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Junior Wells; Harmonica Player Was Blues Icon to Generations

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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 in September, died Thursday night in a Chicago hospital of lymphoma.

“Junior Wells is a blues legend,” wrote a Times critic in 1996 prior to one of Wells’ periodic appearances at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano. “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 fedoras.

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“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% of 100%--50% of it is in the way your appearance looks and the other 50% 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.

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“I heard the original Sonny Boy on stations coming out of Nashville and Arkansas,” he said in 1995. “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.”

One of Wells’ all-time hit records was Williamson’s “Hoodoo Man Blues.”

As a child, Wells sat in with B.B. King and other top blues acts that came through town. At 12, he moved to Chicago with his mother and three sisters, reveling in the music around him.

He started performing professionally at age 14, and four years later joined Muddy Waters’ band, replacing the legendary Little Walter.

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In the early 1960s, Wells established himself on his own, recording 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.”)

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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.


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