Twenty-three years after its release, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells Play the Blues stands as one of the turning points in the history of modern blues; it's the crossroads at which the authentic and the commercial meet, a project that began with good intentions (to make Guy and Wells superstars) but ultimately crumbled underneath Eric Clapton's heroin addiction, ego, and record-label interference. Clapton wanted to make Guy famous, but he only sealed the guitarist's fate as a should-be legend, taking Wells with him.
To listen to the album now is to hear the blues made slick, the edges clean and buffed, most of the grit washed away. And yet it's a great album despite itself, testament only to the talents of Guy and Wells--two men who were like brothers on the stage, in the studio, away from the spotlight. Behind the microphone and behind their instruments --Guy on guitar and Wells on harmonica-- the two men echo each other's moves.
Like Guy (or John Lee Hooker or B.B. King), Wells is one of those bluesmen who links the music's not-so-distant urban-bred past with its tenuous future. He was born in Memphis in 1934, moved to Chicago when he was 12; he learned to play harmonica before he was a teenager, taking lessons from Junior Parker, a next-door neighbor. When he was 16 years old, he walked into the Ebony Lounge in Chicago and told Muddy Waters he could play the harmonica; when Little Walter left Muddy's band, he was replaced with Junior Wells.
Wells would go on to record with the likes of Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Otis Spann, and Willie Dixon. His first (and only) hit came in 1953, when the 19-year-old Wells cut "Hoodoo Man Blues"; the song is now his greatest legacy, a fiery and intense and damned scary piece of music. Thirty years later, he is still on the small labels, still (and forever) on the touring circuit, still (and forever) a would-be legend.
Junior Wells performs July 14 at the Caravan of Dreams in Fort Worth.