Chicago is famous for the blues, the Bundys and the hopeless Cubs, the team perhaps inspiring the former and defining the latter. A prominent member of even a short list of noted Chicago blues men would be none other than that wailing short guy Junior Wells, who will be blowing his harmonica and minds tonight at the Underground in Santa Barbara.
Wells, 60, started playing the harmonica half a century ago after hearing it on the radio. He got a lesson from a neighbor, but basically taught himself to play before moving to Chicago with his mom when he was 12. Wells was a professional player before he was 15.
Today, music stars are about as accessible as the Pope or the President, but things were once different. The young Wells approached Muddy Waters at a gig one night and momentarily overshadowed the blues man's harp player, Little Walter. Wells teamed with guitarist Buddy Guy on a famous tour with the Rolling Stones in 1970, and has been recording and touring ever since.
Wells, singer, songwriter, blues harp genius and spiffy dresser, talked recently from his Chicago home.
How have the blues changed since the old days?
They speak for themselves as far as I'm concerned. There were times when we weren't going to places like Israel or Argentina or Brazil. When Hubert Humphrey was in Washington, the State Department used to send Buddy Guy and myself to any place you could name as a cultural presentation. Some of the people didn't understand the words, but everyone understood the beat. This was back in '67 or '68 when there were a lot of Peace Corps workers everywhere. I just got back from Europe, where the younger generation is up on the blues.
So the '60s were a good decade for the blues?
The Stones, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix played the blues. Everyone thinks Clapton is a rock star, but if you ask him, he'll tell you he's a blues musician. Also back then, the hippie movement was going around. If you bought yourself a harmonica, everyone thought you played the blues.
How did you get started in all this?
Playing music? It's just a little thing I was listening to like the original Sonny Boy Williamson. I heard him and I liked what he was doing, and I just decided this is what I wanted to do, but I did get beat up a lot by my mom. I'd be out in the hallway blowing real loud and singing real crazy. Then I found out you go blow the harmonica into glass and it sounded just like a microphone. Man, I really went out of my head then. Our neighbors would go tell my mom, "Get Junior out of the lobby--we gotta go to work in the morning."
You once went to court over a harmonica. What happened?
This pawnbroker said I stole a harmonica, but I didn't think I did. There was a sign in the window that said "Marine Band Harmonicas" for $1.50, and I had a $1.50, but the one I wanted really cost $2.50. So I was playing the thing and some people told me to go outside and play on the sidewalk. When I did, they started dancing, but the pawnbroker called the police. You'd think I'd robbed a bank or something. The judge told me once I had stepped outside, I had stolen the harmonica. Then he asked me if I could play. So I played a little bit, and people started jumping around and clapping their hands. The judge put in the other dollar but told me to pay him back when I made my first record. Well, he passed away before that, but he had three sons. The first record I ever made, I gave to one of his sons.
Describe your first meeting with Little Walter.
Muddy Waters was playing at the Ebony Lounge and I went with a police officer friend of my sister. "He can't get in--he's just a kid," the doorman said. But my friend said he'd take responsibility, so he let us in. Then I asked Muddy Waters if I could play a song with the amp and the mike onstage, but Muddy told me to ask Little Walter, who said, "That little pipsqueak? If he thinks he can do it, let him do it!" Well, I started off with an instrumental and, when I started to sing, money started flying and I made 80 bucks in tips. When I started playing, I forgot everything, and it all just fell into place.
Do you play as much as you used to?
Blues men don't make the kind of money that rock musicians do. But now, if I want to, I stay home, but I don't want to stay home and watch television. And I don't hang out in bars like I did when I was a younger man, and it's too dangerous in the streets. Music is what I love and it's what I've always wanted to do. I love what I'm doing.
Have you always dressed up?
Some people dress up and some don't. I dress the way I do because of what I learned when I was a kid. I can't imagine going onstage looking like I just walked out of the fields. I think out of 100%, 50% is appearance.
What advice would you give to aspiring musicians?
You must know one thing: If you're gonna play music, play music for the feel and the love of it. I know you gotta have a dollar, but you're supposed to feel and love it, too. I know I have to feel it. The day I stop feeling is the day I leave it alone.
* WHAT: Junior Wells, The Pontiax.
* WHEN: 8 tonight.
* WHERE: Underground, 110 Santa Barbara St., Santa Barbara.
* HOW MUCH: $12.50.
* FYI: 965-5050.