Hot, steaming sweat pours from Junior Wells' hatband, glistens in rivulets down his forehead and into his eyes, which are shut tightly as if the man is in untold pain or rapture. Sweat: It's the essence of this moment, spreading out in dark pools on the layers of swank clothing, dripping from the sizable chunks of gold that adorn long, black fingers and hang from a drenched, silk collar.
Wells wrings mournful and barking notes from his harmonica, sings in a testosterone-soaked growl, moving all the while, swaying, strutting, as the sweat flies from his head, like a boxer's. The godfather of the blues is back in town.
Wells--who plays tonight at the Coach House--has earned the nickname by crossing the showman sensibilities of James Brown ("the godfather of soul," of course) with the more traditional sound of urban blues. He dresses as slick as a downtown man of leisure and puts every ounce of his energy into a show, playing as if every moment on stage could be his last.
"I'm not the type of person that's gonna sit down in a chair like I see a lot of other blues players do," he said recently, on the phone from a motel in Sante Fe. "A lot of people don't understand the blues, you know. They think if you pick it up and get horns in the band, you ain't playing the blues no more. But they don't know what they are talking about.
"This is my kind of thing; this is what I do, this is what I want. I like a big sound. Everybody loves my band because we play a variety of music."
If he sounds a bit on the defensive, it's because blues purists have taken him to task in the past for the funky edge to his music and for his unabashed flair for showmanship. But these are the very elements that have made him an enduring presence, setting him apart from dozens of blues harp players who have passed through the scene over the years.
Born Amos Blakemore in Memphis in 1934, he grew up listening to the blues on the radio as they changed from rural, folk-based traditional music to an urban, electrified precursor to rock 'n' roll. He was taken particularly by the harp blowing of John Lee Williamson, better known as the original Sonny Boy Williamson.
"I heard the original Sonny Boy on stations coming out of Nashville and Arkansas," Wells recalls. "That's when I got the idea that what I wanted to do was play harmonica. I liked what he was doing, and I learned how to play his stuff, but I made sure that I had a style of my own, too."
While still a child, he began sitting in at clubs along his local circuit, jamming with B.B. King and other top blues acts that came to town. He moved to Chicago with his mother at age 12 and was performing professionally at age 14. By 1952 (age 18), he was playing in Muddy Waters' band, having replaced the legendary Little Walter, who'd gone off to pursue a career of his own.
In the early '60s, Wells became established as a top bluesman on his own, recording classic versions of "Messing With the Kid," "Little by Little," "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl" and Williamson's "Hoodoo Man Blues." His sound was unique--a tough-edged mixture of R & B, soul and blues punctuated by his gruff, frequently imitated vocal style and that Williamson-inspired harp work.
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. "They didn't want two bands, and I done fired my band anyway, so we used Buddy's band," said Wells. "After we finished the tour, (Wells and Guy) decided to stay together for a little while, actually for a long time--up through the '80s."
The team of Junior Wells and Buddy Guy became a mainstay of the blues scene; it was their image that was appropriated, at least to a degree, into the farcical John Belushi / Dan Ayckroyd Blues Brothers act. A live Wells / Guy album in 1974, "Drinkin' TNT 'n' Smokin' Dynamite," captured the duo at the peak of its power and is considered essential to any serious blues collection.
After nearly 20 years together, Wells and Guy went their separate ways. Wells hasn't enjoyed the contemporary success achieved by Guy, who has gone on to become one of the most high-profile blues musicians in memory ( he opened for the Stones last year in Los Angeles). But Wells said he doesn't harbor any envy or ill will toward his former partner, who threw a 60th birthday bash in Wells' honor two months ago.
"I'm real glad for him, real happy," said Wells. "He worked a long time, just like me. I believe that good things come to those who wait, so I keep doing what I gotta do."
Not that Wells has been idle. He spends the better part of each year on the road and is signed with Telarc Records, a company in Chicago that will release a new Wells album later this year, featuring guests Carlos Santana and Bonnie Raitt.
"I've been knowing her since we went on tour with the Stones in 1970," Wells said. "She wasn't playing; she just went along with us, practicing up on her music, guitar and stuff. I played on the first record she put out ('Bonnie Raitt' in 1971) so she decided she would come up and help me on mine, too. I thought that was real great."
While Wells no longer may be the firebrand he was 25 years ago, he remains in fine voice and is revered as one of the patriarchs of the blues harp. And, as noted, he still puts on a show charged with energy. He looks forward to many more years of spreading the word in concert.
"I just wanna be sure I keep all my good strength and am able to do what I want to do. This is my whole life. I'm looking forward to the new record coming out; I'm looking forward to getting back to Europe and playing different places. It's still a lot of work."
* Junior Wells plays tonight at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. The Scott Willey Combo and Fry Sum Blues open. 8 p.m. $15. (714) 496-8930.