Can I Do it Like I Want To?
Bob Koester remembers Junior Wells
I first heard Junior Wells on the States 78's of "Hoodoo Man",* etc. during
my days in St. Louis. I later heard the Muddy Waters band on a trip to Chicago,
at the Club Zanzibar c.1957 and was perturbed that Little Walter had left and a
new guy had taken his place but when I requested Key To The Highway and
Muddy said, "I think Junior Wells does that better than I do," Junior certainly
cut Walter in the vocal department.
The University of Chicago's Folk Festival was always a few years ahead of the
folk movement and had already presented Muddy and Memphis Slim before I moved
to Chicago in 1958 so it was probably `59 when Junior performed at one of their
excellent festivals. Junior did a great show that wasn't down-home enough for
some of the crowd put off by the maroon band uniforms.
When Charlie Musselwhite came to work for Jazz Record Mart in 1962 we got
better information about the blues clubs on the South and West sides. He
deserves credit for finding J.B.Hutto at Turner's but it was Don Kent (JRM guy
now with Yazoo) who first urged me to go hear Junior at Theresa's. Sunnyland
Slim was subbing the first night but, at Blue Monday a few nights later, not
only was Junior there, but Little Walter was a regular sit-in and I fell in
love with the club.
The bartender, Carl Jones, owned CJ Records, which produced the first
recordings of Hound Dog Taylor and Betty Everett among others. He had sung
with the Carolina Cotton Pickers and recorded six sides for Mercury in 1946 as
Karl Jones, with Lonnie Johnson sharing the vocal chores and excellent New
Orleans-style musicians filling out a band led by Richard M.Jones. With all
this going on and, at the time, no door charge on Monday nights and sometimes a
great free lunch, it was a heady atmosphere.
Delmark had had some very modest success with the Big Joe Williams and Sleepy
John Estes albums (though most of the LP blues market seemed to require
caucasian interpreters), I had really gotten my head into the Chicago sounds
but was nervous about the folk-blues audiences tastes and the additional costs
of extra sidemen and studio time needed to properly deal with the newer idiom.
(We were really scuffling in those days and any recording session
screwed up the JRM budget for months.) I finally decided that the music was
just too damn good not to record!
I told Junior he could pick his repertoire, sidemen and did not have to limit
himself to two or three minutes per song. Junior used Buddy Guy for the
session. During the session Buddy had a problem with his amplifier and, while
engineer Stu Black repaired it in the control room, he wired Buddy through the
Leslie system of the Hammond B-3 in the studio. I've always been amazed at how
rarely reviewers commented on the guitar-organ tracks.
Buddy asked me to check with Leonard Chess to make sure there was no conflict
with his situation there. Chess's reply was "OK, go ahead but he doesn't sing
and you don't use his name!" Years later we realized that Chess didn't sign
contracts with his artists and Phil Chess OK'd the use of Buddy's name.
The resulting album, Hoodoo Man Blues (#612) was released in
November of 1965 and was our best-seller to date, shipping 1700 copies vs.
c.700 for the Big Joe's and c.1300 for the Estes. (We lost a few sales due to
a delay caused by a decision to reprint the jackets 2-up with a Louis Armstrong
Blues reissue from 1920's Paramount recordings -- the deal to buy Paramount
Somewhere in the ether is about 15 minutes of releasable music (including a
Guy-Wells duet) from that session. It disappeared from the JRM basement (along
with a few hundred LP's) -- my unwilling "contribution" to a white harp
player's career. (No, not anyone you've heard of.) I learned years later that
they probably thought it was blank tape and used it to record a rehearsal.
The pseudonym for Buddy Guy, Friendly Chap, was suggested by another JRM
employee, Peter Brown, who later had the Down With The Game label in the UK.
Pete was our Brit-del-año: each summer a different English blues fan
became part of a cultural exchange program. (One of the later guys was pianist
Pete Wingfield.) "A buddy is a friend, a guy is a chap."
Junior didn't want to sign an exclusive contract with little Delmark so he was
free to do "Up In Here" which was his biggest R&B single and got him his
three-year deal with Mercury.
Sam Charters says that Hoodoo Man Blues was a factor in his suggesting
to Vanguard that they record the excellent 3-LP series, Chicago-The
Blues-Today! which put the seal-of-approval on Chicago blues for the folkies.
An option quickly picked up by that label kept Junior visible during a time
when Delmark couldn't do a follow-up album and Mercury pitched Junior to the
I met my wife, Sue, due in part to Junior. She'd come into the store
with a copy of Hoodoo Man and wanted to know what to get next. A few
months later we were married.
Shortly after the Mercury signing, Junior, following the success of Up
In Here, was playing as many as four clubs a night (and sock-hops in area
schools), touring the city in a limo. One night we did the deal for a second
album (to be cut as soon as he was free to do so,) in a limo ride between
Peppers and the Blue Flame.
Years later Junior summoned me to T's to plan the album. I figured he had
probably forgotten all about the price agreed-upon but when I opened the
subject of money I got "No dummy -- we agreed to $XXXX back then!" Junior was
always a man of his word. The session came off with no problems worth
mentioning but I was pleasantly surprised (after leaving Junior the night
before at 2 AM) to find that Otis Spann had been added to the personnel.
Southside Blues Jam (#628) picked up where Hoodoo Man left off and I
believe this was Span's last recorded performance before he passed.
I think it was about this time that, one night at Pepper's, Junior handed me a
wad of cash. "Hold this for me while I do my set." He didn't want an
unsightly bulge in his clothes. I later found out I had been entrusted with
much more money that I had paid Junior for BOTH albums!
I always referred to Junior's impressive apparel as "plumage". He later was
more comfortable in denims, but in those days it was anything startling up to
and including a zoot suit! He couldn't possibly have purchased it all! But he
was always "sharp as a dog's dick" as Speckled Red would say. One night Chuck
Nessa (yet another JRM employee at the time) and his wife were threatened by
someone while Junior was on the stand at Pepper's. Junior jumped off the
stand, landed with a pistol in his hand, and Chuck still wonders where the heck
he had stashed the piece in his tight fitting suit.
We rarely got hassled in blues bars but on a rare night at T's I got "Hey
whitey, what are you doing here. I can't come to your neighborhood!" I told
the guy, "as a matter of fact I live on the North side and you can" and
dismissed the matter. A few hours later we left the club, were followed by
the two surly guys -- followed by Junior, Theresa, CJ and about ten or fifteen
Toward the end of its existence, Peppers' musicians were hassled by a gang
that extracted a ransom for each instrument and amp carried into the club. I
guess Lefty Diz didn't want to pay when he was Junior's guitarist. They
attacked him right on the bandstand during one of Junior's sets. The gangster
and Junior exited the club through a plate-glass window and the word was out
that Junior better not come back to 43rd Street for his next gig. A few nights
later Junior stepped out of his car with a shotgun, fired in the air, and 43rd
Street was as safe as if the legendary Two-Gun Pete was on the job.
About this time Junior started using horns on the job and we followed suit
with Junior Wells On Tap (#635) after his Atlantic contract expired.
Asked about sidemen, he mentioned that he wanted "Sammy Lawhorn for flavor" and
flavor we got! It is, in fact, my favorite Wells album though far from a
best-seller. I'm sorry we couldn't get the wonderful vocal duets Junior did
with Byther Smith, Junior's other guitarist of that period (sometimes Phil Guy
would make up a third!) Junior and Delmark had a verbal agreement to record a
fourth album but I had to beg off the deal so I could expand JRM from 600
square feet at 7 West Grand to 3000 sq. feet at 11 West Grand. By the time,
years later, when I returned from a virtual bankruptcy caused by a thieving
employee, Junior told mutual friends that the deal was still on, but by then he
was really out of our financial league.
On and off the stand, Junior Wells was a prince .... irreplaceable as
vocalist, harpist, band leader and great human being.