by Thaddeus Krolicki
Chicago has lost one of its true masters of the blues with the passing of guitarist and singer James Wheeler in late 2014. James was part of the classic generation of Chicago blues musicians who defined the music in the 1950s and 1960s. He was a practitioner of traditional, Chicago-style ensemble blues in the manner of Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Robert Lockwood and other Chicago greats who have passed more recently, like Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Little Smokey Smothers, Magic Slim and Aaron Moore. Yet, he was a distinctively original artist.
Born in Albany, Georgia in 1937, James was first drawn to the sounds of the big band music and jump blues that were popular in the 1940s and then to the sounds of electric blues he heard in Chicago. Elder brother, harpist Golden “Big” Wheeler,” was already performing in clubs when James arrived in Chicago in 1956. James began playing guitar, inspired by artists like Howlin’ Wolf and Freddie King. His style combined the deep sounds of Chicago blues with his love of big band music. Soon, he was working in bands with his brother as well as with other famed bluesmen including slide guitarist Joe Carter and harpist Billy Boy Arnold. He also lead his own band called the Jaguars (a band which also featured drummer, “Cadillac” Sam Burton), which backed notable blues and soul artists like B.B. King and Otis Clay.
From the1960s through the 1980s, James essentially stayed away from the spotlight. Instead, he lent his excellent guitar and band leading skills to the various artists he worked with (check YouTube for an ‘80s Otis Rush performance for a demonstration of his stellar work as sideman). It wasn’t until the ‘90s that James really began to assert himself as a solo artist. He was an original member of Mississippi Heat, along with Pierre Lacocque, Bob Stroger, Robert Covington and Billy Flynn, as well as Deitra Farr and Allen Kirk, and contributed guitar and vocals to their first three albums. Willie Kent and Magic Slim also employed his talents. He was a great piano accompanist, having worked with Pinetop Perkins, Johnny “Big Moose” Walker, Detroit Junior, Ken Saydak and Barrelhouse Chuck. James was also featured on many of the great blues albums of the ‘90s and 2000s, including those by Willie Smith, Billy Boy Arnold, Aaron Moore, Zora Young, Lee “Shot” Williams and brother Golden. James also released two excellent albums of his own on Delmark, Ready (1998) and I Can’t Take It (2000). These albums featured support from Golden Wheeler, Bob Stroger, Billy Flynn, Ken Saydak and Ron Sorin. He was working on a third album.
[pullquote]James was equally skilled at writing original songs as well as interpreting those of others.[/pullquote]
As with many of the great bluesmen, James was equally skilled at writing original songs as well as interpreting those of others. His original tune included “Gotta Make Some Changes,” “Extension 309,” “I Can’t Take It,” and “These Hard, Hard Times.” Some of his favorite songs to perform live were “Early in the Morning,” by his longtime favorite Louis Jordan and a dark, moving, Muddy Waters-inspired rendition of Charles Brown’s “Black Night.” His longtime gig was as the bandleader of the Rosa’s Lounge house band (Mama Rosa’s Blues Band, as he called it) which also featured bassist Harlan Terson, pianist Ariyo (both from the Otis Rush band) and proprietor Tony Manguillo on drums. However, he also made appearances at Buddy Guy’s Legends, B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted, the Harlem Avenue Lounge and overseas venues in Europe and South America.
I first had the opportunity to be mentored by James in 2010 in a program for aspiring blues musicians. Unfortunately, he had a stroke that forced him to temporarily retire from performing. However, James managed to make a comeback and in 2012, through guitarist Mark Wydra and Tony Manguillo, I was given the chance to perform, work and learn from him at Rosa’s Lounge. I played with him every Thursday for just over two years, until what turned out to be his final performance at Rosa’s Lounge on December 18th (old friends Bob Stroger, Willie Buck, Tail Dragger and Mary Lane were in attendance). Lil’ Ed Williams frequently performed with us. Although Ed is a star in his own right, he had the highest respect for James and said he wanted to learn all he could from him. While I played rhythm guitar, their dual leads, channeling Muddy Waters and Elmore James, resulted in some of deepest blues one could hope to hear.
For me, this was one of the best experiences one could have when playing Chicago blues. His style was very reminiscent of some his fellow blues guitarists like Louis Myers and Sammy Lawhorn. James also had his own very unique, distinctive musical identity that was heavily jazz-tinged and drew from his many influences and experiences. He had an unmistakable warm-toned, big voice. His guitar solos were not flashy. Instead, they were always tasteful, elegant, and soulful, sparingly bending strings to get just the right notes. Powerful sounds always emanated from his Epiphone Sheraton and Peavey amplifier whenever he plucked the strings or strummed a chord.
[pullquote]His guitar solos were not flashy. Instead, they were always tasteful, elegant, and soulful, sparingly bending strings to get just the right notes.[/pullquote]
Performing with James provided me the increasingly rare opportunity to perform behind a living blues master who was thoroughly steeped in tradition. James was normally a very private, quiet introspective person who was at his most lively when performing and bantering with band members and the audience. He could also be very tough; he was not one to give much advice. You would just have to listen and learn. His main recommendations were to “listen to records” and “know the song.” It was a trial-by-fire experience in the old-school blues tradition. I consider it a great privilege and honor to have worked and learned from James. However, it saddens to me to know that with his passing, we are left with one less person who played traditional Chicago blues. James Wheeler’s contribution to the blues over more than 50 years cannot be overstated, and he will be greatly missed.
In addition to my own experiences, Pete Welding’s liner notes to Billy Boy Arnold’s “ More Blues on the Southside” (1965), Jim O’Neal’s notes to “Low Blows: An Anthology of Harmonica Blues” (1988) and Brett J. Bonner’s notes to James’ album “Ready” (1998) were invaluable sources for biographical information.