His faded denim jacket had sequins on the sleeves and on the back were the words "Chicago Is My Kind of Town" that glittered. Under the pale blue hat with the rolled-up brim was the unmistakable lean face of the harp man, Junior Wells. Junior is a veteran of the Chicago blues scene for he ﬁrst started sitting in with musicians like Tampa Red in the late '40s and then formed his own group, The Aces, with Louis and Dave Myers and Fred Below. During the mid-'50s Wells replaced Little Walter in Muddy Waters' band and then during the '60s to the present he established an ongoing musical relationship with Buddy Guy. Today he tours nationally and internationally when he is not at home at the Checkerboard Lounge on Chicago's south side.
Junior brought a sizable horn band to Cliffhangers on September 24 that included two saxophones, trombone, both lead and rhythm guitars, bass and drums, which provided a full, funky sound. The musicians were all excellent and each had a chance to solo. After a warm-up instrumental and a nice version of "The Sky Is Crying" by the band, Junior came strolling out through the audience to the bandstand singing as he went. The first part of the performance was plagued with sound problems of humming and poor microphone pick-up, plus the set was short. It left me a little disappointed for I realized that Wells is no longer the harp virtuoso of his younger days 25 years ago. He now just uses the instrument to accentuate and punctuate his singing. "Get Your Hand Out of My Pocket" got a good reaction from the audience and Wells admitted to everyone, "The first set is the hardest, to know what the crowd likes."
Ed Wooden, the second guitarist, got the second set off to a good start with a tasteful vocal and guitar work on "I've Got the Blues." Junior did some of his standards during this set like "Bit By Bit," "Hoodoo Man Blues" and his biggest hit, "Messin' With the Kid." For some reason we got to hear a replay of "I Got My Mojo Working" a second time. The show ended just as it had started with Junior singing as he walked off the stage and no encore. This 58-year-old survivor of Chicago's classic blues era seems to rely on his past laurels rather than venture into contemporary inventions like his blues brother, Buddy Guy, is doing.
Junior's most recent release, Better Off With the Blues, on the Telarc label, presents his talents more successfully with the help of some great musicians like Buddy Guy and Rico McFarland on guitar and Lucky Peterson on organ and piano.
Who is Kent Cuchaine? everyone asked when he was listed as the headliner for both Friday and Saturday night at the 1993 Garvin Gate Blues Festival. He had quite a responsibility, especially since he performs solo. Kent carries on the tradition of the blues troubadour like John Hammond, Catfish Keith and Spencer Bohren by presenting a nice combination of traditional blues like Robert Johnson's "Come On In My Kitchen" and Bukka White's "Aberdeen Is My Home" plus original songs like the upbeat "Goin' Fishin'." Kent's current home is Birmingham, Alabama, but there is a lot of Mississippi and Louisiana influence that comes out of his music. What I really enjoyed was Betsy, his National steel guitar, which was wired for ampliﬁcation. He combined an intricate technique of picking and sliding on Betsy's strings. Kent mentioned he had played with Johnny Shines and had performed at the 1991 Smithsonian Folk Festival. When Kent finished his long Friday night set with "Let the Good Times Roll" he was clearly having as much fun as the diverse crowd of people around the stage.
"Back to the Blues" is a series of cable TV programs that have been broadcast on Channel 10 (Community Access) at 4 p.m. on Monday afternoons. The inspiration came from Rick O'Neil, who has a background in both music and video production. Rick wanted to provide a video version of the KYANA Blues Society's newsletter that would reach more people. Perry Aberli, the president of the Society, has hosted the past ten shows which have included interviews with musicians such as Foree Wells and Jim Rosen. Another outstanding show included Pen Bogert discussing Sylvester Weaver and Sarah Martin with Sue O'Neil singing some of their songs. Muddy Waters was the subject of several shows that had Jim Rosen and John Burgard talking about his style and Curtis Marlatt playing some of his songs. Another recent program was a presentation of the KYANA Blues Society's Benefit Concert at the Rudyard Kipling in September. Tapes of these programs will be converted to half-inch size and be made available to the public.
Some of the topics that are planned for the new season of eight shows are an interview and performance in December by Henry Townsend, the legendary blues guitarist and pianist from St. Louis; interviews with various national acts that come through town; a presentation of old photographs of Louisville's West End from the collection of Dr. Milton Young; and a series about the blues and jazz played on Walnut Street.
Rick has been doing these productions on a zero budget at the TKR Cable studio in St. Matthews and is looking for a grant or an underwriter to support these programs. When he applies for this next series, he will try to get the shows aired in the evening for a wider viewing audience. This "Back to the Blues" series will make our community more aware of Louisville's important blues heritage and if you want to help or have any suggestions call Rick O'Neil at 964-5776.