Junior Wells Biography

Amos Blakemore, 9 December 1934, Memphis, Tennessee, USA, d. 15 January 1998, Chicago, Illinois, USA. Having eschewed parental pressure to pursue a career in gospel music, Wells began playing harmonica on the streets of west Memphis, inspired by local heroes Howlin’ Wolf and Junior Parker. Having followed his mother to Chicago in 1946, the young musician won the respect of senior figures of the blues fraternity, including Tampa Red, Big Maceo and Sunnyland Slim. Wells formed a trio, initially known as the Little Chicago Devils, then the Three Deuces, with Louis Myers (guitar) and Dave Myers (bass). Later known as the Three Aces, the group became a popular attraction, especially with the addition of drummer Fred Below. Their reputation reached Little Walter, harmonica player with Muddy Waters, who was about to embark on a solo career. Walter appropriated the Aces as his backing group, while Wells joined Waters on tour. The exchange was not irrevocable as the Aces accompanied Wells on his first solo sessions, credited to Junior Wells And His Eagle Rockers, which included the original version of ‘Hoodoo Man’, a song the artist would return to over the years.

A spell in the US Army then interrupted his progress, but Wells resumed recording in 1957 with the first of several releases undertaken for local entrepreneur Mel London. These included ‘Little By Little’ (1960) and the excellent ‘Messin’ With The Kid’ (1960), the latter of which featured guitarist Earl Hooker, but Wells’ most fruitful partnership was forged in 1965 when he began a long association with Buddy Guy. Hoodoo Man Blues consummated their relationship and this superb set, one of the finest Chicago blues albums, featured Wells’ sterling harmonica work and Guy’s exemplary, supportive guitar playing. Subsequent releases, including It’s My Life, Baby, On Tap, and South Side Blues Jam, although less fiery were nonetheless impressive, and the group became popular with both black and white audiences, the latter through appearances on the rock circuit. In the Billboard R&B chart he had successes with ‘Up In Heah’ (1966) and ‘You’re Tuff Enough’ (1968), recorded for the Mercury Records’ subsidiary, Blue Rock.

By the end of the 60s Wells and Guy were sharing top billing, while a release as Buddy And The Juniors denoted their association with pianist Junior Mance. However, Guy’s growing reputation resulted in a diminution of this democratic approach and the harmonica player’s role was increasingly viewed as supportive. By the early 90s, the partnership was dissolved. Wells resurfaced with several albums on Telarc Records, earning acclaim and a Grammy nomination for the largely acoustic Come On In This House. He was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer the following year, and lapsed into a coma after suffering a heart attack in the autumn. He never recovered, passing away in January 1998. Wells was an impressive stylist and also, along with Little Walter and Sonny Boy ‘Rice Miller’ Williamson, a leading practitioner of post-war blues harmonica. Ebony magazine aptly described his talent: ‘Wells plays the harp like most of us breathe’.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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