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Fade to Blue

Junior Wells Goes Quietly

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Mary and Nancy went to Junior Wells's funeral today, and they still haven't gone home. It's 11 PM, and they've been at the Checkerboard Lounge for most of the day. They're wearing their best white-lace dresses; Nancy has a gold lame hat. The day before, they spent hours getting their hair braided. Sitting at a table up front, they look better than anyone else here.

Someone told them Billy Branch would be playing tonight. Maybe John Primer, too. Certainly, they figure, they'll get to hear some members of Junior's old band. They say Junior loved a party at the Checkerboard, even though they know he actually preferred Theresa's. But that club is long gone. He loved Pepper's, too, but that's been gone even longer.

This morning Junior was laid out at a funeral home on East 71st Street in a royal blue suit and wide-brimmed hat. His coffin contained harmonicas in every key and a pint of Tanqueray. Together, Billy Branch, Sugar Blue, and Harmonica Hinds played an elegy, and dozens of people testified to Junior's expansive goodness. Junebug, they called him. The Hoodoo Man. They said he was tough and generous, profane and funny, kind and fair.

Later the funeral cortege would drive past where Theresa's used to be, at 48th and Indiana. As it headed northeast to 43rd Street, Junior's music played over the Checkerboard's jukebox and drifted into the street. After the burial at Oak Woods Cemetery, Junior's former managers, lovers, fellow musicians, sons and daughters, sisters, and friends went back to the bar, where the party promptly ended.

"There should have been something," Nancy says. "We should have had hot dogs and chips out, and we should have been playing his music from the time we got here. They were here all day, the musicians. It wasn't nothing. Just a bunch of people sitting around. They kept saying they were going to play, but they didn't. Nobody played nothing. Then they all left."

They probably went to Rosa's on Armitage, since Junior's band was scheduled to play there both Friday and Saturday. Members of his family were invited as special guests of the club. But Mary and Nancy didn't know that.

Tonight's entertainment is the hardworking Vance Kelly & the Backstreet Blues Band, a six-piece ensemble that plays every night somewhere in Chicago, Indiana, or Michigan. They have two horn players and three guitars, but no harmonica.

A woman sitting next to Nancy and Mary tries to start up a conversation.

"I'm from Calgary," she says. "I used to be from Quebec."

Nancy sips her gin and grapefruit juice. Mary stares into her Crown Royal and soda.

They don't understand what's going on. When Lefty Dizz died, there was a good party for him at the Checkerboard. Same thing for Willie Dixon in 1992. Now it's nearing midnight. "It makes me sad, and I'm not a sad person," Nancy says. "They ain't mentioned him once tonight. Have you heard them mention Junior Wells? Now, Junior don't know nothin' about this. But he should have been here, at least in spirit."

They recalled the last time Junior played at the Checkerboard. It was early last summer. He headlined the 43rd Street Blues Festival, and afterward he made his way to the club. He sauntered in at 10 PM, dressed in a white suit, red shoes, and a white hat with a red band. Nancy says she sat in the back with Junior's sister and listened to him blow.

Tonight is Vance Kelly's birthday, and the band plays "Candy Licker," his signature song. "Let me lick you down," Vance sings. "I'm gonna stick out my tongue." He holds the guitar over his head and behind his back as he plays a solo. His booking agent gets on the mike and tries to sell the audience Candy Licker warm-up jackets.

"If you think it's cold here, you should see Quebec," says the woman next to Nancy and Mary.

Nancy shakes her head. "It could have been great tonight," she says. "Now, I'm not knocking nobody--these guys are good--but it could have been the best. This isn't what Junior would have wanted. He wouldn't have wanted it like this. But what can he do? He dead."

"We went to grammar school together," Mary says, looking up from her drink. "I'm gonna miss him. Swearing and everything. He would swear--that was his lifestyle--but he didn't mean it. And I loved the way he dressed. Man, he dressed sharp! There ain't too many musicians like him no more. I just can't believe they didn't once mention his name tonight. What's goin' on, Checkerboard?"

L.C. Thurman, the owner of the Checkerboard, is on the phone. He's just out of the hospital himself and looks old and frail. He doesn't want to talk about Junior. "We did something for him," Thurman says. "We did something. We were playing songs on the jukebox all day."

Mary and Nancy wait until 1 AM, when it's obvious that Junior will not be invoked tonight. They pick up their purses and head for the door. It should

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