Chicago blues artist Mike Wheeler is a guitarist, singer & songwriter and bandleader for his own band. Mike Wheeler Band was established in 2001, with the experienced musicians Brian James on keyboard, Cleo Cole on drums and Wheeler himself on vocal and guitars. The bass player Larry Williams replaced the original bassist, the late Sam Green. The band is one of the busiest Blues bands in Chicago, playing almost every night in various venues. Mike Wheeler was inducted into the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame in 2014. He has recorded with several artists and released 3 CD’s with his own band, twice on Delmark Records. The following interview occurred at one of his regular performances at Kingston Mines.
– Were you born in Chicago, and at what side?
– Yes, born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, on the south side, all my life.
– You were attracted by music pretty early, I suppose?
– Yeah, I was about 4 or 5 when I started loving the Blues. My mother played Blues music around the house. But she played all kinds of music, R&B, Soul, Rock, Jazz and everything. She used to play the great Ray Charles very much. But the Blues kind of hit me the most when I was young. When I got older, she sent me to the store to buy records for her. Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Freddie and B.B. King, and Lightning Hopkins. I would take my allowance and buy records for me too. Like Live Wire Blues Power, by Albert King, that I consider one of the greatest Blues albums ever made. One of my favourite guitarists of all time is definitely the great Magic Sam. His sound was so full and raw. To me Bobby ”Blue” Bland was the greatest blues singer that ever lived. His voice moved me as a little boy. His Two Steps From The Blues album is a masterpiece!
Photo: Krister Palais
– When did you decided to play the guitar yourself?
– Oh, I got serious about playing the guitar at the age of 13. My brother had a guitar, and he was taking lessons. But it wasn’t working out for him, so he gave me the guitar at last. Maybe because I told him that I could do better. And eventually I taught myself.
– Did you play in school bands, or just around the neighbourhood?
– Oh, I never took lessons, or anything. I just played around the house, listened to records and I borrowed chord books. The first song I remember trying to play was If You Want Me To Stay, by Sly & The Family Stone. That was my favourite song in 1974. But mostly, I played Jimi Hendrix type of stuff, and of course some Chicago Blues.
– So you started to play in bands, after a while?
– Oh yeah. I got in my first band when I was about 16. I played in a R&B Funk band called D.C.I. We played like Earth, Wind & Fire, and stuff like that. The drummer was Vernal Sticks Taylor, who now plays with Shawn Holt & The Teardrops. He was the guy that pulled me towards the Blues, getting me out and really played the Blues. Sam Walker was on the bass, the keyboardist was Kenny Connor, and Ray Lampkin played the other guitar. I did that for a while, until I was 18. Then I did my first Blues gig in 1980. That was the Delta Blues Festival in Greenville, Mississippi. We backed up a guy named Andre Shontell.
– Was that when you decided to become a Blues artist for real?
– Well, Vernal Sticks Taylor invited me to come and sit in with his band in 1992-93, something. I was working a day job and couldn’t stay out late, you know. But Vernon insisted on having me in the band, so I went to sit in with them. Next thing I knew, I was in the band after that. And I’ve been playing the Blues ever since then. A few years later I played with Lovie Lee, Muddy Water’s old piano player. We did a couple of gigs at Lilly’s Bar, by Lincoln Park, in Chicago.
Photo: Krister Palais
– And you worked a lot as a sideman since then.
– Yeah, I was a guitarist in many bands, sometimes several bands at the same time. I met Nellie “Tiger” Travis in 1992, and played with her. I was with Cadillac Dave for about 5 years. Then I played with Big Ray & Chicago’s Most Wanted for 15 years, the longest I’ve been with somebody. Then came Sam Cockrell & The Grooves for 2 years and Linsey Alexander for about a year. The trombonist, singer and bandleader Big James Montgomery hired me for his band The Chicago Playboys, and I stayed with him for 13 years. Then I played on and off with Peaches Staten & The Groove Shakers, for about 7 years.
Other than that, I’ve been with Koko Taylor, when I replaced Shun Kikuta one time, and Vino Louden another time. Furthermore with Buddy Guy, Deitra Farr, Shemekia Copeland, Jimmy Burns, to name a few. Jimmy Johnson is one of my heroes. The energy that he has at 87 years old is unbelievable. We have to be strong to keep up with him. He is very knowledgeable and doesn’t mind sharing his experience.
– And you played with the other legends Willie Kent and Son Seals?
– Willie Kent was just so beautiful, man! He would always encourage me to do my thing, with my own band. The last thing he told me was that he saw great things in me. It was good to hear that from him, a guy of his calibre. Son Seals was cool too. We just did a few shows with him, over at the old Blues ETC, at Belmont Avenue. The times that I played with him was so nice, he was easy to work for.
– But playing with George Benson was another type of music, wasn’t it?
– Oh yeah, and he’s way up here! It was an honour to just be around him, you know. The night that I met him, me and Larry played with Jimmy Johnson at Buddy Guy’s Legends. Benson and B.B. King came to sit in with us. It was B.B., Buddy, George and Jimmy Johnson, all of them on stage at the same time.
– Were they competitive, like stars can be sometimes?
– No, I didn’t see anything like they were competing. They were just making music together. B.B. shook hands with everybody on stage.
– You ain’t no stranger to jazzy music, right?
– I like Jazz. Some of the Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Wes Montgomery, and of course George Benson. I’m not an avid Jazz listener, but I like most of the stuff I hear.
– But eventually you started on your own, making it the Mike Wheeler Band.
– I was a sideman for 20 years, and it was about time change. I had stuff that I wanted to do. And I didn’t want to hold anybody back, from what they wanted to do. So, it was time for me to branch out and find my voice. So the band was put together in 2001. It started with the late, great Sam Green, who was the bass player at the time. Sam was working with everybody, including me. He was the one who told me that I needed to have my own band. And he took me to a place in Evanston, Il. called Nevin’s. And that’s where I met Brian James. It was him, Brian, myself, Cleo Cole and Lawrence Fields on the sax. That’s how the band started off. We got our first regular gigs at B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted, when Jennifer Littleton gave us every other Monday there. But our very first gig was at Harlem Avenue Lounge. When Sam Green had an accident, he was replaced by my old teenage friend Larry Williams.
– The first time I saw your band, you had Orlando Wright on bass.
– Oh yeah! He played with us a few times, when Larry couldn’t make it. You know, Orlando is with Buddy Guy now, so he ain’t going nowhere, ha, ha, ha!
– So you managed to keep the players in your band?
– Basically, except for Larry Williams, they are all original members. Our first bass player Sam Green got paralyzed in an accident. And he recently passed away, a few years ago. And the saxophone player Lawrence Fields, just passed away too. Other than that, everybody stays in the band. We get along pretty well and that’s a blessing to me.
Brian James, is the very experienced keyboardist, in many different styles of music. Reggae, Country, Jazz, Rock, Blues and R&B. He has been a musical director for The Drifters, Sugar Blue, Chico Banks and Lonnie Brooks, to name a few. He holds an Associates of Fine Arts degree from Illinois State University.
Cleo Cole has a background as a recording drummer for Blind Pig and Delmark Records. He attended the Conservatory of Music and played in different grammar and high school bands. He has travelled worldwide and his domestic experiences are with Sam Cockrell, Zora Young, Big James, Nellie Travis, Maurice John Vaughn, among others.
Larry Williams is a highly esteemed bassist with a charismatic stage personality. He has a solid international experience, from playing Jazz, Funk, Blues and Gospel. Stars like Albertina Walker, James Cotton, Buddy Guy, George Benson, valued his driving performance. He has recorded for Alligator, Blind Pig and Delmark Records.
– You’re not only a guitarist and vocalist. You’re a singer songwriter too.
– I’ve been writing songs ever since I learned to play. But I was getting serious about writing songs maybe about 20 years ago. I was in a band called Cadillac Dave & His Chicago Redhots, and I wrote a song on his CD, Checking On My Baby. That was my first recorded song, and it was titled Been So Lonely.
– And you write songs for female artists too.
– Yeah! For Nellie “Tiger” Travis and before that Peaches Staten. If somebody wants me to write a song, I try to listen to their voice. And I kind of hear their voice when I write the song. I write some songs for Demetria Taylor on her next Delmark CD. That should be nice.
– How many records did you cut? It must be about 8, or something.
– Myself? Only 3, I’m on my third one. They are Mike Wheeler Band on Chill Records in 2003, Self Made Man on Delmark in 2012 and Turn Up !!, also on Delmark in 2016. But I have been on a lot of people’s CD’s. I did 5 CD’s with Big James & The Chicago Playboys, because I played with him for 13 years. And I played on different other artists stuff. Like Linsey Alexander and Cadillac Dave. With Sam Cockrell & The Groove on Boom Boom Records in 1999. I’m In Business was the name of that record. And I recorded with Peaches Staten live at Legends on Swississippi Records in 2010.
– How do you like the studio situation, playing in booths and stuff?
– Oh I love it! I love the creative part of it, and watching the songs grow. From the beginning status, to the final product. I enjoy the studio, but I like live better. It’s more fun because you’re in front of an audience, and you can react to them.
– You’re working pretty much, don’t you?
– Yeah, almost every night, you know. The thing about here in Chicago, is if you got your thing together you can work. If you got a good business attitude, you just got to apply yourself. But it takes a while, it’s not overnight. I mean, I’ve been doing this for years now.
– I saw your poster at Nick’s, a bar over on Wicker Park on the West Side. It looks like a “hole in the wall” kind of club?
– Oh yeah, I play there some Saturday nights. The thing about Nick’s, it’s a bunch of young people there. And it’s a beer garden, so they like to drink beer and have a good time. And they like the Blues in there, so we have fun there.
Photo: Krister Palais
– But you play a lot at the regular Blues clubs and festivals too?
– Yes, we’ve been in San Francisco, Pocono Blues & Jazz Festival in Pennsylvania. And Chicago Blues Festival, of course. But we play at Buddy Guy’s Legends, Blue Chicago, Kingston Mines, B.L.U.E.S. on Halstead, House of Blues, and some other venues.
– How many countries did you travel to?
– We did two festivals in Belgium, in 2015. And the year before that, we did a whole tour in Europe. And we’ve been to Mexico, Canada and all over Europe.
– So, what’s in the future for your band, do you know?
– I don’t know, but hopefully to bigger and better things. I’m happy with what we’re doing now, but every bandleader wants to do better. We want to progress and reach bigger audiences. I put it like that, because we do a lot here in Chicago. But I want to branch out more over seas. It’s good to get away, and then come back with more experiences.
– I have one standard question, to take it home with. Is there any highlight in your career that you want to talk about?
– The highlight of my career would be the first time I met B.B. King. It was in Monte Carlo, Monaco, where I was with Big James. We were opening up for B.B. and wanted to meet him. So we talked to his tour manager, and he made it possible. B.B. talked to us for a long time, like he had been known us all our lives. That was definitively the highlight of my career.
Photo: Bradley Cook
– Tell us about your grandson Chico.
– I have a 4 years old grandson named Chico. Ever since he was like 2 years old, he started liking the Blues music. And he wanted to play the guitar. It is a deep passion for him. I think it’s deeper than it was for me, when I was younger. All day, as soon he gets up in the morning, he grabs his guitar and plays it. And he has an Ipad that my wife bought him for Christmas. He watches youtube on it all day. And he doesn’t want to watch any other guitar player but me. I’m quite sure he’s going to be a musician. Hopefully he won’t loose the passion for it. If he could do it right now, he would.
– Is he playing any melody yet?
– No, because his hands are too small. They don’t actually fit over the guitar neck. But he is strumming. And when I’m playing, he always watches my fingers. I don’t think it will be a problem with him learning. And he sings too! He had moved to Michigan, but he and his mother moved back to Chicago. I’m glad to have them back, so I can mentor him, and get him ready. So he can get out there and play some blues.
– He’ll be the next one to keep the Blues alive.
– Oh yeah! On my mother’s birthday, I was talking with her on the telephone. Chico got on phone and told her; “I’m a Bluesman”! She got a good laugh out of that. He was serious too! His mother gave him the name Chico, after Chico Banks, one of my closets friends. Just to hear that name feels good.