The "Godfather of the Blues," who in spring of 1997 underwent treatment for lymphoma, died recently at the age of 63 after a prolonged bout with cancer. Wells was admitted to the hospital for fainting spells and immediately lapsed into a coma and later died. Wells was laid out at a 71st Street funeral home dressed in a royal blue suit and wide-brimmed hat. The coffin contained harmonicas in every key and a pint of Tanqueray. Three of the city's best harpists - Billy Branch, Sugar Blue and Harmonica Hinds - played an elegy together.
The Arkansas native was singing and playing the harmonica on the streets of West Memphis by the age of nine. At age 12, he was caught stealing a $2 harmonica from a pawn shop. After the judge heard the boy play a few notes, he paid for the instrument out of his own pocket.
He moved to Chicago during the mid-'40s and played with Muddy Waters' band and was a member of The Four Aces. Backed by Buddy Guy's band, Wells became a fixture at legendary blues club Theresa's by the early '60s. His LPs include Hoodoo Man Blues which won Down Beat Magazine's 1965 R&B album of the year award. Says Bob Koester, Delmark Records producer, it was "one of the first albums of modern Chicago blues that wasn't just a string of 'greatest hits,' but... a document of what one particular tavern band sounded like."
Wells went on to perform everything from traditional blues to James Brown covers. He played with rock artists like Van Morrison and the Rolling Stones as well as rap artists like Arrested Development, and was one of the last greats of the generation who popularized the genre. Among his important recordings are "Hoodoo Man Blues," "Messin' with the Kid" and "Little By Little." Polygram/Mercury has just released a "rescued from the archive" Lost and Found: The Blue Rock Records Story, on which Wells appears.
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