The mid-sixties was a rich time for the blues, with Vanguard Records in the forefront of bringing the genre to an eager new young white audience, often prompted by well received appearances at the Newport Folk Festival. The company issued records by many of the rediscovered old guard artists like Son House, Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James, but when they issued “Chicago/The Blues/Today” the series introduced a much younger player who was about to make his mark. Born in December 1934, Junior Wells was in his early thirties and already a real showman.
Junior had been entranced with blues harmonica since age twelve, and soon linked up with Little Walter, playing for loose change on the streets of Chicago's South Side during the forties. Walter joined the Muddy Waters band, staying with them until 1952 when Junior was able to take his place while Walter took over the band that Junior had formed in the meantime. Junior now had much more major exposure, and began developing a confident stage persona while also getting some recording chances in the mid-fifties.
It was the sixties that really opened up Junior Wells' career, following a strong album “Hoodoo Man Blues” recorded for the Delmark label. When Vanguard recorded him as a particularly featured artist on their collection he was really on his way. The first five tracks here are from that “Chicago/The Blues/Today” album from 1966, with these followed up by a further ten from the 1965 album “It's My Life, Baby” (some of which are live club recordings at Pepper's Lounge in Chicago), with his version of Willie Dixon's ‘I'm Your Hoochie Coochie Man’ being picked from the 1968 album “Coming At You”. Two previously unreleased tracks from the “It's My Life, Baby” sessions, ‘Shotgun Blues’ and ‘You Know What I Know’ are added as strong bonuses.
At a time when the rural, almost gentle, blues of the likes of Mississippi John Hurt were being appreciated, the Junior Wells approach was young, vibrant and distinctly urban. His vocals were virile and almost cocky, and accounts of his live shows indicate that this was the persona that he promoted with dance moves, sharp colourful suits and processed hair all adding to his showmanship. With Buddy Guy on guitar on these recordings, this is tough street blues that was fully embraced by the same young white audience who had discovered the likes of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. His attacking style on his own songs like ‘Shake It Baby’ and ‘(I Got A) Stomach Ache’ evoked the early James Brown, while he could blow a mean, expressive and slinky harp on tracks like ‘Slow, Slow’. This whole fine compilation shows off the strongly modern blues of the sixties, and can be enjoyed equally by traditional blues fans and more rock-based ones. It is a tribute to Vanguard Records that they saw fit to record the whole gamut of the genre at the time, and it is to be celebrated that we still have great music like this in catalogue.