The process of setting up interviews with nationally known musicians generally includes two predictable steps--gaining permission from a record company and an agent. But in the case of blues-harmonica legend Junior Wells, there's a third hurdle that must be cleared, and it's the most formidable obstacle of all: Wells's sister Jean, with whom he lives. In conversation, Jean isn't unkind; rather, she's exceedingly, almost excessively polite. But if she gets the idea that you're not actually a journalist--that in reality you're a pesky groupie wishing to get horizontal with her 62-year-old brother--she'll respond to questions as evasively as any presidential press secretary. For this interview, Jean allows Wells to chat only after his agent orders her to do so--and even then, she remains close by, just to make certain that Junior's inquisitor sticks to questions about music.
Despite sharing a roof with such an obsessive caretaker, however, Wells himself doesn't seem browbeaten. "There's only one thing that I feel is real important that you should know about me," he confides, "and that's that I'm very happy. And I'm a proud man that I've been doing something that I love. Don't nothing come by one night. Don't nobody owe you nothing. You owe yourself something--and if you know that, you should go out there and do it if you possibly can. It's going to be some work that you have to do, but if you do it, you'll appreciate it even more."
Although Wells speaks from experience, the specifics of his early life remain a bit fuzzy. That he was born in Memphis, Tennessee, is not in dispute, but his birth name is: A number of blues reference books alternately dub him Amos Wells Jr. or Amos Junior Wells. According to Wells, these tomes are wrong: He says his original moniker was Amos Blakemore.
Young Amos picked up a harmonica for the first time at age twelve, just prior to his family's move to Chicago. Thanks to tips he wrangled from a pair of elder harp pros (Herman "Junior" Parker and Rice Miller, aka Sonny Boy Williamson II), he soon became a very good player--so good, in fact, that he made his professional debut alongside guitarists Louis and Dave Meyers when he was only fourteen. Four years later, in 1952, Wells was picked by Muddy Waters to replace departing harmonicat Little Walter in his band. The pace maintained by Waters and his accompanists was hectic from the start, but Wells didn't mind. As he notes, "I've always wanted to do this. I've never had a job in my life. This is what I love."
The Waters connection soon gave Wells the opportunity to record a number of sides under his own name. Several of the songs he cut between 1953 and 1956, including "Hoodoo Man," "Junior's Wail," "So All Alone" and "Lawdy! Lawdy!," remain blues favorites, as do the first of his many collaborations with Buddy Guy, which also date from this period. Rumors have long circulated that Wells went into the studio with Guy during periods when he was absent without leave from the Army. Wells reluctantly concedes that these whispers are true.
"I went into the service, and I didn't like it," he elaborates, a hint of lingering bitterness coloring his voice. "I wasn't used to nobody telling me when to go to bed and when to get up, or when to eat. They were telling me that I couldn't just walk across the yard, and they had us running all the time. They kept telling me that I had to run, and they were calling me 'soldier' and saying they were going to make a soldier out of me. And that pissed me off. I just told them, 'Man, I'm not no soldier. I'm a musician.' It wasn't my scene. I couldn't deal with it. So I kept running off AWOL.
"Finally," Wells goes on, "they tried to trump up a charge on me, and they did--they was going to give me so many years, they said. But they wound up giving me four months and sixteen days--just long enough to process me out of the service with a dishonorable discharge."
Of course, Wells wasn't exactly heartsick over the ruling that stripped him of his uniform. He notes that at the time of his expulsion, he was on the cusp of getting out of his commitment for health reasons. "It was because of where I got chopped in the head with an ax when I was little," he says offhandedly. "My mom's cousin's old man and her was in a fight, and he had an ax, and they were wrestling around the room where I was laying in bed. And I got chopped in the head. It wasn't really that bad--but it was enough that it was going to get me that medical discharge until the other problem came up."
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For Wells, the stain of his ignominious departure from the Army was wiped out for all time in 1966, when he headlined a U.S. State Department-sponsored tour of Africa. "After that, I did a whole bunch more things for them," he boasts. "I went to Africa twice and Southeast Asia and a bunch of other places. Now, when I got my dishonorable discharge, they said I was never supposed to put my feet on government property anymore. And here I was being hired by them. It just goes to show you--that dishonorable discharge didn't do no good."
These international jaunts were hardly Wells's only triumphs during the Sixties and Seventies. He also made a string of fine albums, including Hoodoo Man Blues, Southside Blues Jam and On Tap. These efforts earned a reputation for Wells that sustained him through the commercial downturn that afflicted the blues genre in the Eighties. He re-emerged as a star in 1990 with the release of Harp Attack!, a superb Alligator Records disc that billed him alongside James Cotton, Carey Bell and Billy Branch; shortly thereafter, he signed to the Telarc label, which has issued a Wells album during each of the past three years. (His most recent CD, Come On in This House, features guest appearances by Sonny Landreth, John Mooney, Tab Benoit and Alvin "Youngblood" Hart.) To promote these platters, Wells and the members of his eight-piece band have been touring steadily throughout Europe and the United States. A live album cut earlier this month at Legends, a Chicago nightclub owned by Guy, is expected to showcase their chops. Wells, for one, thinks he sounds better than ever. "That stuff I did in the Fifties--I was just a kid. So you know, my voice was sharper. The older I got, the heavier it got; it's just one of those things with age. But you know, the older you get, the more you learn, too. You understand more about the concept of timing. If you don't have no timing, you don't have no music."
Wells is about to elaborate on this point when his train of thought is interrupted by Jean, yelling that his lunch is getting cold. He responds by shouting back that he's in the middle of an interview--but a second later he announces that he's got to go. In the final analysis, his choice makes perfect sense. Wells is still a tough bird, but he's smart enough to know that you just don't mess with the woman who cooks your food.
Junior Wells. 8 p.m. Thursday, February 20, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $10.50, 443-3399 or 830-TIXS; 8 p.m. Saturday, February 22, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax, $9-$10, 830-