Meet Joe Wells
It takes a while for the music to get cranked up at Zena's Café on Friday and Saturday nights. The night I was there, all five members of the band had arrived by 11 p.m. Joe Wells, the lead vocalist, was making last-minute adjustments to the PA system for his wireless mike. When the beer pitcher that serves as a tip jar was set up on the keyboards, it was time to play.
Joe Wells and the Original Blues Band have been the house band at Zena's for three years, where they usually draw an racially evenly mixed crowd each weekend. These musicians are for-real originals, each having played thirty to forty years in various bands. For fourteen years, this group was the nucleus of the 26th St. Blues Band that played at the 26th Street Blues Tavern, 2537 Garland Ave. Wells, who is the second cousin of the late Foree Wells, is a pure singer and entertainer who can scream like James Brown, croon like Z. Z. Hill or Tyrone Davis and shout like B. B. King, with a good falsetto thrown in. After hearing the band do two inspired sets, I made a date with Wells to do an interview.
When Wells was ten years old, he started singing gospel with his mother and two sisters. The quartet, the Wells Singers, frequently traveled to Paris, TN to perform, giving him an early taste of the road. As a teenager, Wells hung out on Walnut Street and would stand outside the old Top Hat Club. The microphone would be passed through the window to him and he would sing the only song he knew, "Dedicated To the One I Love," with the house band. Then Frankie Maxwell, the manager, would slip him five dollars.
When Foree Wells returned from Memphis in the Fifties, he formed the Rockin' Red Coats, which included Joe, Smoketown Red, Bobby Davis and Dr. J. They toured Kentucky, Indiana and even went to St. Louis in a big hearse that could hold Foree's B-3 organ. Wells recalled one night in Indianapolis when Dr. J., the sax player, was bar walking. He went too far, fell off and broke his arm but played the rest of the night before getting medical attention. Joe also said that he was the one who introduced Foree to his future wife Lorene, having met her in Charlestown, Indiana where he was working as a skate guard.
In the Sixties, Wells started his own group, Joe Wells and the Soul Men. This band had Boogie Morton, Tommy Walker and Billy Madison. They played a lot of R&B and lasted into the Seventies. Joe did his only recording with the Soul Men, a 45 RPM recorded at a studio on Taylorsville Rd. "What's Your Name" was the featured song and "Dr. J Bounce" was on the flip side.
During the Eighties, Wells got involved with the Expensive Taste Show Band. This group included the outstanding guitarist Johnny Graham, who later played with Earth, Wind and Fire. Indianapolis resident Richard Bale was their manager and they went out on the road backing up Al Green, Tyrone Davis, Jackie Moore and Franklin's sister Carolyn. Once they opened for Archie Bell and Drells. When Archie came on after Joe's performance, the crowd booed him off the stage.
Wells got a little weary of so much traveling and wanted to settle back in Louisville. Fred Murphy was the main man down at the 26th Street Tavern and invited Joe to sing with the band. Joe gradually assumed the lead role while Joe Jr., his guitarist, got him more focused on the blues. Those 5-to-whenever Sunday jams were legendary. Eddie Mack, Little Harvey (Cook), Sonny Sitgraves and Winston Hardy would show up to play. When the movie Demolition Man, starring Wesley Snipes, was shot in Louisville, there was a segment filmed at the tavern. Joe said "they had the whole street blocked off and cameras were everywhere."
The very first KBS Blues Cruise in 1995 made the 26th Street Tavern its last stop. It was a great finale for many of us to mix with the crowd and hear the band, especially when one of our cruisers, Sue O'Neil, got up to sing "I've Got Bad News." The music and an era finally came to an end when Jimmy Finger stopped managing the place.
Wells started coming to the jams at Zena's and Mary Jean liked what she heard, so she booked the band. The current configuration features Joe Jr. (William) on lead guitar, who is very laid back, saying little but communicating beautifully through his guitar. He plays without a pick and his mature, mellow style really compliments the band. Joe says he is also an accomplished singer and harmonica player who started out playing with the gospel group "The Religious Five."
Fred Townes has also been with Joe for fourteen years, ever since the 26th St. Tavern Days. He works the keyboards, relying on one hand, so he rarely takes any leads, but his notes fill out the sound nicely.
James Warfield clips the bottom with his bass. He played with Henry and Noisemakers during the Eighties at the Pleasure Inn, then went with Winston Hardy in the Nineties. James' funky style is very distinctive. Bobby the drummer has been with the band less than a year but his drumming has fit right in.
The Original Blues Band does mostly covers in their own style, often making a medley out of several songs. Joe likes to mix a little soul, ballads and R&B with his blues. He will assess the audience each night and fit the music to mood. Usually the dance floor is filled after the first few songs. In every show, he does the obligatory "Mustang Sally."
At sixty-three, Wells has spent thirty-seven years at W. M. Lumber in New Albany, either in the mill or driving trucks. He's easing into retirement and hopes to keep on singing as long as he can. Wells and the band will be performing at a Derby Matinee on May 6 at the Russell Apartments, 515 S. 17th St., from 5 to nine p.m. Bring your appetite for a free buffet and your dancing shoes.
TGIF at Stevie Ray's
Mike Kinney, part owner of Stevie Ray's, is always looking for new ways to draw people into his blues club. His latest lure is the "Blues Society Social,: which will be held one Friday each month. From 5 to 7 p.m., you can get in free and any house drink is $1.75. If you stick around when the music starts at 7:30 p.m., your cover is taken care of. These socials will start May 11 with Jim Diamond, followed on June 22 by the King Bees and One Shot Johnny on July 13. Not a bad deal to TGIF.