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The Boston Phoenix Hoodoo Men

Delmark's Wells and Dawkins

By Ted Drozdowski

AUGUST 10, 1998:  The torch of electric blues has burned no brighter than in the gritty clubs and studios of Chicago in the '50s and '60s. It was a time when the music's pioneering figures like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf were passing that flame to a new generation. You can hear it sizzle no louder than on four visceral reissues just transferred to CD by Delmark. Two are stunning debuts: Junior Wells's Blues Hit Big Town and Jimmy Dawkins's Fast Fingers. Yank Rachell's Tennessee Jug Busters' Mandolin Blues teams old hands Big Joe Williams, Sleepy John Estes, Hammie Nixon, and Rachell with then-hotshot newcomer Mike Bloomfield. And guitarist Mighty Joe Young's Blues with a Touch of Soul, a 1970 session, adds, as advertised, the sound of down-home soul to the mix.

Wells's Blues Hit Big Town is the most significant. Following the funky singer/harmonica master's death earlier this year, it's become a poignant memorial. Wells was only 19 during these '53/'54 sessions. He'd just replaced the great harp blower Little Walter Jacobs in Muddy Waters' band but hadn't yet been influenced by James Brown. So these 17 cuts (including five previously unissued takes) don't have the house-rocking rhythmic punch that became his trademark in the mid '60s.

What's captured instead is the Arkansas-raised artist mastering a style he was born into, with the nurturing in-studio support of Muddy Waters, dirty-slide-guitar king Elmore James, blues-piano genius Otis Spann, and the scene's finest rhythmatists: guitarist Louis Myers, his bassist brother Dave, and drummers Fred Below and Odie Payne. But history and a stellar cast aren't the only reasons to prize this CD. Especially since the usually ebullient James and Waters restrict their performances to fills and chunky supporting chords, riding the big-ass straight-four beats that make the whole thing chug. What's best is Wells's own dirt and dynamite. His reedy singing bristles with tricks that display every twist of world-weary heartache. His harmonica is nakedly soulful. Add the excitement and personality he brought to his first turn as a leader and what's captured is the sound of an open vein pumped by a kick-drum heart.

On his first recorded version of Sonny Boy Williamson's "Hoodoo Man," which became his signature, Wells flattens the emotion out of the final words of each verse. That gives the hook "somebody hoodoo'd the hoodoo man" an achingly exhausted set-up. In "Please Throw This Dog a Bone," he swallows some syllables, howls others, and stretches more, building a paradigm of want and pain. Then there's his harmonica. "Junior's Wail" may not be "Juke," the instrumental hit that propelled Little Walter from Waters' band, but it's a virtuoso display that matches the maturity of Wells's singing. Plus its tone, thinner yet more sprightly than Walter's, shows how closely Wells had listened to his idol Williamson.

It's Dawkins's Fast Fingers, however, that's the superheated revelation. His contemporary CDs for Ichiban are solid, with high-energy playing and singing. But this one's a must-have. By the time of these '68 and '69 sessions Dawkins was a heavyweight in Chicago, headlining clubs and backing Luther Allison and Jimmy Rogers. Hearing him unfurl dragster-paced picking on "Triple Trebles," conjure demonic vibrato on "It Serves Me Right To Suffer," and do the cry-and-moan on "You Got To Keep On Trying" and nine others raises a nagging question: how could a guitarist every bit as fiery as his contemporaries Otis Rush and Buddy Guy have slipped through the cracks?

Mandolin player Rachell's 1963 session is a throwback to the '30s, when acoustic jug-band blues was played at Saturday-night "frolics" in the farmland South and recorded by labels like Vocalion. It's mostly an easygoing reunion of old-timers joined by young gun Bloomfield on a half-dozen songs. What's striking is Rachell's zesty performances. At 55 (he died in 1997), he shouts out his lyrics and blazes on mandolin, leaving the others to follow. Except for Bloomfield. Rachell's dives into dizzy-paced frailing are Bloomfield's license to translate his frantic combination of Chicago electric blues and psychedelic rock into acoustic guitar. He and Rachell buzz each other like bees in combat.

Joe Young's entry unveils the direction most Chicago blues bands still take. It tentatively mixes hardcore standards (Guitar Slim's "The Things That I Used To Do") and originals (like his own pleading epic "Every Man Needs a Woman") into a fusion of rawboned songwriting and guitar licks with arrangements (punctuating horn lines, driving syncopation) and gospel-inspired vocals that suggest soul music. When he made Blues with a Touch of Soul, Young emerged from apprenticeships with Magic Sam and Jimmy Rogers. Today, at 70, he remains a stalwart of Chicago's scene and -- like these albums -- a still-burning reminder of the days when electric blues' first generation shared its fire. Long may it blaze.

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