Blues-harmonica legend Junior Wells, famed for his tireless touring
schedule and work with artists such as Buddy Guy and the Rolling Stones,
died Thursday in a Chicago hospital after struggling for several months
with lymphatic cancer. He was 63.
Mr. Wells had been under doctors' care for lymphoma last September when he went
into cardiac arrest and subsequently fell into a coma.
The harp player, whose financial generosity was well-known throughout the
blues community, was heard most recently on the Rolling Stones tribute
album Paint It Blue, for which he recorded a smoldering version of
"(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." Mr. Wells also has a role in the
soon-to-be-released film "Blues Brothers 2000." In addition, his latest album, Live At Buddy Guy's Legends, was
recently nominated for a Grammy award in the Best Traditional Blues Album
"He had such a power in him, such emotive presence, that even listening to
him on a record you could almost see him," harmonica player Sugar Blue told
the Associated Press.
Mr. Wells was born Amos Blackmore in 1934, in Memphis, Tenn. As a child, he
played harp in Memphis, learning the instrument from Junior Parker before
his family headed to the electric blues Mecca of Chicago.
An oft-repeated tale about Mr. Wells says that, as a young boy, he saw a $2
harmonica in a store. Since he only had $1.50 to his name, he laid his
money on the counter, grabbed the harp and ran. Mr. Wells was soon nabbed by
police, but after a judge heard Mr. Wells play, the judge is said to have handed the
shop owner the 50-cent balance and told Mr. Wells to be on his way.
By age 18, Mr. Wells had joined the band of blues great Muddy Waters,
with whom he recorded his first solo hit, the classic "Hoodoo Man." With
later songs such as "Messin' With the Kid" and "Little By Little," Mr. Wells
de-emphasized his harp and concentrated instead on his sensual vocals.
For more than 30 years, Mr. Wells played on and off with guitarist Buddy Guy.
Together the pair released more than a half-dozen albums, including the
Buddy Guy and Junior Walker Play the Blues, which featured guest
Eric Clapton. The bluesmen maintained a fruitful relationship, and Wells' Live At
Buddy Guy's Legends was recorded at his friend's Chicago nightclub.
Prior to that, Mr. Wells' previous album, Come On In This House,
received a 1996 Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Blues Album.
Mr. Wells has long been cited by non-blues musicians such as Carlos Santana and
Van Morrison as an important influence. During the 1970s, both Mr. Wells and
Guy were invited by the Rolling Stones to open several tour dates for the
superstar rock-band. More recently, a sample of Mr. Wells' harp-playing from
the song "Snatch It Back And Hold It" was used prominently in the song
"Mama's Always On Stage" on Arrested Development's 1992 multi-platinum
debut, 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days In The Life Of.... -- Chris Nelson [Fri., Jan. 16, 1998, 9 a.m. PST]