Junior Wells was born Amos Blakemore in Memphis, Tennessee in 1934. While his parents farmed, Wells took an early interest in music.
Wells had his first harmonica lessons from his neighbour, Junior Parker, and went on to teach himself how to play. He worked the streets, playing for tips, and moved to Chicago with his mother when he was 12.
As a rebellious youth of 14, Wells worked all week on a soda truck to buy a harp he had seen at a pawn shop. On being told it cost $2, Wells put down his entire week’s earnings of $1.50 and ran out with the harp.
After he was caught he was asked by the judge why he had done what he had. Wells replied that he “just had to have it.” The judge told Wells to play the harmonica, and on hearing him, the judge gave the complainant 50 cents and dismissed the case.
While still only 14, Wells got his first professional job playing at the C&T Lounge in Chicago. Two years later he walked up to Muddy Waters at the Ebony Lounge and told him he could play harp.
Waters put Wells on a Coke box so he could reach the mic, and with a none-too-pleased Little Walter looking on, Wells proceeded to earn $45 in tips that night.
He and Little Walter went on to become good friends and when Walter left Waters’ band in 1952 to go out on his own, Wells took his place.
In 1953 and 1954, Wells recorded a number of classic tunes, including Hoodoo Man, which were later compiled by Delmark into Blues Hit Big Town. Some of these recording sessions were done while Wells was AWOL from the army.
Wells’ 1965 debut album Hoodoo Man Blues was solicited by Bob Koester, the founder of Delmark Records, who liked Wells’ music enough to give the musician considerable freedom on the album in spite of concerns of commercial response.
The resultant innovative album became Delmark’s best-seller, establishing Wells’ career and receiving critical acclaim as being among the best albums Wells ever produced and even among the greatest blues albums ever made.
From 1958 onwards, Wells and Buddy Guy teamed up, travelling the US, Canada, Europe, Africa, Australia and the Far East. In 1970 they toured Europe with The Rolling Stones.
In his later years, Wells experienced serious health problems, including cancer and a heart attack in 1997.
He died in Chicago on 15 January 15 1998.