MIKE WHEELER: A Band Man
by Anthony Moser
Mike Wheeler isn’t a new name, far from it. Wheeler started playing the Blues nearly 30 years ago, and is one of the most sought after sidemen. He has enjoyed a rich career working with some of the most talented artists in the business. It would also be safe to say that some of the most talented artist in the business have had the benefit of having Wheeler on stage with them. His dedication the music and his craft have earned him a reputation over the years of that is nothing short of excellence. After years of hard work, Mike Wheeler and his band mates Cleo Cole, Brian James, and Larry Williams are quickly showing why they are one of the most important bands working in Chicago today.
Bluesletter: We’re here with Mike Wheeler of the Mike Wheeler Band, and everybody else in town.
Mike Wheeler: Oh yeah.
BL: Who all do you play with?
MW: Right now I’m playing with Peaches Staten, Jimmy Johnson and Big Ray & Chicago’s Most Wanted. That’s pretty much about it other than the frequent calls I get to do shows, but those are like the main ones.
BL: Okay. Who are you not playing with?
MW: I’ll play with anybody if they’ll have me, you know. I don’t want to say it like to belittle the people I play with, but if somebody calls me and I’m not working, I love to play.
BL: What got you started?
MW: The way I got started playing guitar – my brother, he played guitar. He took guitar lessons and he was playing around the house when I was young, I had to be around 11 or 12 years old – he would play his lessons he got, and I said, “Man, that don’t sound right,” and he said, “Oh, you think you could do better?” I said, “Oh yeah, I could do better than that.” So, he gave me the guitar and I’ve been playing ever since.
BL: Do you remember the first song you learned?
MW: I think the first song I learned was from Sly and the Family Stone, “If You Want Me To Stay.”
BL: Yeah, can you play a little bit of it?
MW: (Mike plays) I was learning the base line, but that was the part that I heard.
BL: Very Cool.
MW: So, it was on after that.
BL: Right on. Who were some of the other early influences you had?
MW: Oh, definitely Tito Jackson with the Jackson Five; Ernie Isley, from the Isley Brothers; and anybody playing a guitar. I would stay up Friday nights watching Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, Midnight Special, and then they had a show on ABC called, In Concert. So, my whole Friday night was just watching music and listening.
BL: Is there anything you can think of that when you started playing, you were like, “Wow! That sounds really cool. I want to figure out how they do that?
MW: Well, a lot of the Albert King stuff – my mother played a lot of Blues around the house, a lot of soul music and stuff, this was even before I had a guitar. When I heard Albert King, it was like, to my ear – I just knew I could play it. When I finally got a guitar, man I just launched in on that.
BL: Can you play some Albert King?
MW: (Mike plays) I’m a big Albert King fan. You know, I have a lot of influences, but I never really try to do that stuff note-for-note. I always tell people – you have your influences and you’re a combination of all your influences together, and that keeps you from sounding like one of them individually.
BL: Why don’t you tell me about your band – who’s playing with you?
MW: We’ve got Larry Williams on the bass, Cleo Cole on the drums, and Brian James on the keyboards.
BL: How long have you been playing with these guys.
MW: Well, I met Larry when I was a teenager. His cousin was a guy I looked up to, a guitar player also. I was just hanging out with his cousin one day and Larry came over there – at that time, I was wishing I had a Fender, a Fender Stratocaster – I had some different kind of guitars. But, Larry was the only guy that I knew who had a Fender bass. I was amazed at that. He was the same age as myself, and he had a band and was already out here working, so he was a teenager leading a band. That kinda impressed me at that time. We were apart for maybe 10 to 15 years in between that, but then we ran into each other again and just clicked.
BL: Do you have anything that you’ve just put out? Anything you’re working on?
MW: We have a new CD that just came out on Delmark Records entitled, Self Made Man. It came out the end of October.
BL: How long had you been working on that?
MW: We started working on it in January of 2012 and we recorded in June and then it came out in October.
BL: Are you the kind of guy, when you’re putting that together, who has a clear picture of what you want to do on these songs? Or is it more like a collaborative experience where you have some ideas and you see what people are throwing out.
MW: Even when I have a completed idea myself I’ll still collaborate with the band and run it by them. We all co-write the songs, even if I initiate it or Larry initiates it, we still write it as a band.
BL: That’s cool. Anything on the CD that you’re especially proud of, or something you’re excited to have out there off that record?
MW: My favorite song on there is a song that Larry initiated entitled, “Join Hands.” It’s pretty much about what’s going on in the world today. Steve Wagner from Delmark produced the CD and he called me the day before we were going into the studio and he went over the songs. He said, “Yeah, you’ve got some nice songs on there, but we need a song about the stuff that’s happening in the world today.” I was like, “Okay.” I try to be cool and calm with him, you know, but as soon as I hung up the phone I was like – I don’t have a song like that. So, Larry just so happened to come by my house later on that day, we were getting together to write some stuff, and I told him what Steve told me. He ran out to his van and had a song that he’d already written about that very thing Steve was talking about. We got together with the band and we made it happen.
BL: Do you have any especially memorable gigs that you’ve done over the last couple of years, or anything out of the ordinary, or really special or crazy?
MW: They’re pretty much all special to me, really. You know, it’s just an honor to be playing music. But I would say, in my career, my most memorable gig was here(Buddy Guy’s Legends) on New Year’s Eve. The band’s been together for a while, but just this last year was when I started really focusing on doing my band – and the love we’ve been receiving down here, and Mark Maddox who books here at Legends – I got his number from one of my friends and I called him. I was thinking he would give me an opener or a night during the week, but he said, “Oh, I know you – oh yeah, we’ve got a Friday night for you.” I was like, wow! Then from there, he called me about doing a New Year’s Eve gig, and that was the last thing that I could imagine I would be doing this soon. So, it’s just been a blessed year, we’re just fortunate.
BL: You said this was the first time you’ve really stopped to focus on doing your own thing, your own music – how has that been different for you – stepping into the role of band leader, front man as opposed to just playing guitar?
MW: Well, it’s been different because as a band leader your focus is on everybody. If I’m a side man, I’m pretty much just responsible for what I do. But, as a bandleader you’re responsible for yourself, for the band, for making sure everybody’s on point and on time, and to make sure everything goes right. I like the role, especially with the band I have, because everybody’s dependable, we’re all on the same page, and we all have the same goals.
BL: That’s cool. Is there somebody who’s out there right now that you think’s terrific, but that maybe isn’t getting the credit they’re due – somebody who’s out there that you think is good and people should know about.
MW: A guy that I’ve know for over 30 years, Carlos Showers. He plays with everybody: Nelly Tiger Travis, Grana-Louise, Big Time Sarah, and you’ll see him with Linsey Alexander. He is an excellent songwriter – a lot of times he’s my inspiration for writing songs, because he just writes songs like it not even hard for him to do it – it just comes out. I’m just waiting for somebody to record him. A lot of people see him at the shows – he opens the shows; and the thing about him is that he always plays his original songs when he opens shows. I think he’s the guy that more people should know about – his original music.
BL: Do you play only Blues or do you play different stuff?
MW: I play a lot of different stuff. When I was first learning how to play the guitar my focus was more on rock music, because in the 70’s the guitar was featured in rock music. Then toward the middle 70’s the R & B bands like the Isley Brothers started featuring guitar players, so then all the other bands started doing it. I’ve always listened to all different kinds of music. In the middle 80’s Blues became more of a focal point as far as working and playing in bands.
BL: To you, what makes the difference between R & B and Blues? What makes it something that you think is a Blues tune as opposed to an R & B song?
MW: I think the R & B songs are really easier to dance to than Blues songs. A lot of time you can play a shuffle or lump and people will get up and dance, but R & B music just makes more people dance, I’ll put it like that. Like when we’re playing overseas, you can be playing the Blues and the people in Europe will just sit there because they want to hear everything you’re playing. If you start playing an R & B song, they’ll get up and dance – they dance more.
BL: What do you think is something that needs to happen for the Blues to continue to keep strong, to keep on going?
MW: In order for the Blues to keep going, you have to get the younger people into it; and the way to get them into it is to incorporate more styles as opposed to just the older styles that Muddy Waters was doing. That’s still relevant today, but you’ve got to add to it. Even at the time when Muddy electrified the Blues, there were people then that wanted the Robert Johnson stuff, and wondered how he was going to go from Robert Johnson to this. But, that’s what you need for the music to evolve.
BL: Right on. Is there anything else that you want to talk about?
MW: I want to mention my band. A lot of people fail to realize how important the band members are. You know, you’ve got a front man who’s very important, but unless the front man is playing by himself, somebody else is up there making him sound good. I know with me being a side man and a front man at times, a lot of times the side man gets lost in the interviews. A guy that I played with, they were interviewing him in a major magazine and me and the whole band were happy, about it. We were like, “Wow, they’re interviewing him!” We read through 8-10 pages and he didn’t say a word about the band. He didn’t even mention anybody in the band.
BL: Thinks he’s a solo guy.
MW: Yeah, and at some point he could’ve at least mentioned something about so-and-so on guitar, and this guy on bass, and then go back to what you’re talking about. It kinda didn’t make me feel good about that.
BL: It’s cool that you keep your band in focus like that.
MW: Oh yeah, they’re important.
Want to find out more about Mike Wheeler, Larry Williams, Cleo Cole and Brian James? Check out Mike Wheelers web site www.maikewheelerband.com or his facebook at www.facebook.com/pages/Mike-Wheeler-Band/194326730663646
and while you’re there, give them a like!