Where Music
Comes From



Nubar Alexanian

Junior Wells

Junior Wells
Listening Guide

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Nubar Alexanian

unior Wells lives with his mother. He sleeps till noon. The reason, I learned after 48 hours on the Chicago blues circuit with him, is that he toils the graveyard shift of professional music. After the sun goes down he heads out in his work clothes: blue sharkskin suit, white hat, hair net. On the way onstage, he seals himself into his dressing room, and snaps open a custom leather attache case, revealing an artful arrangement of gleaming blues harps, Kools, Wrigley's Spearmint, and Tanqueray. Each gets sampled until he's ready. The night that I hooked up him he was playing in a small club on the outskirts of Chicago. The band started while Junior was still standing at the bar, armed with a remote mike so he could join in without having to move just yet. Women came by to touch his hand and get theirs kissed in return. Eventually he made his way to the front, where he stood behind a stool, harps in seven keys fanned out before him. Between sets, young guys with harmonicas and beers gathered around him and his bottle of gin, passing harps back and forth. Well past 1:00 AM, after the final set, with the place cleared out and not much Tanqueray left, the young harp players lingered, still passing harps. When they finally left, Junior stood around until the owner came over and paid him in cash. He then, in turn paid each band member. I thought the night was over, but we drove to the southside, to the venerable red-and-white blues club, the Checkerboard. It was packed, but nobody playing. Junior spent the next couple of hours drinking and jiving, hanging, slapping backs. Around 3:00 AM, we moved on to Legends, Buddy Guy's old club. It was nearly empty, but the walls still vibrated with the sounds laid down by the men whose black-and-white glossies curled on the wall . No one was dancing to these faded blues, but Junior could hear them. At 5:00 AM, he was dancing by himself around a chair.

© Nubar Alexaniun 1996, all rights reserved.