Obituary: Junior Wells
Saturday 17 January 1998
The virtuoso Larry Adler took the harmonica to the concert hall and gave it respectability. Junior Wells took it right back to the gutter and gave it a fire and passion that made one think the instrument would burst at the seams. The mouth organ is a compromised musical hybrid and only Adler had the immense talent to make it larger than its limitations. The tight-knit group of Chicago bluesmen to which Wells belonged used it for a more practical reason: it was cheap to buy.
The rent party is an institution unknown in this country. Impoverished black Americans have held rent parties since the beginning of the century. To raise money to pay their rent people would organise parties and charge guests admission. Food, drink and music would be provided. Newly arrived in Chicago in 1946, Junior Wells made his living playing blues at such gatherings.
The Chicago blues style was unique. It brought the rural blues to the city and added electrical amplification not just to the guitars, but also to the mouth harps, as the harmonica was known. The music was harsh and intense.
Wells had been influenced as a child by Howlin' Wolf and Junior Parker, then local heroes in Memphis. In Chicago he formed the Three Aces, building on his success with the group until 1952 when Muddy Waters, the city's leading blues player, asked him to replace another mouth harp player, Little Walter, in his band. Ironically Little Walter then joined the Aces. Wells was called into the army in 1953 but absented himself to rejoin Muddy Waters and to record with him. He returned to sort out his difficulties with the army and reformed the Aces on his discharge in 1955.
His partnership with the guitarist Buddy Guy, formed in 1958, established the two as a force outside Chicago and with Wells's album Hoodoo Man in 1966 he became famous world-wide. Records made by Wells and Guy influenced the members of the Rolling Stones and the two men toured Europe with the group in 1970. Although they became in demand for festivals at home and abroad and won various awards (Wells was nominated for a Grammy) the two always returned to Chicago.
Before he became ill last September Wells had completed scenes for the film Blues Brothers 2000 and also recorded a track for a tribute album to the Rolling Stones, Paint It Blue.
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