Blues Bytes


October/November 2009

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Buddy Guy & Junior Wells
Buddy Guy & Junior Wells Play The Blues

Buddy Guy

Buddy Guy and Junior Wells had been teaming up for a number of years prior to their release for Atlantic Records, Buddy Guy & Junior Wells Play The Blues, though not as an “official” duo. Guy had appeared on several Wells releases including the monumental Hoodoo Man Blues and South Side Blues Jam, and a couple of releases for Vanguard, including It’s My Life, Baby. Play the Blues was their first album in which they received double billing, and their first for a major label.

Around 1970, Guy and Wells had drawn the plum assignment of opening for the Rolling Stones on their European tour. During the tour, they encountered Eric Clapton during their show in Paris and the guitarist joined them on stage during their set. Afterward, he introduced the pair to Atlantic Records head Ahmet Ertegun and encouraged him to record Guy and Wells. Ertegun agreed, provided Clapton produced the record for their Atco subsidiary.

On paper, this seemed like a great deal. Clapton invited the duo down to Criteria Studios in Miami, his goal to capture Guy and Wells in as live a setting as possible, recording new versions of some of their standard repertoire. However, Clapton proved to be ill-equipped at the time to wear the producer’s hat, as he was struggling with a heroin addiction. There was very little pre-production or rehearsals, and no sense of direction coming from anyone, despite the presence of Ertegun and legendary producer Tom Dowd in the studio.

Certainly, the musicians weren’t a problem. Several Chicago musicians (A.C. Reed –sax, Roosevelt Shaw – drums, and Leroy Stewart – bass) were a model of consistency and provided stellar backing. There were also a couple of members of Clapton’s current band, Derek & the Dominos (Jim Gordon – drums, Carl Radle – bass), as well as Dr. John and Mike Utley on keyboards.

Dr. John is on record in Guy’s 1993 biography, Damn Right I Got The Blues, as saying that Buddy Guy’s best work was what he played between the songs that were recorded. Several observers, including Dick Waterman, who then managed Guy and Wells, voiced frustration with the direction of the recording, or lack thereof. Clapton staggered around for two or three days before Dowd sent him home. The results of the chaotic session were only eight songs deemed worthy of release, but the album sat in the can for two years. In 1972, Atlantic staff producer Michael Cuscuna convinced the label to release it, adding two tracks recorded in Boston with the young Boston blues combo, the J. Geils Band.

Considering its checkered history, Play The Blues has some outstanding moments. The opening track, Guy’s “Man of Many Words,” is a funky first cousin of Otis Redding’s “Hard To Handle, and his extended guitar work on the opening of “T-Bone Shuffle” is one of the disc’s highlights.

Wells acquits himself in traditionally fine fashion with scorching remakes of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “My Baby She Left Me (She Left Me A Mule To Ride),” which also features some stinging, jagged fills from Guy, and excellent versions of some of his own original tunes, a medley of “Come On In This House” and “Have Mercy Baby,” and “A Poor Man’s Plea.”

The tracks with the J. Geils Band (Guy’s “This Old Fool” and a jazzy instrumental version of Joe Liggins’ “Honeydripper) are not bad, and blend pretty well with the Criteria session. The hands-off approach in production actually seems to enhance the performances. Several other efforts by Atlantic at recording blues material during this time period (particular Otis Rush and Freddy King) ended up in overproduced albums with material that didn’t always show the artists at their best. Despite all the stars present, the album fared poorly upon its initial release.

In the early ’90s, Rhino Records picked up distribution rights on this and many other Atlantic and Atco recordings. In 2005, they released a two-disc limited edition release (2,500 copies) of Play The Blues that was well-received, but is pretty hard to find.

Buddy Guy and Junior Wells were the real Blues Brothers. While both were exemplary musicians on their own, when paired up they always seemed to bring out the best in each other. Play the Blues has some wonderful moments and ranks with the duo’s best work, but newcomers are advised to check out their earlier releases for Delmark or Vanguard to get the full picture.

--- Graham Clarke


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