“As a boy I was listening to Sonny Williamson records and I would close my eyes and visualize myself playing the harp.”
– Junior Wells
One of the best-loved harp players in Chicago blues was Junior Wells. He took inspiration from the top living harmonica players and brought a passion and fire that was all his own.
Born and raised in West Memphis Arkansas, Wells learned from local blues hero Junior Parker. He was a skillful harmonica player by the time he was seven.
“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 me 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!'”
As a young teenager, he moved to Chicago with his mother after her divorce and began sitting in with local musicians at house parties and bars. Soon he was performing with a band called the Aces, developing his own take on an amplified harmonica style influenced by Little Walter.
Side note: Wells and Walter effectively ‘swapped places’ with each other as Wells joined the Muddy Waters blues band after Walter left. Walter subsequently fronted the Aces.
Working as a session musician for Muddy led to Wells’ first recordings for Chess Records in 1952. His own recordings as a bandleader began the following year, but it wasn’t until the early 60s that he recorded his signature singles: ‘Messin’ with the Kid’, ‘Come on in This House’ and ‘It Hurts Me Too’.
When Junior Wells hooked up with guitarist Buddy Guy in 1958, some serious blues magic started to happen.
“You know I don’t want no woman.
Junior Wells if I had no longer,
I’d mind.” Buddy Guy
Their all-time classic album Hoodoo Man Blues, produced by Bob Koester, was released by Delmark in 1965.
Here’s how it came about:
“I had really gotten my head into the Chicago sounds but was nervous about the extra costs of side-men and studio time which took up all of our budget. (We were really scuffling in those days and any recording session screwed up our budget for months.) I finally decided the music was too damn good not to record. I told Junior he could pick his repertoire, sidemen and did not have to limit himself to two or three minutes per song. Junior used Buddy Guy for the session. The resulting album Hoodoo Man Blues was released in 1865 and was our best-seller to date.”
Bill Dahl describes Junior as:
“One bad dude, strutting across the stage like a harp-toting gangster, mesmerising the crowd with his tough-guy antics and rib-sticking Chicago blues attack.”
Records made by Wells and Guy influenced the members of the Rolling Stones and the two men toured Europe with the group in 1970. They were in demand for festivals at home and abroad, but the two always returned to Chicago.
Wells can be seen in the film ‘Blues Brothers 2000’ and recorded a track for the tribute album to the Rolling Stones, ‘Paint it Blue’ before he died in 1998.
As a parting tribute, here’s a dynamic performance of his now-classic Messin’ With The Kid: