Amos Blackmore had barely shaken the dust of his native Memphis’ streets from his pants cuffs when he began to make a name for himself in Chicago Blues.
Soon after the pugnacious 12-year-old moved north with his mother, Blackmore could be found standing shoulder-to-hip with the great Little Walter blowing harp for tips on Maxwell Street. Four years later he was fronting his own band – the Three Deuces, with the brothers Dave and Louis Myers. And in 1953, at age 19, he made his first recordings as a leader, backed by Elmore James and the drummer Fred Below. His second session, 10 months later, featured Muddy Waters and Otis Spann.
Thus began Blackmore’s 49-year career as the irrepressible Junior Wells – a genius, a little giant of the Blues. A dynamic innovator who electrified juke joints and international concert halls with his flamboyant steps, funky arrangements, raw yet buttery vocals and his harmonica – the instrument Junior often called his ‘Mississippi saxophone’ and played like a Chicago Illinois Jacquet.
It was the harmonica that put his star in ascendance. Schooled as he was by Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Junior Parker and Big Walter Horton, Wells was a natural for Walter’s job in Muddy Waters’ band when Walter quit in 1952. And it was there that he blossomed, smoothing his ghetto-hardened edges into a charming stage persona under Muddy’s paternal tutelage.
Wells once described himself as ‘one set of lungs, one tongue and a whole lot of teeth – like a baby piranha.’ Just how much bite he packed became apparent when he began recording a series of career-defining singles for the Chief and Profile labels in the late-1950s. They included such regional best-sellers as ‘Little By Little’ and ‘Come On In This House,’ and the number that would become his signature: ‘Messin’ With the Kid.’ Like Junior, the song is a bundle of fiery attitude – bristling with energy and rhythm, a genial warning shot at a conniving lover.
‘Messin’ With the Kid’ also foreshadowed where Junior was about to take the Blues. On Chicago’s West Side, his contemporaries Buddy Guy, Otis Rush and Magic Sam Maghett were incorporating the emotional dynamism of Soul music into the Delta-bred sounds upon which they were raised. While in the South Side’s watering holes, Junior began fusing old-school Blues with the funky beat of modern R&B. Together these men defined the sound of electric Blues’ second generation.
Although Wells was himself becoming a Pied Piper – a musical skyrocket disguised as a derby-wearing dandy whose incendiary performances proved irresistible to streetwise audiences – he was in turn lured by the sound of the then-emerging James Brown. Wells adopted the Georgia singer’s trademarks like driving horns and unison playing for own his bands. He made his vocal phrasing hew closer to the beat. And he punctuated his wailing voice and harp with dazzling splits and spins. In 1958 Wells also began one of the Blues’ most famous musical partnerships. He and guitarist Buddy Guy tag-teamed in the studio and on stages all over the world on-and-off for 30 years. They opened for the Rolling Stones in 1970 and later recorded with members of the group. But their best work together appeared on deep Blues albums for Delmark, Vanguard, Atlantic and other labels, recorded as a duo or under either of their names. Those include Junior’s classics ‘Southside Blues Jam’ and ‘Hoodoo Man Blues,’ the first recordings that reproduced the spontaneity and feel of intimate, soulful Chicago club dates.
Junior Wells continued to tour and record and make historic music nearly until his death on January 15, 1998. His final string of recordings for Tel Arc reflect the diversity of his Blues. On 1995’s Everybody’s Gettin’ Some, famous guests Bonnie Raitt and Carlos Santana repaid him their debt of influence. The next year Junior made Come On In This House with a host of slide guitarists. The release won the W.C. Handy Blues Award for ‘Traditional Blues Album of the Year’ in 1997. In that album’s abundance of songs featuring acoustic and National steel guitars and Junior’s will-o’-the-wisp harmonica, he conjured up the spirits of the rural Blues man he’d heard during his Delta boyhood.
Most recently Junior had taken to the road with a nine-piece band that embraced every aspect of his repertoire. With that group his made his last album, 1997’s Live At Buddy Guy’s Legends. Later that year he became too ill to perform. After a four-month battle with lymphoma, it claimed him at age 63.
Remembering his friend of so many years, Buddy Guy recently observed that ‘Junior and me are both from the old school. We were students of Muddy Waters and them. They handed the Blues to us. And we did our thing and have been trying to carry it on to the young people today.’
Through his recordings, legendary performances and, now, his induction to the Blues Hall of Fame, Junior Wells will continue to bring his soulful music to future generations as well.
— (Blues Foundation press release, 1998.)