Posted on June 21, 2005
The Godfather of the Modern Blues, Wells (1934-1998) brought his harp and his voice from the South to Chicago in 1948 where he played with The Muddy Waters Band until he went out on his own. Whatever country flavor he might have had rapidly disappeared in a unique funky urban sound, with unmistakable harp and unpolished voice. Close your eyes, and imagine yourself in a smoky 1950s Chicago dance club, if you can. (I am listening to his sensual Take Your Shoes Off as I write, from his final live recording, Live Around the World.)
He is considered to be the heir of my favorite old-time bluesman, Sonny Boy Williamson, and of Little Walter Jacobs, who he replaced in the Muddy Waters Band. Since his association with Muddy Waters, he had been especially associated with the great and seemingly ageless Buddy Guy, with whom he did several recordings including the live Drinkin TNT and Smokin Dynamite. (Now I am on his great Messin with the Kid.) HooDoo Man, with Buddy Guy on guitar, was his first widely-known album, in 1960. He was known to produce handguns from his skin-tight suits and shotguns from his cars, whenever appropriate. A couple of reminiscences here and here.
From an old review by Kelton:
The terrific thing about Junior Wells is that he's an unqualified bluesman, stylistically a direct descendant of the Chicago greats and personally an eccentric whose unpredictable singing and harp playing distinguish him from everyone else alive.
"Comin' Right at Ya" was the title of one his breakthrough albums in the 1960's and it still describes the Wells oeuvre. In short, he takes no prisoners.
Recording to legend, Wells shoplifted his first blues harp and got caught. The judge who heard his case was so impressed with Wells' story that he just wanted to make music that he paid for the instrument himself and set Wells free on the condition that, if he ever made a record, he send one to him.
Wells did, years later. The album was called "Blues Hit Big Town."