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Bluesman Junior Wells Never Runs Dry

The singer-harpist has made some famous new friends--just don't ask him their names.

June 24, 1996|BUDDY SEIGAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The kid don't jive, the kid don't play,

he say what he mean and he mean what he say!

--from "Messing with the Kid" by Junior Wells

*

Junior Wells is a blues legend, a dynamic package of lean, mean talent, laser-focused energy and razor-sharp style. A singer-harpist whose influence has far outpaced his name recognition, Wells--who plays Wednesday6 at the Coach House--is an innovator and a Godfather of postwar Chicago blues.

With such signature tunes as "Messing With the Kid," "Hoodoo Man Blues" and "Little by Little," Wells--along with such contemporaries as Otis Rush, Earl Hooker and Wells' longtime partner in crime Buddy Guy--took the Chicago blues into tougher, more urban realms in the early '60s, shaking off any traces of Mississippi mud and creating a throbbing musical template that has endured to this day.

Wells, for his part, is so above-it-all cool that he hasn't even bothered to remember the names of much of the all-star cast that guested on his latest album, "Everybody's Getting Some"--a crew that included Carlos Santana, Bonnie Raitt (whom he calls "Bonnie Rich"), Sonny Landreth (whom he calls "Sonny Lawrence") and the White Trash Horns.

(Corrected on Raitt and Landreth's names during a recent phone conversation, Wells was something less than sheepish about the mispronunciations. "Yeah . . . whatever their name is," he said).

He was born Amos Blackmore 62 years ago in Memphis and was inspired to play the blues by the records of the late Sonny Boy Williamson No. 1, John Lee Williamson. "The original Sonny Boy. He was on RCA Victor at the time," Wells said. "I heard him play, and I liked what he was doing so much that I decided that was what I wanted to do too."

Wells moved to Chicago at age 14 and four years later, in 1952, was hired as part of Muddy Waters' band, replacing another giant figure in blues history, Little Walter. Wells began working as a solo artist a couple of years later, recording a number of classic sides including Williamson's "Hoodoo Man," which would come to be more associated with Wells than with Williamson.

"He did it, but he didn't have no [publishing] rights on it," Wells said. "I've got the rights on it now. In that day, they didn't know anything about no BMI and ASCAP and all that. They didn't know nothing. Willie Dixon found out about all that stuff, found out there was no publishing rights on that song and said, 'Here's a tune for you.' "

From the earliest days, Wells has taken pride in his ultra-slick stage dress (immaculately pressed sharkskin suits; gaudy gold jewelry; porkpies and fedora hats) and dynamic showmanship. In terms of both sound and presentation, he owes as much to the superbad muse of James Brown as he does to his straight blues brethren.

"My mom couldn't afford to buy the nice clothes and all that when I was a kid, because I had three sisters," he recalls. "There wasn't nobody but her working, so she got all four of us to take care of ourselves. So I said when I get me into a position to put on some clothes, I was gonna do so. Now, I don't let nobody touch me when it comes down to my clothes.

"I figure if you're a musician, your appearance means something to yourself and all the people that come to see you. I give 100% of 100%--50% of it is in the way your appearance looks and the other 50% is your music. I'll always be that way."

Starting in the late '50s, Wells frequently was partnered with guitarist Buddy Guy, both on stage and in the studio. Together, they toured the world, opened for the Rolling Stones. . . . The partnership endured on and off until recently, when Guy's solo career suddenly took off and he became one of the most recognizable names in the genre.

Some have speculated that professional jealousies and a personal feud were the reasons behind the split, but Wells denies the rumors.

"Oh man, a lot of people going around and saying me and Buddy Guy don't play together no more because we had a fight. But so many people were coming up to Buddy and saying, 'They should give you more time onstage,' and they were saying the same thing to me. Now if you got an hour onstage, that's nothing for me or Buddy to do. Also, the money Buddy was making and the money I was making before we got together was different. It got good after we toured with the Rolling Stones, so we stuck together for all those years.

"But all this wasn't nothing about no fight. It was just time for Buddy to be Buddy Guy and for me to be Junior Wells again. We didn't want to be branded like Sam & Dave. All I know is one thing: If Buddy needs Junior and I'm on the backside of hell when he calls, I'm on my way. And I know he'll do the same for me."

Wells continues to tour like there's no tomorrow, bringing his swooping harp and growling, trademark vocal style to audiences around the world. Even though he is at an age when most people begin to think about retirement or at least start to slow down the pace a little, he won't hear of it. The only time he ever begins to feel bad, he said, is when he's away from the stage.

"I feel good in the day if I'm at home, but then the night comes and I get bothered then. If I have some good videotapes or something I'll be all right, but if I don't have nothing to occupy my mind, it worries the hell out of me then. I got to be out where there's some music at!"

* Junior Wells & the Chicago Big Band Blues Revue play Wednesday at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. Fry Sum Blues and Debbie Kay open. 8 p.m. $13.50. (714) 496-8930.

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