Junior Wells, the colorful and creative singer and harmonica player who became a Chicago blues icon and influenced generations of rock ‘n’ roll stars, has died after a long battle with cancer. He was 63.
Wells, seriously ill since a heart attack last September, died Thursday in a Chicago hospital of lymphoma.
“Junior Wells is a blues legend,” wrote a Los Angeles Times critic in 1996 prior to one of Wells’ periodic appearances at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, Calif. “A dynamic package of lean, mean talent, laser-focused energy and razor-sharp style. A singer-harpist whose influence has far outpaced his name recognition, Wells is an innovator and a godfather of postwar Chicago blues.”
Wells was known as a spiffy dresser and from his early days on stage took pride in wearing immaculately pressed sharkskin suits, gaudy gold jewelry and porkpies or fedora hats.
“I figure if you’re a musician, your appearance means something to yourself and all the people that come to see you,” he once told The Times. “I give 100 percent of 100 percent - 50 percent of it is in the way your appearance looks and the other 50 percent is your music. I’ll always be that way.”
Music was an emotional creation to Wells, who often said, “If I can’t feel a song, I can’t sing it.” His longtime manager Marty Salzman described Wells’ style as minimalist, with every note requiring the right feel, the right tone.
Born Amos Blackmore in Memphis, Tenn., Wells was inspired by listening to blues harp player John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson on the radio.
In the early 1960s, Wells established himself with classic versions of “Messing with the Kid,” “Little by Little” and “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl.”
He broke into the mainstream in 1970 when he and guitarist Buddy Guy were asked to open for the Rolling Stones on one of their world tours.
Wells and Guy worked together for 20 years, at their element in their 1974 album “Drinkin’ TNT ‘n’ Smokin’ Dynamite.” It was their image that was satirized by John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd in the comedians’ Blues Brothers act. (Shortly before his death, Wells completed scenes for the upcoming movie “Blues Brothers 2000.”)
Despite his age, Wells had continued to tour frenetically. His “Come On in This House” last year won the W.C. Handy Blues Award for traditional blues album and was nominated for a traditional blues Grammy.