The regulars liked to call the club "Theresa's hole," because it was actually below street level, not quite a basement, but about four feet down. The above-ground part of the building was an apartment house. On the street level, at the top of the steps leading down to the club, was a large painted metal sign, which read:
FEATURING JR. WELLS & BAND
Running a club -- especially a club that has live music -- is a tough business. Most don't last very long. Theresa's was the exception. The doors opened in 1949, so by 1975 the club had been around under the same ownership for 26 years. Even a short stint in the lockup for unknowingly serving some teenagers with fake IDs didn't dampen Theresa's drive to keep the place going.
Junior Wells started playing regularly at Theresa's in the late 1950s. His regular Chicago gig in those days was at Johnny Pepper's. One day, as Theresa told Amy Van Singel of Living Blues, Junior came to her asking for a job because "Pepper made me mad and I quit." So Theresa hired him. The unique feature of Junior's tenure with Theresa was that she hired and paid the sidemen, so they weren't exactly "Junior's band." But if the musicians couldn't play his music the way he wanted, they didn't last. As Bob Koester used to say, the rule was: "Theresa hires and Junior fires."
Junior didn't actually do that much firing. He was demanding but forgiving. He had a stare much like Benny Goodman's famous "ray" that would tell a wayward sideman to stop messing up. If he felt the band was straying from his beat, he would yell out "Time! Time!" more like a teacher than a taskmaster.
Throughout the Seventies, the band personnel was remarkably stable. Most nights Nate Applewhite played drums, Ernest Johnson played bass, and the two guitarists were Sam Lawhorn and Byther Smith. Sam couldn't sing worth a damn -- though occasionally he tried -- but he played beautiful instrumentals before Junior came on, making full use of the vibrato bar on his Guild guitar. Smitty, on the other hand, was an atmospheric singer who favored minor-key dirges like his own gospel-influenced "Give Me My White Robe" or B.B. King's "Help the Poor," which appears on this CD. Speaking bluntly, Sam was often drunk, and though his technique and intonation were amazing, the alcohol could make him miss his notes. Smitty was the serious one. If he drank, it never showed.
For a while in 1974 and 1975 I kept a diary of all the blues I heard in Chicago clubs. I lost the 1975 notes, but I still have the record of what I heard in 1974. I spent the evening of Tuesday, January 1, 1974 at Theresa's. My notes say the musicians who played that night included James Cotton, Buddy Guy, Matt Murphy, Phil Guy -- and Junior Wells. And I don't mean they dropped in, waved to their fans, and left. They all played.
You have to understand that Theresa's could barely hold 40 people, and most nights it cost only a dollar to get in. The drinks were cheap, and there was no minimum. There was no stage as such. The musicians simply set up at one end of the room, with their amps and mike stands on the floor. There was no sound system. A string of blinking Christmas lights hung from the ceiling and framed the performing space. I remember hearing James Cotton say -- maybe that New Year's night, maybe not -- that when he was in town you could find him at Theresa's. When he said it, I felt he was trying to horn in on Junior's turf, because when Junior was in town (which he often was, even though he toured regularly with Buddy Guy), Theresa's was truly his home place.
There were other small blues clubs in Chicago, and Junior occasionally played them, but only at Theresa's did his immense magnetism come across every time he performed. Wells magnetism. That was what struck you the hardest when you saw him there. He commanded the room. He was not a large physical presence, not tall and very slim. He wore strange hats to increase his stature. Writers have remarked that he wore very tight pants. Koester has told the story of Junior whipping out a pistol while on the bandstand to protect Chuck Nessa from an attacker, leaving Chuck to wonder how those tight pants had accommodated the gun. I think the answer is that Junior carried his pistol in a velvet Crown Royal bag so it wouldn't ruin the line of his clothes.
Delmark released Junior Wells' On Tap (Delmark 635) in 1974. The album was intended as a tribute to Junior's tenure at Theresa's and featured much of the repertoire he was performing there at the time. Chicago's WXRT-FM had worked out a sponsorship deal with Seven-Up for a weekly performance series called "The Un-Concert," playing on the soda's tag line, "The Un-cola." XRT was playing a bit of On Tap and had some success with an Un-Concert by Hound Dog Taylor. So they asked if we could arrange to record Junior.
The opportunity was too good to miss. There had been live blues club recordings before, but mostly by amateurs whose equipment and recording skills could not deliver a high-fidelity sound. XRT's Un-Concerts, on the other hand, were recorded by Chicago audiophile Ken Rasek, who had pioneered multi-track recording in small clubs and could deliver a tape with near studio-quality acoustics. Ken had never been to Theresa's. Its close quarters were a challenge even to him. The band was not quite the regulars: Sam and Johnson were there, but Nate Applewhite couldn't make it, so Levi Warren sat in. Junior brought in Phil Guy on guitar to take Smitty's place. Phil had played on On Tap, and at least one reviewer had mistaken him for Buddy ("... Guitar ably handled by Phil 'Buddy' Guy..."). Phil was the anchor of the Junior Wells-Buddy Guy road band. No doubt Junior hoped he would provide a measure of polish to the Theresa's regulars, and he did.
The first night had some high spots and some lows. Sam got progressively drunker as the evening wore on, and Junior decided he wanted to do one more. This time Junior swapped Smitty for Sam and brought in drummer Vince Chapelle, another experienced road musician who had a long stint with Koko Taylor. The results are just what you'd want. A bit rough around the edges, sure. But that's how it was at Theresa's. If you've never been to a South Side Chicago blues club and want to know what it was like, or if you have and want to be reminded of why you loved it so much, this CD will give you that. And most of all, you'll feel the bond between Junior and the audience. It was a unique bond. After all, Junior was one of the most successful touring blues artists of the day, and it's hard to believe he played Theresa's for the money. Yet when he was in town, he was there. He ruled the room with an ease and a grace he could have absorbed from the younger Muddy Waters.
You'll also note that, between songs, he refers to Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Perry Como, and Sammy Davis Jr. He often did. And though the reference is in part ironic -- letting you know you're not going to hear their music at Theresa's -- Junior's manner at Theresa's was no that far off from Sinatra's: easy but unquestionably the boss. He even had his own Rat Pack. Singers Foree Montgomery and Muddy Waters Jr. (no, not really) usually opened the show and filled in when Junior was out of town. They often imitated Junior's manner and his patter, but there was only one Junior Wells.
I'm really glad the patter is here. Junior's between-songs commentary was important to his performances. You missed that when he performed on the road. It was part of his bond with the Theresa's regulars, who pretty much knew what he was going to say but loved to hear him say it. Occasionally, there was a surprise, like the impromptu "Happy Birthday" here for photographer Marc PoKempner, who was himself a Theresa's regular in those days.
Nothing gold can stay, as the poem goes. Theresa saw the neighborhood go down, but she managed to survive. What did her in was the neighborhood going back up. In 1983, the landlord decided to convert the apartments into condominiums. There was no room for a blues bar in that plan. Theresa died in 1992.
When Theresa's closed, Junior moved his base to the Checkerboard Lounge, but it wasn't the same. The Checkerboard was Buddy Guy's place and, though of course everyone there knew Junior well, the room wasn't his to control. Buddy sat in the corner and played bid whist the regulars, but Junior wasn't a card player. He wasn't one of the fellas. he was a kind without a kingdom.
It wasn't all bad. Junior continued to tour and record. His reputation remained high. He appeared in the movie "Blues Brothers 2000." But his health began to fail. He only outlived Theresa by six years.
For those of us who heard him at Theresa's, Junior Wells remains the greatest blues man. Not the greatest harmonica player -- though he was great at that. Not the greatest blues singer -- though he was really great at that. Not the greatest songwriter -- mostly he sang others' material. But it wasn't really about an instrument, a voice, or a lyric. It was about a relationship. Theresa's itself was his true instrument. No one else played it as well, and no other place he played gave him as good a sound. As we often had occasion to say in those days, "Man, you should've been there!" Now you can be. -- Steve Tomashefsky