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Junior Wells - Live Around The World: The Best Of (2002)

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Junior Wells' Live Around The World

Junior Wells' Live Around The World

Photo courtesy Legacy Recordings

Junior Wells was a legitimate giant in the blues world, contributing as much as any other artist towards defining the famed Chicago sound. With a career that stretched across five decades, Wells was a workhorse that kept busy almost until his death. Born in Memphis at the tail end of the Delta blues period, Wells was taught his first notes on the mouth harp by Junior Parker at the tender age of twelve.

After immigrating to Chicago like so many bluesmen before him, a youthful Wells made his mark as part of a band called the Aces. Greater opportunities struck in 1952, however, when Wells replaced the legendary Little Walter as a member of Muddy Waters’ band. Solo albums for a myriad of labels sealed Wells’ rep during the 1960s, the harp player often collaborating with his friend, guitarist Buddy Guy. With the benefit of hindsight, Wells albums like 1965's Hoodoo Man Blues and 1970's South Side Blues Jam are considered bona fide classics of the Chicago blues style.

Junior Wells' Live Around The World

Wells' Live Around The World collects various performances from the last year, year-and-a-half of the blues legend's life; the artist’s worldwide touring taking him to Germany, Norway, Japan, England, and points in between. The songs chosen for Live Around The World are fairly representative of Wells’ milieu, live versions of signature pieces like “Hoodoo Man” offered alongside blues standards like Willie Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster.”

Junior’s harp playing is straight from the Sonny Boy Williamson and Little Walter schools of the blues, with Wells developing his own distinctive style and adding his own peculiar flourishes through the years. What set Wells apart from the aforementioned influences; however, are his vocal talents and his skills as a bandleader. Wells developed a soulful, R&B-tinged singing style through the years that was both emotionally expressive and powerful. Wells also played with some of the best bluesmen on the planet during the 40+ years of his career, but he was almost always the focus of attention, a strict bandleader who pulled the most out of his players.

Got My Mojo Working

Unfortunately for Live Around The World, the band assembled to back-up Wells on his last hurrah are no match for the stage-tested Chicago gangs the diminutive harp player used to front. On many of these performances, the musicians are simply overshadowed by the dynamic Wells, a powerful player and performer who was always more at home on stage than in the studio. The resulting songs are slick and professional, but lack the smoke and sweat and soul inherent in the best Chicago blues.

Junior Wells is always a joy to listen to, though, and he gives his best to Live Around The World. Whether tearing through cuts like the lively “Got My Mojo Working, the blues-tinged rave-up “Help Me” or the funky James Brown-styled strutting of “Messin’ With The Kid,” Wells knocks ‘em down with passion and precision.

The Reverend's Bottom Line

There are precious few live recordings of Junior Wells available, which makes Live Around The World important from a historical perspective, the disc providing a rare glimpse of Well’s talents, admittedly in the twilight of his career. Hardcore fans may find the slick production qualities exhibited by the performance to be a bit off-putting, and to honest, there's nothing in these grooves to make one forget the immediacy and greasy authenticity of an album like Live In Boston 1966.

Still, this is the one and only Junior Wells that we're talking about here, a livewire performer that, as displayed by Live Around The World, retained much of his strength, energy, and enormous onstage charisma until the end. The blues world lost a great talent with Wells passed away in January 1998, and one has to wonder if the Chicago blues legend may not have experienced the same sort of late-career rival as his old friend Buddy Guy had he been able to carry on. Live Around The World is anything but essential, but it is a fine showcase for an old lion that went out on top of his game. (Legacy Recordings, released January 2002)

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