Wells died after a four month battle with lymphoma, said his manager, Marty Salzman.
Wells, known for his unique harmonica style
and musical sense of adventure,
has influenced generations of blues harmonica players.
He was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on December
9, 1934, and raised in
Arkansas. He moved to Chicago in 1946 and first made his mark playing in the
Muddy Waters' band.
Before he became ill in September, he had
completed scenes for the movie
"Blues Brothers 2000" and also recorded a track for a Rolling Stones tribute
album called "Paint It Blue: Songs of the Rolling Stones."
Bluesmen Luther Allison and Johnny Copeland
died after recording their
final tracks for that same album.
Last year, Wells' "Come
on in This House" won the W.C. Handy Blues Award for
traditional blues album. The record also was nominated for a traditional blues Grammy.
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Blues-harmonica legend Junior Wells, famed for his tireless touringschedule
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
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 category.
"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
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
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....
Having eschewed parental pressure to pursue
a career in gospel
music, Wells began playing harmonica in 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 David 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 Junior joined Muddy 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 which featured
guitarist Earl Hooker, but Wells's most fruitful partnership was forged in
1965 when he began a long association with Buddy Guy.
MAN BLUES consummated their relationship and this superb
set, one of the finest Chicago blues albums, featured Wells's sterling harmonica
work and Guy's exemplary, supportive guitar playing. Subsequent releases,
including ON TAP, SOUTH SIDE BLUES JAM and IT'S MY LIFE BABY,
although less fiery, were nonetheless impressive, and the group became popular
with both black and white audiences, the latter through appearances on the rock
In the Billboard R&B chart he
scored well with Up In Heah (1966) and You're
Tuff Enough (1968). 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
By the early '90s, the partnership was
dissolved. Wells was an impressive stylist
and he remains, with Little Walter and Sonny Boy ‘Rice Miller’ Williamson a
leading practitioner of post-war blues harmonica.
Marty Salzman, Junior's manager