By Jeff Stevens
CHICAGO - Although he was diminutive in size, Junior Wells was a giant in the blues world.
Wells, 63, died in Chicago on Jan. 14, 1998 after a long fight with cancer. His passing brought to a close one of the most remarkable careers in Chicago blues history.
Perhaps best known for his gifted harp playing, which influenced scores of harmonica players to follow, Wells was a powerful vocalist as well, moving easily from traditional Chicago blues to soul blues.
Like many of the best Chicago blues players of his era, Wells played for the Muddy Waters blues band. For many, backing Muddy was the pinnacle of their career, but not for Junior, who moved on to stake out his own place in blues history, particularly through his collaborations with guitarist Buddy Guy.
The two men joined forces on Wells' debut album, "Hoodoo Man Blues," which many say is the finest example of postwar Chicago blues on record.
He was born Amos Wells Blakemore on Dec. 9, 1934, in West Memphis, Ark., where he lived until he followed his mother to Chicago in 1946.
At an early age, Junior played the harmonica, learning from the likes of both Sonny Boy Williamson I and II and Little Walter. He played the streets of Chicago for tips and graduated to house parties when he got older.
In a widely told story, a 12-year-old Wells was arrested after he allegedly stole a harmonica from a pawn shop. The harp cost $2.50, but Wells only had $1.50, and he was arrested after he stepped outside the store to play in front of a gathering crowd. All turned out well, however for Wells, who received the loan of the last dollar from the judge after he played his harp in court.
Wells joined with brothers Dave and Louis Myers to form his first band, the Aces. Eventually, Wells would replace Walter in Muddy Waters' band after Walter left in the early 1950s to capitalize on the popularity of his hit song, "Juke."
Wells began recording some of his own sides, including the original "Hoodoo Man Blues." During this period, he met longtime partner Buddy Guy at a Battle of the Blues event, which was won by Guy.
The contest was the start of a long partnership for the two men, including the 1965 recording of "Hoodoo Man Blues" for Bob Koester and his Delmark label. The record, which featured such classics as "Snatch it Back and Hold It,' "Early in the Morning," "Good Morning Schoolgirl," presented traditional Chicago blues with an R&B flavor. It was a formula that Wells followed successfully throughout his career.
Wells recorded other great albums for Delmark, including "On Tap" and "Southside Blues Jam."
His collaboration with Guy continued throughout the years. The Rolling Stones invited them to open the band's 1970 European tour. Bill Wyman, the Stones' bass player, returned the favor by producing a live recording with Wells and Guy, "Drinkin' TNT 'N' Smokin' Dynamite," in 1974.
Wells was a mainstay in the Chicago club scene until just months before his death. His sound evolved over the years into more of an R&B revue, as documented on his 1997 Telarc release, "Live at Buddy Guy's Legends."
The album, which was nominated for a Grammy award for traditional blues album, finds Wells in fine form on Nov. 13-15, 1996. Backed by a nine-piece band, including horns, Junior displayed the soulful vocals, fine showmanship and tasteful yet powerful harp he was known for.
Sadly, Wells died as he was receiving more widespread recognition for his skills, including a cameo on the recently released movie, "Blues Brothers 2000" and a cover of "Satisfaction" on the Rolling Stones' tribute album, "Paint It Blue."
Nevertheless, Junior Wells' place in blues history is secure as one of the greatest and most loved of Chicago blues artists, a consummate showman who left nothing behind when he took the stage.
Wells' survivors include two sisters, Bertha and Erma Jean of Chicago.