Finding Junior Wells
Don't Start Me Talkin' (The Junior Wells Story)
DVD (Sony/Legacy)
By Bob Margolin

When Junior Wells passed away on January 15, 1998, Blues Revue magazine reported it with an in-depth story appropriate to the loss of the Chicago Blues legend. I had written a short personal appreciation of him, anticipating the editor might solicit that, but she didn't and my words sat unread in the computers I've had over those seven years, until today: "I met Junior Wells in '73, right after I joined Muddy Waters' Band. The late Hollywood Fats took me down to Teresa's on the South Side of Chicago, and Junior took us bar-hopping in his red Cadillac with white seats. I was already a fan of his music and it was a thrill to occasionally jam with him at Muddy's shows over the next few years.

"I was grateful to be chosen as one of the guest guitarists for Junior's Grammy-nominated 1996 album, Come On In This House. Junior and I arrived at Dockside Studios in Lafayette, Louisiana the night before the session. We were hanging out, discussing songs to cover and re-arrange with producer John Snyder. I tried out a couple of ideas on the studio's acoustic guitar, but Junior pulled out a harp and just started jamming. Over my slow blues, Junior sang a few unrelated lyrics, sucked soft, heartbroken wails out of the harp, and punctuated the rhythm with vocal noises, clicks, consonants, and sighs that go beneath and beyond music. All of us in the room were taken by Junior musical power, and there were no other sounds except those of the Louisiana night, and an occasional whispered suggestion that 'someone roll tape.'

"But no one did, and though we hoped to record something that deep the next day, that magic was never captured. Now Junior's taken it with him."

...Or so I thought, because when a Blues musician dies, we're left with recordings and memories, but have to accept that we will never hear him speak again, or look into his face, or hear him onstage. It's good to be wrong about that in the case of Junior Wells. Don't Start Me Talkin' is a recently-released DVD documentary that delivers much more of the funky, deep, original, thoughtful, principled Blues legend than I ever expected to experience after his death. While we watch, he's back, from the screen right to our hearts. And when it's over, and Junior's face with the dates of his birth and death fill the screen, we value him and miss him more because we know him better.

For newer Blues fans, who is Junior Wells? In the early '50s, when the great Little Walter left Muddy Waters' band to pursue his stardom, he was replaced by a teen-age Junior Wells. In the '60s, his legendary recordings for Delmark Records, featuring Buddy Guy, innovated the blend of Chicago Blues with the emerging James Brown Funk and Memphis R&B. In the '70s, he and Buddy worked together often and since then, both have been considered to be distinctive, legendary performers, among the best ever.

Those of you familiar with Junior Wells might be surprised that I described him above as "thoughtful, principled." His Blues seem to come right from his soul, through his harp and singing, and are reflected in his body language. It's hard to imagine such a force of nature reflecting philosophically about his life and his music, recalling the experiences that formed him, but that's exactly what you'll see on this DVD. Junior's reveals who he is in long interviews and filmed performances. Producer and Director Peter Carlson did not all into the common documentary practice of delivering frustrating snippets and then moving on abruptly, leaving them undeveloped. Junior Wells is the centerpiece of this documentary, and he is presented intact.

Beyond that, there are interviews with musicians and music lovers who worked with Junior, knew him well, and obviously loved him. Junior Wells attracted these people to him while he lived, and Peter Carlson gave them the opportunity to move us with their stories and comments. Junior's music was appreciated by Rock stars and Blues-friendly celebrities: Dan Aykroyd, Steve Miller, Bruce Willis, Carlos Santana are more famous than any Blues man, but they all offer tributes to Junior. Giants of Blues music recognize that Junior was one of the best: B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Koko Taylor, Luther Allison, Dr. John, Buddy Guy, Charlie Musselwhite, Billy Branch, Lonnie Brooks, his son Ronnie Baker Brooks, and Jimmie Vaughan. Delmark Records' Bob Koester and Junior's former manager Dick Waterman unearth their '60s experiences with Junior. Tony and Mama Rosa Mangiullo, who run Rosa's club in Chicago tell us that Junior was "family" to them, and even Junior's blood family are interviewed - his mother, his sister, and his daughter. Junior's friend Ralph Metcalfe relates how Junior brought him to love deep Blues.

Peter Carlson presents these testimonials not as glib sound bytes from talking heads but takes his time with each, disclosing more depth, more complete stories, Junior's personality and creativity, and Junior's friends' love and respect. This is not one of those formula documentaries that owe more to tabloid sensibilities than to history and soul. This had to be a labor of love for Peter Carlson.

I met Peter a few years ago as he worked on a documentary honoring Pinetop Perkins. I play with Pinetop a lot, and Peter filmed our performances as well as interviews with me, and I've interviewed Pinetop for him. I'd been impressed with Peter's conception and I tried to help as much as possible. Peter was at Pinetop's homecoming party in Mississippi last October and gave me this Junior Wells DVD.

When I got a chance to watch it on my computer while traveling, I was not prepared to be as knocked out as I am. Let me take the opportunity to turn this from a rave review into a feature story. Let's talk to Peter Carlson:

Bob Margolin for BluesWax: You told me it took five years to make this documentary. How did that happen? What were the advantages and disadvantages of working on it so long?

Peter Carlson: Junior and I became great friends, the more I learned about him the more I wanted to tell. Everyone wanted to tell their stories and interaction with him as the interviews with Santana, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker and other will show. Andre Peraza, cameraman and editor on the project, introduced me to Junior and knew his history. As we talked about the project it took an a life of its own. Like Junior, it became bigger and better. Junior never saw the completed project, but when he was in the hospital we made copies of all the footage so he could see everything. He had big smiles as he watched it every day after day.

Bob, for BluesWax: Did your own perspective on Junior change as you made the documentary? Did it turn out differently from how you conceived it?

Peter: I learned a lot about myself spending time with him. I also got to see a side of him most people never knew: the humanitarian, the care giver, the practical joker, the man who had a heart bigger than anyone I've ever known. I have the out takes from the show that I watch sometimes and they always make me laugh Some are too risque for video.

Bob, for BluesWax: Tell us when and where this DVD will be on TV.

Peter: The program can be seen on BET JAZZ or you can buy from our web site Bob, for BluesWax: Tell us about the Pinetop project you're working on, and the one on Son Seals.

Peter: We are also doing the life stories of Pinetop Perkins, which will be done this spring, Son Seals who just passed this December, Magic Slim, Bobby Rush, and you -- We have been filming these artists for years. We also filmed the Tribute to Junior Wells at the House of Blues a month after Junior passed in 1998, with Magic Slim, Otis Clay, Lonnie Brooks, Koko Taylor, Billy Branch, Son Seals, Sugar Blue, Ronnie Baker Brooks and others. This should be out this year. Our goal is to preserve the history, wisdom and music of the great blues artists of our time, for generations to come.

Bob, turning to you: When you see how well Peter's done that for Junior Wells on this Don't Start Me Talkin' DVD, I do think that you'll know Junior, personally and historically. I was so inspired by the depth of this video that I wanted to tell you about it, and by the time you read this Peter and I will have made more progress together on a documentary that features me. The point of telling you that now is not to begin publicizing a product - it won't be complete and available for a long time. Anyone who knows the realities of business in the Blues World knows it can't be about money. Rather, it shows how much we trust each other. I think Peter Carlson is using his film-making talent and his love for Blues to entertain and educate today's Blues fans, and to leave insightful history that can be seen and heard for those of the future.