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Dirty-South Blues Harp forum: wail on! > old-school mentoring: Sonny Boy & Jr. Wells
old-school mentoring:  Sonny Boy & Jr. Wells
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613 posts
Jul 29, 2009
8:03 AM
The following is an excerpt from Jim O'Neal, "Junior Wells: Living Blues Interview," Living Blues #119 (January/February 1995): 11.

Oh, yeah. At that time, you could buy harmonicas at the Rexall Drugstores or else somethin' like that there. You didn't have to pay but about 25 cents for one. And it was Marine Bands. The cheapest harp you could buy then was American Ace. And that's the one that [Sonny Boy] throwed down and stomped. Of mine. Yeah. [Laughs]

Yeah. I had asked him about teachin' me somethin' and he say, "Where's your harp at?" I took it out and showed it to him. He took it and throwed it on the ground and stomped it. He said, "That's not a harmonica." He said, "You gotta go get one. And you gotta buy me a drink." I say, "Okay." So I went up there to the drugstore and I got me a Marine Band and I come back and I brought him back a half pint of whiskey. 100 proof Granddaddy. He said, "No. What do I look like to you? Some little boy or something' another?" And I said, "No." He say, "I need a fifth." I went and got that fifth and brought it back to him. And he took the drink of it, big drink of it. Drink him some more and he sat down and went to blowin' the harp. He said, "Now, I want you to listen to this." So he blowed it and I tried to play it. He said, "You know what?" I say, "What?" He said, "Now, I'm gonna show you one more time." And he did. And I did the same thing. He said, "You know what? You ain't never gonna learn how to be nothin' or do nothing' with your dumb ass. And you know what else? You see that bottle of whiskey you bought?" He say, "You bought it, right?" I said, "Yeah." And he say, "And it's mine." And he took his knife out and licked it and laid it down there by his bottle of whiskey, said, "And if you touch it, you little bastard, you, I'll cut your damn throat. Now get up and get the hell away from me."

Man, nothin' ever hurt me before like that before in my life. I told him, "You just doin' this to me 'cause I'm a kid, but if I was a grown man you wouldn't do that to me." He said, "Well, I did it. Now get out of my face." I cried, that hurt me to my SOUL. I said, Lord Jesus. And, ah-oooh, man, I was more determined then I was gonna do it. And I went on back to Chicago, you know, and I met the original Sonny Boy, John Lee [Williamson], then I met [Little] Walter and all those people and then I started to learnin' how to do it right. And it was down to Theresa's [Lounge, at 48th and Indiana] in the basement, after Sonny Boy come to Chicago, he came down there one evening for the Blue Monday thing we were doin' down there. And he come up in there sittin' at the bar, "Hey, Junior. Come here, man! I'm gonna buy you a drink." I said, "Let me tell you one thing. Don't mess with me. Just leave me ALONE." He said, "I know what's wrong with you. You mad with me about what I said to you and the way I treated you a long time ago, right?" And I said, "Yeah." He said, "Well, listen at you now. You learned how to play. And you're doin' it right. I'm proud of you." Said, "Now just think. If I had a' babied you around you still wouldn't be blowin' the harmonica. Do that make sense to you?"

And I'll be damned, it just run through my head just like that, said boom! He's right. I said, "You're right." He said, "Well, come on and have a drink then. Now treat the next son of a bitch that come up and tell you to show him something', treat 'em like I treated you. [Laughs] The dumb son of a bitch'll learn somethin' then." I was proud of him then, you know. 'Cause he was right about it. I probably wouldn'ta.

Last Edited by on Jul 29, 2009 8:06 AM
474 posts
Jul 29, 2009
8:31 AM
So that's where Buddha got his style!
681 posts
Jul 29, 2009
10:06 AM
that was a good read.
67 posts
Jul 29, 2009
10:21 AM
Great post Adam, thanks.

I've gotten most of my critique that way..."these blues ain't polite m'f'er" and show up better next time
405 posts
Jul 29, 2009
11:00 AM
Last Sunday at a jam, a young lady said to me that she loved harp and asked if I gave lessons.

I spoke to her the way you'd expect, you know, said I'd be glad to, or whatever, and gave her my contact details.

She's not got back yet. Maybe I should have said something like, 'Of course I f%^&$^&* do, you f£$(*&^ silly b%^ch.' Then she would have been on the phone pronto.

But, seriously though, from my limited knowledge of SBWII, I imagine that quite a lot of the time he was quite addled with booze; that can bring out the worst in a person. And they often have a strategy to justify their behaviour. Still, I'm only conjecturing about SB, I don't know enough about the man.
'If it sounds GOOD to you, it's bitchen; if it sounds BAD to YOU, it's shitty' - Frank Zappa

Honkin On Bobo
79 posts
Jul 29, 2009
11:05 AM
Great story. As Buddha has said many times, you want to be a musician, you gotta have a thick hide. Think it helps if you start out when you're younger though, time is on your side. Talent + determination + time = the road to success.
The Gloth
150 posts
Jul 30, 2009
1:30 AM
Very interesting subject. I think Mickil put the finger on something : although Junior Wells said that after all, SBW was right to act like he did, I'm not convinced by that. The truth is, Junior learned to play when he got in touch with John Lee Williamson and Little Walter, I guess they teached him licks and stuff, while SBWII didn't. What would have happened to him if those guys had turned him off like Sonny Boy did ?

Would be interesting to compare with James Cotton's experience of Sonny Boy's teaching, if he was also rude and mean (from all stories I heard about him, I can imagine he was not a very kind man...)
100 posts
Jul 30, 2009
3:49 AM
I think that a lot of musician's entertainer's etc. are sometimes put on a pedestal for whatever their given talent may be. Fact is some of these people are total pieces of shit. In my mind a persons actions can certainly diminish their talents.
112 posts
Jul 30, 2009
4:16 AM
well we heard it from the horse's mouth so to speak. i mean, junior told it like it was then. it wasn't about teaching technique at the time, it was about giving him something to get mad about, and determined. and that's what happened.

i think it's on the harp attack cd, they talk about how they gave billy branch the runaround for a while. i think they had a yardstick to measure how much a new guy really wanted to learn to play, if he put up with some abuse and kept coming back, he was accepted into the inner circle and taught the ropes. not an easy thing to live with maybe, but i have to wonder how many guys gave up along the way, and then look at the ones who gave us what we admire and respect these days.
Kyzer Sosa
13 posts
Jul 30, 2009
12:57 PM
i think sbw was backtracking and forcing a thought into his head that if he werent an ass, the boy would never have grown to know how to play....when in fact sbw was just scared to see the little boy grown up into a man in front of him, scared that he may harbor some ill feelings towards a now, physically inferior human being...call it what you will. it worked in that instance, i suppose. but i wouldnt count on it entirely.
Randy G. Blues
58 posts
Jul 30, 2009
1:03 PM
And to think... I spent 5 years in college getting a teaching credential, and all I had to do was to show up in a classroom with a fifth of Jack and a switchblade. :-/

My first year of teaching I taught math to 5th and 6th grade students. I told them that if they ever needed any assistance to just show up at my classroom door after school. My wife worked right down the street and so we carpooled. I was always in my room for a good 90 minutes after school let out. Quite a few of my students made use of that opportunity throughout the year. My attitude was then, as it is now, if someone asks for some assistance it is probably because they need it, but more importantly, because they want it.

But the above Sonny Boy & Jr. Wells story reminds me of this joke:

CUSTOMER: Hello. I am here for my appointment to get the insurance.
AGENT: Did you bring the specimen we required?
AGENT: Where is it?
CUSTOMER: I left it down in my car. Would you like me to bring it up here?
AGENT: No. That won't be necessary.
CUSTOMER: WHAT!? Then why did you ask me to save five gallons?
AGENT: We wanted to be sure that you REALLY wanted the insurance.
407 posts
Jul 30, 2009
3:28 PM
There was another thread on here a little while ago about a movie about some of the old blues guys.

Apparently, a lot of them were ass holes: violent, arrogant, into weapons, wasted much of the time, a bit like the aptly named Amy 'Winehouse' of latter days, or that model who keeps coming up on assault charges, what's her name...? Naomi Campbell.

The story is an interesting historical document, which I expect it was offered as; nothing more, nothing less.

But, the truth is - whoops, that's always quite an assertion: 'the truth' - that some people will always be blinkered by artistic greatness as to a persons true worth.

By that, I mean their worth to those around them: goodness is as goodness does, and all that.

I've taught piano, quite a lot in fact, and I think that any teacher who might offer that kind of inspiration is just a bit of a wally. A kind word never hurt anyone. Brutal advice is still the truth; it just doesn't have to be couched in plain and simple bad manners.

Since I've been using this forum, from time to time, I see coming up this notion about 'the blues' life and a certain notion that those who practice that particular art form are somehow 'different' from others; that they have some kind of modus operandi that makes them different from other people.

I think this is delusional romanticism. It is only true insofar as those who believe it, fulfil it, propagate it. The world that those men and women came from is very different from that which most of the current practitioners come from. Sure, musicians have a certain way of talking to one another, as do financiers, doctors, etc; that's a very human thing. But an ass hole is still an ass hole, whichever walk of life he or she may come from.

Last Edited by on Jul 30, 2009 5:12 PM
5 posts
Jul 30, 2009
8:00 PM
As a professor, I would not last long with that approach, nor, I suspect Adam, would you. Students are generally terrified to talk to a prof, just as Jr. Wells was so terrified and anxious to please he spent money he did not have. The world is too full of hard lessons and critics to be a jerk to someone who expresses a desire to learn. Sure, most think they want to learn and never to anywhere with it, but you have to focus on the good ones. In terms of harmonica a few minutes giving a lesson may give you a fan for life even if the person never does anything with it.

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