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Little Big Man

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By David Whiteis

I never met a man who could wear clothes the way Junior Wells wore clothes--not a thread out of place, not the slightest smudge, even on his shoes, no matter how sweaty the room, no matter how chaotic the situation. Even on those rare occasions when he put on something as pedestrian as jeans, they'd be pressed so perfectly you could cut your finger on the crease. He'd step off the bandstand after his second or third set--and I'm talking about torrid sets, back when he had the energy and the chops to set a stage on fire just by getting near it--and he'd look as clean and cool as if he'd just left home.

I always thought of him as a bantam rooster--tough little guy strutting around with his plumage on display, ready to take on the world. He loved to tell stories about his youth, when as Amos Blakemore he ran the streets leading what he called his "gang," the Calumet Aces. "I thought I was a little hoodlum in the first goddamn place," he told an interviewer in 1980. "That's what I wanted to be."

One of the tales he told most often was of the time he stole a harmonica and then got his case dismissed by playing it for the judge. Muddy Waters and other older musicians eventually took him under their wing, even became his legal guardians, to keep him out of trouble. After a tumultuous stint in the army, from which he eventually went AWOL, he mellowed somewhat, but he never entirely lost his combative edge. As late as the 60s, he liked to recall, he faced down some of the south side's most notorious street-gang members when they tried to muscle in on the scene at his favorite clubs.

I first met Junior in January 1979. I'd just driven to Chicago from New England in a sputtering Datsun loaded with all my worldly possessions, on a pilgrimage to the blues mecca. The city was still digging out from under the great blizzard, but on my first Friday night in town I negotiated my way through the snow-choked streets to Theresa's Lounge, the world-famous basement juke at the corner of 48th and Indiana.

I pulled up in front of Theresa's, looked around at the silent south-side neighborhood, fancied I could see the ghosts of Sonny Boy Williamson and Howlin' Wolf lurking. Then I descended the front steps into the club. Junior, impeccably dressed as always, was sitting at the bar. I timidly approached him and explained how far I'd come and how thrilled I was to meet him in Chicago after seeing him perform back east. He smiled impishly and replied, "How do you like the snow?"

That was the end of my first audience with Junior, but a few minutes later, as I relaxed with friends at a table in front of the bandstand, he strolled up and placed a can of Old Style in front of each of us. Pretty soon I was a regular at T's, and Junior always greeted me warmly, sometimes took time to talk for a while. He'd kid me about my appetite for boiled pig-ear sandwiches ("You keep on eating those, you're going to turn black!"), and once he even handed me his car keys and some money and asked me to go to a liquor store up on 47th to get him some cigarettes. (I politely declined.)

But when I started to earn some modest recognition as a writer and critic, he began to keep his distance. "I just don't like a guy who's like a critic," he told Living Blues magazine in 1995. "I don't like them kind of people, unless he's a musician hisself and he wants to talk about some of it. But you don't play no music at all, but you're gonna be a critic? I don't like that."

It wasn't until years after our initial encounter, when Junior learned that I'd been helping out a mutual friend who'd fallen on hard times, that he warmed up to me. After he'd decided I could be trusted despite my unsavory profession, his openness was remarkable: he'd share confidences, he'd press money into my hand if I were on my way to see our friend, he'd greet me publicly with theatrical gestures of brotherhood and affection. Despite the sassy strut he affected onstage, he wasn't dazzled by his own celebrity, the adoration of fans, or critical praise. Junior, as they say, had his priorities straight.

That's not to say there was something false about Junior when he was onstage--the side of himself he chose to show the public was an important facet of who he considered himself to be. Junior claimed to have fathered upwards of 34 children, and the bevy of girlfriends and ex-girlfriends who regularly showed up at his gigs (as well as some of the stories they told) indicated that his reputation as a player was probably well deserved. His songs were full of sexual boasts, and his demeanor onstage was self-confident to the point of arrogance.

Even his legendary trick of using vocal sound effects--whoops, tongue clicks, growls, surrealistic lyric meanderings--in place of a song's "real" lyrics bespoke a fiercely independent spirit, a combative readiness to defy accepted norms in favor of whatever he thought worked better. At times he'd abandon words entirely, ascending over the course of an entire song into a series of nonlinear syllabic improvisations. Sometimes it sounded as if he were speaking in tongues.

But beneath Junior's bad-boy pose was a tender spirit that he'd often reveal through acts of spontaneous, almost prosaic kindness. Once, at a fast-food restaurant after a gig, he spotted a hungry-looking dog in the parking lot and bought it a chicken dinner. If people showed up on the scene who he thought might be vulnerable in some way, he'd befriend them and try to make sure they were safe. Several generations of fans were introduced into the blues world--and made to feel at home there--through Junior's generosity.

Junior showed a similar loyalty to his companions and mentors in music. He never made a big deal of it, but he was always ready with support and assistance for his peers in need. He'd give their children presents, too, slip money to their wives, help their families in any way he could. In 1994, after guitarist Louis Myers died, Junior purchased a headstone for him. Myers had been the lead guitarist of the Four Aces, the fabled aggregation Junior joined around 1950 (when they were still the Three Deuces) and helped propel to national blues prominence.

Despite a penchant for clowning, Junior was also fiercely dedicated to defending the blues and its practitioners as deserving of dignity and respect. After Muddy Waters's funeral, on May 4, 1983, he took the stage at the new Checkerboard Lounge just long enough to berate a crowd of tourists, most of whom were there in response to a rumor that the Rolling Stones might show up, for turning Muddy's tribute into a "circus." He then stalked off, to the consternation of the tourists and the great admiration of everyone else.

Junior was hardly anonymous, but he never attained the mainstream celebrity that artists like Buddy Guy have enjoyed. Nonetheless, he had friends from all walks of life and he certainly could have afforded to move to the suburbs if he'd wanted to. Instead he chose to remain close to the community that gave him his start. Until the end he lived in the south-side home where he'd resided for years with his mother, Lena, who died in 1995. He never stopped frequenting his old haunts, like the Checkerboard, where he'd come to share a few drinks, maybe sit in with the band. Junior was proud of the role he'd played in making the south side of Chicago the most fabled urban blues stronghold in the world.

Since Junior succumbed to cancer in January, a lot of people have felt the need to return the favor. Especially in Chicago there've been numerous accolades in newspapers, on TV, and on radio. Driving through the city the day after he died, I heard on WBEZ an excerpt from one of his recorded versions of the old Tampa Red and Elmore James standard "It Hurts Me Too."

No one at the station could have known, but "It Hurts Me Too" had for years been a coded love song that Junior sang to our beloved and troubled friend, who'd been badly hurt by exactly the type of situation described in the lyrics ("You lovin' him more, when you should love him less / Why stand behind him, and take his mess / When things go wrong, so wrong with you, it hurts me too"). Tears stung my eyes as I listened. Junior, you sly motherfucker, I thought, still preaching to us in tongues, still conveying your oracular wisdom from the other side. I knew then, if I'd ever doubted it, that he was going to be all right.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jr Wells photos by Ray Flerlage and Marc PoKempner.

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