Love of music opens doors for Junior Wilson

Musican Junior Wilson plays guitar in his Milford home. Mr. Wilson, who turns 71 next month, has been performing music since the age of 5 when he played steel guitar in church. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

MILFORD — Even after playing music for the last seven decades, Junior Wilson still loves it. In fact, if you don’t like it, that’s your problem.

“I never get bored of music in any way. If you’re into music and you get bored with it, you’re just a boring person,” the 70-year-old musician said last week while standing in the back shed of his Civil War-era home in Milford, surrounded by a raft of guitars all in various states of repair.

Starting from the age of 5 playing steel guitar in church, Mr. Wilson has entertained folks around the Mid-Atlantic region, either as a solo act or in a number of different bands.

He plays nine instruments and can fix them too.

He compares his love of music to walking into a big house.

“It’s like you walk into a room and there’s four doors and you walk through one door and here’s another room with four more doors and you walk into another room,” he said.

“If you’re cocky and you think you got it, you’re sadly mistaken. You think you’re a master of something, you’re not a master of anything. There’s too much to know.”

Musical roots

Alden Wilson Jr. was born April 4, 1949, on a pony farm between Lincoln and Ellendale. His mother played the organ and his father played the guitar.

Junior picked up the guitar at the age of 5 and never stopped.

In 1958, his father Alden Sr. opened a music shop on Walnut Street in Milford and then expanded to a store on Loockerman Street in Dover. It was there that Junior taught himself how to fix the instruments.

Mr. Wilson looks to repair a guitar in his home workshop. He is a certified repair center for Martin and Taylor guitars.

“You’d get the instruments and you’d try to restring them. But you’d also get four or five that didn’t play right. And my job was to get them to play better. And I started discovering little subtle differences between them,” he said.

“Like the chamfer of the instrument or the edges of it. And you would think ‘What do I like about this and why do I like it more than that one?’ So you’d try to figure those things out. So it turned into a Sherlock Holmes-type of thing to see if I could figure out how to fix them.”

The music bug then bit him and performing took over as well. He was in various bands, including one that had a Saturday morning radio show for a year or so starting in 1963 on WJWL in Georgetown.

He also had a music studio in downtown Milford where he would record different acts but also sold music accessories.

Getting tuned in

Be still found himself with holes in his schedule. So about 25 years ago, he decided to get back into the music repair business.

“I called up all my friends and said ‘Look guys. I’m going start doing this on the side. So then one guy said ‘Oh great, I have about 80 of them that need to be looked at,’” he recalled.

“That first year I did about 1,500 of them between the music stories and going through people’s inventories and it started going pretty good.”

Junior Wilson stands in his Milford home workshop surrounded by an assortment of stringed instruments that he plays and repairs. His Civil War-era house on Southeast Front Street has been in the family for o

He’s now a certified service center for Martin and Taylor guitars with hundreds of instruments holed up in the upstairs repair shop in the home on Southeast Front Street that he shares with his wife of 51 years, Bonnie.

The oldest instrument he has worked on was a violin that dated back to 1647 and another from 1745.

“The oldest guitar I’ve done was a Martin guitar from 1845 and it was stunning. This doctor had it in his family for 100 years and his son ran his tricycle over it 60-some years ago and shattered it,” Mr. Wilson said.

“So I rebuilt it and it wasn’t because I rebuilt it but it was an amazing instrument. I put it back together and it was a perfect instrument. It played like butter. It blew me away. It was made a few years after the Alamo and 16 years before the Civil War and it was a monster.”

His admiration for these instruments is evident. He thinks of them as his buddies.

“They’re kind of like your friends or your cohorts. You’ve got instruments that you really love. And sometimes your initial thing, you say, ‘Well, I should really like this instrument but I’m not connecting with it.’ And sometimes you say, ‘Well, I just don’t like the tonality of it. I don’t like the shape of the neck, the things that are tangible,” he said.

“And other times it’s like just a bandage. It just takes one thing. I’ve had thousands of people over the years say ‘Wow, I really didn’t like that guitar and then you went over it and did those things to it.’ And it’s not magic. It was just never put in perspective where it should be to play properly. So that’s kind of fun.

“I’m from the school of if I’m playing music, I don’t care what it takes. If it takes more setup and more equipment to do this right or whatever … more practice time or more time to learn things. Well, that’s what it takes. And I’m the same way with fixing instruments.”

Playing in a traveling band

Mr. Wilson has documented the many bands, miles and faces he has played with over the years on his website, jrwilsonmusic.com.

The first “good rock and soul band I was in” was The Sovreign from 1966 to 1967. A psychedelic blues band followed in 1968 called Love Special Delivery (or LSD for short).

A couple of years in the early 70s were spent in New York City as a session musician for other bands but he found his way back home in 1975 to play with Serenade, Thumper and four versions of The Heart Beatz.

is longest-lasting and perhaps most well-known band The Movies started in 1982 and would last throughout the years in various incarnations until 2015.

The first incarnation of The Movies consisted of, from left, Ray Strube, Junior Wilson and Bobby Barr in 1982. (Submitted photo

In between breakup periods, he had an electronic band called Fun with Joan (Joan was a computer) and was in another popular local band, The Cutters.

He plays the guitar, steel guitar, pedal steel guitar, banjo, mandolin, bass, piano, synthesizer and violin.

“The fiddle was the last instrument I learned. I learned it as a joke. Because I play mandolin, it’s the same tuning. And I learned it just to be a smart (aleck). When I was a kid, I just wanted to learn it to say I learned it and then people expected me to play it all the time. So it backfired on me,” he said.

“Years later, when I was playing at The Hub when that was still around, I played ‘Purple Haze’ on the fiddle and people went nuts. That’s the only time I ever played it. And for years people have been coming up to me and saying ‘You’re that guy who plays “Purple Haze” on the fiddle. I did it once and people to this day still remember.”

A car accident 20 years ago did a number on his neck so he doesn’t play it as often as he once did. But he still gives the people what they want.

“It’s something people expect me to play. So I play it. I’m not a master of the violin but I know how to play it and make it flashy and I know what people want to hear. I probably play the guitar and banjo better than the fiddle but people just love the fiddle.”

Doubling up

These days, he has a partner with whom he performs, Chad Cooper, aka Chatty. The two were in The Movies together. Mr. Cooper plays congas while Mr. Wilson plays his assortment of stringed instruments and takes lead vocals.

Like in other bands he has been in such as The Movies, he plays a diverse list of songs.

“I try to surprise people, you know, Like, I might do a start off with a Mavericks song and then do Steely Dan and then do Eddy Arnold and go into Pink Floyd and the a classic rock song like ‘The Letter.’ So people don’t know quite what to think and that’s exactly where I like it. They can’t categorize you in that little box,” Mr. Wilson said.

Junior Wilson, left, and Chad Cooper, aka Chatty, perform during Delaware Electric Cooperative’s dinner at the Delaware State Fairgrounds in Harrington in August 2018. Mr. Wilson has been performing at the dinner for the past 20 years. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

His dedication to his craft is unwavering. He even had a series of small heart attacks on stage once. He visited the doctor, had a procedure and was back out performing the following week. He just loves to play.

“Chad and I played the Sea Witch Festival one year and we were supposed to play two hours go off for an hour and play another two hours. Well we just played the whole afternoon. A guy said ‘You’re really gung ho. You didn’t take any breaks. I said ‘We were supposed to take a break? Oh OK.’ he recalled.

“But we had people dancing and having a good time. What else would I rather be doing? Are you having fun? If you’re not having fun, you ought to go do something else.”

He said there are two people in life.

“There are people who play music and then there are musicians. I’m not putting the people who play music down. That’s fine. They enjoy it at their rate when they want to play it. But musicians don’t do that,” he said.

“Musicians are obsessed. We’ve got to play. I think ‘OK, I’m not playing this weekend’ and it gives me the heebie jeebies. So then I get busy in the shop.

“If it’s your true purpose in life, that’s what you do. And this is my true purpose in life.”