an intimate gathering place of familiar faces. Wells even stops to sing “Happy Birthday” to Marc PoKempner, a photographer who was a Theresa’s regular (and whose photos are included in the excellent liner notes compiled by Steve Tomashefsky).

Live At Theresa’s 1975 could be described as a vital document that preserves an image of days gone by in Chicago (Theresa’s closed down in the early ’80s, with owner Theresa Needham dying in 1992 and Wells passing in 1998), but it’s also a remarkable listening experience that fans of Chicago Blues will definitely enjoy. Let’s hope Delmark can get their hands on more of these recordings in the future.

--- Graham Clarke


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