Featured Interview – Mike Wheeler

Mike Wheeler is the real deal. He is also one of the finest young guitarists on the Chicago music scene today. You may have heard his performances with KoKo Taylor, Shemekia Copeland or Son Seals. Or you might have seen him gigging with Big James & The Chicago Playboys, Cadillac Dave & his Chicago Redhots or with his own band showcasing his heart-felt music packed with raw enthusiasm and aggressive guitar playing. One thing is certain: Wheeler is well on his way toward becoming the latest Chicago export to capture the ears of the Blues world with his soulful voice and ripping guitar work.

Blues Blast: Talk about your self-titled CD, “The Mike Wheeler Band”. Who’s on it and tell me about the songs.

Mike Wheeler: My cd was released in 2003. The players are: Cleo Cole on drums. Sam Green on bass. Brian James on keyboards and Lawrence Fields on sax. Special guests include Big James on trombone, Carlos Showers on guitar and Phil Moore on trumpet. I wrote eight of the nine songs. They are about things that I have experienced in life and relationships. The one cover song is “That’s What Love Will Make You Do” by Little Milton. I’m currently writing my next cd with my bassist Larry Williams.

BB: Your soulful voice and growling guitar work is making people say you are on your way to fame and fortune playing the Blues. How do you feel about this?

MW: I’m pleased that someone would say that. Fame and fortune would be nice but I just enjoy playing music.

BB: What’s the story behind all the work you do with Big James & The Chicago Playboys?

MW: I’ve been with Big James & The Chicago Playboys since 1998. Big James is an avid Blues lover. I have recorded four cd’s with him including our latest “Right Here Right Now” on Blind Pig Records. The Playboys are the tightest band I’ve ever played with. When we hit the stage…..it’s on !!!!!

BB: You can be heard on Big James & The Chicago Playboys “If It Wasn’t 4 Da’ Blues“, Cadillac Dave & his Chicago Redhots “Checkin’ Out My Baby“, Sam Cockrell & The Groove’s “I’m In The Business” and The Joanne Connor Band’s CD. How has releasing your own debut CD helping your career ambitions?

MW: Releasing my own cd gives me the chance to show that I’m not just a sideman and that I also can contribute to the Blues world. Hopefully people will like it and follow my career from there.

BB: Tell me about your playing with Peaches Staten and any other artists in Chicago.

MW: I enjoy working with Peaches Staten. She has so much energy. I recorded a cd with her entitled “Live at Legends”. I also recorded with Big Ray & Chicago’s Most Wanted. The cd is called “Travellin’ Lite”. Big Ray is one of the leaders in the Chicago scene today. He makes things happen. I’ve been working with Nellie “Tiger” Travis since the early ’90’s. She’s a great singer and entertainer. I’ve done shows with Demetria Taylor. She’s one of the hottest young vocalists in Chicago and has a new CD out on Delmark Records.

BB: Your voice has been compared to Bobby Blue Bland. Is this a fair statement?

MW: I’m a big fan of Bobby Bland. Other influences are Little Milton, Otis Rush and Robert Cray. I don’t know if it’s a fair statement because it’s not always obvious.

BB: Your guitar playing has been identified with Buddy Guy. Is this true and what other guitarists influence your playing?

MW: I love Buddy Guy’s style and anyone coming from Chicago can’t help but to be influenced by him. I’m also influenced by Albert, B.B. and Freddie King, Eric Clapton, Robert Cray, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Jimi Hendrix.

BB: You’ve been on television in Europe. How did this happen?

MW: I was in Latvia at Bite’s Blues Place and the owner, Zigis , sked me if I wanted to be on t.v and I said yes and we went to the t.v. studio and did it. They had an interpreter to help out so it was cool !

BB: How are audiences all over the world in comparison to your fans in Chicago? What is the impression people have of the Chicago Blues scene all over the world?

MW: The audiences in Europe really love the Blues and they want to hear every note. Here in Chicago they are more vocal and they want to dance. The impression people have of the Chicago Blues scene all over the world is that it’s a traditional based scene and even though we have incorporated other styles into it they still want to hear Chicago Blues too.

BB: Every second and fourth Monday your band plays at B.L.U.E.S in Chicago. What’s the most difficult thing about playing in front of a critical audience week after week? What’s the best thing?

MW: The most difficult thing is trying to please everyone in the room. It’s not easy to do always but we try. The best thing is meeting people from all over the world that come to Chicago to hear the Blues.

BB: You are one of the great guitarists in Chicago. Care to share any funny stories about the artists and the scene that still crack you up?

MW: I remember when I first met Junior Wells. I was with Vern “Sticks’ Taylor who later became his drummer and his father, Mr. Taylor. We were going to watch Junior perform at The Checkerboard 2. While we’re riding in the car, Mr. Taylor is telling Vern and I how well he knows Junior.We’re looking at him like we don’t believe him. As soon as we get to the club Junior sees Mr. Taylor and says “Hey man, how have you been?” and pulls out a large stack of money and tells the bartender “give them anything they want”. We had a good time that night !!!

BB: You’ve performed with KoKo Taylor, Shemekia Copeland, Jimmy Johnson, John Primer, Son Seals, Matthew Skuller, Willie Kent & The Gents, Cadillac Dave & His Chicago Redhots. What’s in the future for you and what artists would you like to share the stage with at some point?

MW: I would one day like to share the stage with one of my heroes, B. B. King. I’ve met him but never performed with him. As for my future, I just want to make good music with good musicians for good people !!!

BB: How can people keep up to date with your life and career?

MW: People can keep up with me on my website which I’m about to update. www.mikewheelerband.com and also on Facebook: Mike Wheeler.

Interviewer A. J. Wachtel is a long-time entertainment journalist in New England and the East Coast who currently writes for The Boston Blues Society and The Noise Magazine. He is well known in the Boston and N.Y.C areas for his work in the Blues for the last two decades.

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