The Blues Moves North: the Story of Junior and Sugar

Adapted from their letter to Norm Wheeler

Sun editor     

Robert Jr. Whitall (aka Junior) brought his girlfriend Shirley Mae Owens (aka Sugar) to the Sleeping Bear Dunes in August of 1998 for camping, swimming, and hiking. They also attended the Dunegrass and Blues Festival. Sugar fell in love with Robert Jr. and the beautiful Sleeping Bear Dunes. Robert Jr. has been exploring the area since the 1980s. The following year Junior proposed to Sugar in New Orleans at Mardi Gras on Lundi Gras at Harry Connick Jr’s Orpheus parade. Junior remembers, “I had my grandmother’s ring and Sugar caught it!” Sugar moved to the Detroit Metro area when she received a job offer from the State of Michigan to help deaf customers to become employed. A few months later they were married at Pierce Stocking Lookout #11 in the Sleeping Bear Dunes on Sept. 11, 1999, overlooking their favorite swimming hole—North Bar Lake. Their wedding reception was held at the Empire Town Hall with the late great Johnnie Bassett.

Sugar and Junior met through the blues music they both love. Sugar was a deejay for over 10 years in Kansas City at KKFI 90.1 FM, and also volunteered with organizing blues festivals, blues societies, blues challenges, and blues foundations. Junior began Big City Rhythm & Blues Magazine in 1995 and contacted Sugar to write an “On the Road” story about the blues music scene in Kansas City. They met during a blues awards show in Memphis. Junior invited Sugar to visit him in Detroit. But instead of staying in Detroit, he really wanted to impress her so he brought her to the Sleeping Bear Dunes.

Since 1998 they have been enjoying the Sleeping Bear Dunes and often camping at DH Day Campground. Ten years ago a friend gave them a 1970 Airstream and they camped behind the Foothills. Finally, in 2014, they bought a piece of paradise on S. Dunn’s Farm Road. They hope to host music fundraisers for their Gimme 5!, a fundraiser 501C3, that donates funds to musicians in need as well as art shows for Junior’s “Muse-Ick Heads” portraits.

For the past six years while Junior fought prostate cancer, he spent many long days in the hospital and began painting musicians’ portraits from Elvis to Chuck Berry that he now calls “Muse-Ick Heads.” After radiation damaged his kidneys, he was close to being on dialysis when Sugar found out that she was a match (one in 100,000 odds for a spouse to be compatible). Last Aug. 14, the transplant took place at Detroit’s Henry Ford Transplant Institute.

Junior explains the origin of Gimme 5! “On August 29, 2005, Katrina hit our third home: New Orleans. We were working the Detroit Jazz Festival and we were with Marcia Ball and Dr John. We were all heartbroken that there was nothing we could do to help, and they could not go home. After Marcia Ball said, ‘Well, let’s let the politicians do the crooking and then we will go in to help,’ Roscoe (Dr John’s drummer), Sugar, and I decided to start Gimme 5 to help the musicians in need in New Orleans. After Katrina there were no banks, no mailmen, no deliveries, so no one could get a check or cash it. So we went down a couple of weeks after the hurricane with a large amount of cash and distributed it to musicians we were told about. Now we deliver checks all over the world, not just in New Orleans. We have no strings attached like other fundraisers, we just want the musicians to get some help, and they can decide what to do with the money.” Junior and Sugar plan to hold some fundraising blues concerts around the Sleeping Bear Dunes area in the near future, so stay tuned.

For more information about Sugar and Junior, Big City Rhythm & Blues Magazine, Gimme 5!, or Muse-Ick Heads, check out