6-CD box set reveals studio, live mastery of late, great harmonica player and singer Junior Wells

Here’s another blues box set worth checking out: a compilation of tracks from throughout the career of vocalist and harmonica player Amos Wells Blakemore Jr., better known by his stage name of Junior Wells. Born in West Memphis, Arkansas, Wells moved to Chicago at age 12, and spent his musical career playing with the likes of Muddy Waters (in whose band he replaced Little Walter) and Buddy Guy (with whom Wells would record and tour extensively over a three-decade period), with his work earning Wells nicknames that included “The Godfather of the Blues” and “The Mississippi Sax” before he moved on to the great gig in the sky 21 years ago this month (Jan. 15, 1998).

Featuring some of Wells’ most popular numbers, including “Little By Little”, “Messin’ with the Kid”, “Hoodoo Man Blues”, “Mystery Train”, and “Come On in This House”, the 6-disc set (listed by some retailers as simply Box of Blues, while the bolder or more literal sellers have labeled it Sexy Bitch — perhaps Wells’ preferred nickname for himself — in line with the phrase that appears on much of the packaging) also finds Wells delivering classics such as “Key to the Highway”, “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl”, “Love Her with a Feeling”, “Little Red Rooster”, “It Hurts Me Too” and “I Just Want to Make Love to You”, backed by blues superstars that included Waters, Guy, Willie Dixon, Earl Hooker, Lafayette Leake, Otis Spann, A.C. Reed, Syl Johnson, and Buddy’s brother Phil Guy, among others.

The first half of the set offers studio recordings spanning a quarter of a century, starting with some of Wells’ earliest sessions, including a swinging “Better Cut That Out” from 1953, a stripped-down “Please Throw This Poor Dog a Bone” that finds Wells joined only by Louis Myers on guitar and Odie Payne on drums, and the superb, raw slow blues of a “Blues Hit Big Town” that features both Muddy Waters and Myers on guitar, Otis Spann on piano, Willie Dixon on bass and Fred Below on drums, the latter two tracks both recorded in 1954.

In addition to such recognizable Wells tracks as “Little by Little”, “Come On in This House”, “Messin’ with the Kid” and “Lovey Dovey Lovey One” (the first two including, among others, Willie Dixon helping out on vocals and bass, Earl Hooker on guitar, and Lafayette Leake on piano), this studio portion also offers numbers that range from a gravelly, slow-dragging “I’m a Stranger” — a great example of Wells’ ability to really dig in vocally — and slow blues “I Could Cry”, both recorded in 1961 and featuring some gospelish organ from Johnny “Big Moose” Walker, to a set of tracks with Buddy Guy that includes funky arrangements of “Hoodoo Man Blues” and “Snatch It Back and Hold It”, a groovy “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl”, a “I Just Want to Make Love to You” that sees Wells smoothing and slowing things down before he really lets loose to help demonstrate just how he might have gotten that “Sexy Bitch” nickname, Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breaking Down”, and a “Trouble Don’t Last” that features Guy on vocals as well as guitar and that turns into a partially spoken “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl”, with Wells and his band adding just the right touches to help make these covers as terrific and much his own as the originals.

There’s also a crawling “Prison Bars All Around Me” (1960) that includes Dixon, Hooker and Spann; the slow-dragging “You Sure Look Good to Me” and “Key to the Highway”; an almost Elvis-like “Worried Life Blues”; a swinging “Juke”; a strutting “Baby, Scratch My Back” on which Wells is the picture of coolness; and the slow, gritty “Love With a Feeling”, with other tracks worth noting including the uptempo instrumental “Universal Rock”; a 1957 “Two Headed Woman” that features Syl Johnson on guitar; a strong “One Day (Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone)” on which Wells’ vocals rival those of Bobby “Blue” Bland as he growls out lines like “every shut eye ain’t sleepin'”; a dragging “It Hurts Me Too”; a funky, “(Theme from) Shaft”-like “Mystery Train”; a swaying, R&B-style “Goin’ Down Slow”; a somewhat fuzzy-sounding “It’s a Man Down There”; a “When the Cat’s Gone the Mice Play” to the tune of “Messin’ with the Kid”; and a 1960 “You Don’t Care” that sounds like it easily could have been an early rock n’ roll track from the likes of the Rolling Stones, with Wells backed by Dixon, Hooker, Spann and others.

While there’s plenty to like about the studio recordings, the biggest treat here might be the previously unreleased live material that makes up the rest of the collection, ranging from a 1983 show in Philadelphia to a 1997 performance in Osaka, Japan (recorded less than a year prior to Wells’ death), along with performances from The Netherlands (1987), Rochester, NY (1994) and Boulder, CO (1995).

Though not always the crispest or cleanest of recordings, one thing that remains consistent across these live tracks is the energy with which Wells delivered his shows. Probably most impressive of the bunch is the Netherlands show, which finds Wells accompanied by Buddy Guy and some horns for a set that included “Everything Gonna Be Alright”, “Driving Wheel”, a funky “Who’s Making Love”, perhaps the best version of “Messin’ with the Kid” we’ve ever heard, and the killer slow blues of “Ships on the Ocean”/”Champagne and Reefer” (Muddy Waters), a more than 15-minute duet with Guy that’s as good an example of the spoken and musical interplay between the two bluesmen as you’ll hear, with Buddy pushing Junior to “do it” and “play me something”, first in a playful, encouraging manner, then cursing at him, and Junior replying to Buddy’s singing about “going down to Louisiana” to “get me a mojo hand” with a laugh and a “I’ve got me one and it ain’t doin’ me no damn good”. 

This Netherlands set alone is probably worth the price of the collection (with it and the other live recordings here being released for the first time thanks to Cleopatra Records’ 2015 purchase of Wells’ catalog), with Wells and Guy offering solid, patient takes on these songs without the vocal theatrics like tongue clucks and Bobby “Blue” Bland-like croaks and squalls that Wells employs on some of the later shows. Not something we were accustomed to hearing much of from Wells, these vocal embellishments may catch the listener off-guard at times but don’t detract much from the program, and are in fact a small price to pay to be able to hear Wells this late into his years, with even the 1997 Osaka set offering a strong performance despite Wells’ voice being noticeably deeper and older than we hear elsewhere. Still, he’s able to deliver an energetic, entertaining set that includes such gems as “Little by Little”; a “Hoodoo Man Blues” with some stinging guitar and harp in addition to Wells’ mix of deep and falsetto vocals; a funky “The Train”; a gritty “You Gotta Love Her with a Feeling” that fluctuates between hushed and louder vocals along with its shrieks and clucks; the gruff, gravelly vocaled “What My Momma Told Me” with swinging horns; and a creeping “Little Red Rooster” with barking and howling from the band, with the mostly slow-cooking “Sweet Sixteen” and horn-laced “Today I Started Loving You Again”, with vocals that run the gamut from whispers and grumbles, to growls, clucks, and croaks, to scatting and falsetto shrieks, helping to round out the set. Even if not the smoothest of performances from Wells, it’s hardly a boring presentation.

Like the set’s official title, some of the content here isn’t the most appropriate for the younger blues fans, but it sure is nice to be able to hear this previously unreleased material from Wells, which, combined with some of the more familiar studio cuts, amounts to a terrific collection of the bluesman’s work.

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