Recording technology and economics have a peculiar way of influencing the progress of music. I remember when the folks at Apple first opened their iTunes store, and started selling individual songs for 99 cents each. Some people bemoaned the death of the long-playing album, saying sales would suffer if people could pick and choose only the songs they like. The poor LP was already in trouble in pop music, where a darling of the music industry would be packaged and polished and an album forced out with a few potential hits mixed in to a load of rubbish. I actually like well-made albums that capture a bigger musical vision of the recording artist(s). A product that was put together with emphasis on the overall sound, order of the tunes, and totality of tonal balance.
The origins of the LP record in the 1960’s had the opposite effect that the iTunes store created in more recent times. State of the art in the early 60’s was to record 2-3 minute single songs, for play on the radio and sale as 45 rpm record singles. This was the format that had commercial potential, and was the recording outlet for musicians at the time. It took a few record producers with vision, and guts to spend money on studio time, in order to take the chance on making and marketing an entire album. One of the greatest early successes in the genre of blues music came when Bob Koester of Delmark records enabled Junior Wells to cut Hoodoo Man Blues, a legendary Chicago blues album.
Hoodoo Man Blues is a 1965 landmark of the Chicago Blues sound, with the vocals and harp of Junior Wells and the guitar work of Buddy Guy. Wells is a master of the blues harp, a Richter-tuned harmonica, which he cupped in his hands and played close into a microphone. In this way, he could play powerfully expressive solos and bend notes in every which way with an amplified sound. On a personal note, I miss the liner notes that came with albums. They always had valuable information included. In the liner notes to Hoodoo Man Blues, Junior Wells tells a story of how he obtained his first harmonica.
“I went to this pawnshop downtown and the man had a harmonica priced at $2.00. I got a job on a soda truck… played hookey from school … worked all week and on Saturday the man gave me a dollar and a half. A dollar and a half! For a whole week of work. I went to the pawnshop and the man said the price was two dollars. I told him I had to have that harp. He walked away from the counter – left the harp there. So I laid my dollar-and-a-half on the counter and picked up the harp. When my trial came up, the judge asked my why I did it. I told him I had to have that harp. The judge asked me to play it and when I did he gave the man the 50 cents and hollered “Case dismissed!”
The title of the album comes from a song by the same name, and is seventh on the record. It is a tune that Wells recorded years earlier on a 78 rpm single, but never got much radio play at the time. He liked the tune a great deal, and wanted to include it on the album. “Hoodoo” is a sort of folk magic originating in the Mississippi Delta from a mix of West African, Native American and European influences. It is not the same as Louisiana or Haitian Voodoo. A “Hoodoo” man would then be a practitioner of this folk spirituality, and a character that gets Hoodooed himself in “Hoodoo Man Blues”.
This album is a gem that launched a recording career for Junior Wells, and is close to the first album length document of the Chicago blues sound. The guitar playing of Buddy Guy, a blues legend himself and frequent recording partner of Wells, is an absolute treasure on the album. It is actually Buddy Guy’s guitar that I was first searching out when I found this record. He almost wasn’t on this album, as he originally was thought to be under contract with another record label at the time. He was actually going to be listed on early presses of the record as “Friendly Chap”, a play on his name. During the recording sessions, Buddy’s guitar amp broke. For some of the tracks, his guitar is wired through the speaker of an electric Hammond organ that was in the studio. Necessity again was the mother of invention.
If you don’t know about the Chicago Blues sound, you better go ask somebody. Then go listen to this album on repeat.