Cover photo © 2023 Jospeh A. Rosen
Born in Spokane, Washington, Kenny “Blues Boss” Wayne (Kenneth Wayne Spruell) has enjoyed a remarkable career that has taken him around the globe. The awards and recognition for the dapper piano player continue to roll in, both from the US and in Canada, where he relocated several decades ago.
At the Blues Blast Music Award show in September 2023, Wayne was voted Keyboard Player of the Year by Blues Blast readers. He also recently received The Bobby “Blue” Band Lifetime Achievement Award from the Jus’ Blues Music Foundation at their annual awards show in Tunica, Mississippi.
“I haven’t felt that good in years. And that was a major surprise to me. It was nice to get that recognition for sure, to know that people have obviously been listening and watching and hearing about me. You get out there, you perform and hope that you’re being seen. I was told that they had been watching my career for a few years. So I said, wow, that’s amazing. It’s an honor. I did not have a clue.
“I remember when I got the call from Charles Mitchell, the founder and CEO of the Foundation. He explained who he was. I wanted to make sure he had the right Kenny Wayne, so I asked, you looking for Kenny Wayne Shepard? He said, hell no, I’m looking for Kenny “Blues Boss” Wayne! I said, okay, because sometimes people call and they think that I’m a different person. Charles said, no, we know what you look like. So that was the first thing out of my mouth, to make sure that he had the right guy before I got all excited about that award was gonna go to somebody else! It was a big shock.”
Growing up in San Francisco, Wayne was fascinated by the music of Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, and an artist that may not be familiar to most people, Cal Tjader, who started out as a drummer, then became known for his skill on the vibraphone, making music in a Latin jazz vein.
“I was listening to Cal Tjader, Willie Bobo, and Mongo Santamaria. Early in my career, I had a group called the Latin Jazz Prophets. We did some jazz standards and Afro-Latin type of songs. I took a liking to the rhythms, and we had percussionists in the band, so that really struck my interest. When that music came on, it got the rhythm happening. We did a lot of Cal Tjader songs in that group I had back in the 60s. Man, His stuff knocked me out!”
His family had a piano that had been passed down through several generations, with Wayne’s father finally laying claim. The youngster was schooled by the choir director from church.
“I was part of the youth choir. My piano teacher was also the choir director and he played mostly organ. Everybody looked up to him. His name was Sir Jules Haywood, a classically trained pianist who had been knighted by an ancient Italian royal order. And he was just amazing. I took a liking to that stuff. When Sir Jules got that on that organ, it commanded your attention, with pipes going all the way up to the ceiling. His playing brought people inside the church, and it escorted them outside the church. We didn’t have too many blues records, but did have Ray Charles, Fats Domino, and Duke Ellington, and those are the only ones I remember.
“We had the rehearsal on the piano and musically, it was captivating for me. I was fortunate enough to study with Sir Jules for about three years. This was in San Francisco when I was studying piano with him. My dad was a minister in the church, and he got transferred to Los Angeles in 1955 into the Watts area. We had an arrangement to have another teacher work with me at that time, but it was just too far out away from the city. That was the end of the lessons.”
The young pianist kept playing, working in a number of small groups. They didn’t have sheet music to learn from, so Wayne resorted to the tried & true method of listening to records to learn the notes and arrangements.
“That’s when I started actually playing by ear. There was no other reference. They’d start singing on the record and I would find what their key they’re singing in and just improvise. I used to do a lot of improvising. While I wasn’t taking lessons, I would occasionally bring out some of my lesson books and go over them. That was kind of boring. So I would use different musicians as a reference. Let’s see now, what would Ray Charles do with this song? What would Fats do with this song?
“I also loved Errol Garner, the great jazz piano player. Another group I loved was the Three Sounds, with Gene Harris on piano, Andrew Simpkins on double bass, and Bill Dowdy on drums. I listened to them for a lot jazzier types of stuff. I’d use different references like that even when I was playing gospel music. Most of the gospel players were traditional, but when you hear a gospel song played by Ray Charles, you kind of want to play it that way. So that was kind of the way I started approaching music without having a teacher.”
When a cousin got drafted, he left his bass guitar at Wayne’s house. It gave him a chance to learn to play another rhythm instrument. He soon learned to fake his way around the bass well enough to start playing in bands.
In 1974, Wayne moved back to San Francisco. He was traveling with a band called Earthrise, fulfilling a yearning to be playing original music. The band had a British manager who wanted to add a bluesy gospel feel to their sound. Pretty soon he was hanging out with Sly & the Family Stone, the Doobie Brothers, and other acts, until 1980, when he relocated to Hawaii for a year.
“At those particular times, I wasn’t really doing blues. I don’t even know if I should say it was pop or some shit,. I always call it FM music. We were doing long, drawn-out creative jams, not blues at all. It was more rock than blues. I was introduced to blues artists a couple of times. Jimmy Reed was one of the very first, in LA in 1962. Other than that, there was only one other guy, Sonny Rhodes, I played with him when I moved to San Francisco. That’s when I was writing more R& B types of music.”
Eventually migrating to Hawaii, the intrepid piano player was in a band with several musicians from Sly & the Family Stone. They worked around the various islands successfully for a year. His band mates loved the island life, but Wayne felt there was more of the world to see. It took another band to help him move on.
“There was a group there on the island called Joy Ride that needed a piano player. They had a woman as lead singer, who also played piano. At their shows, she would always call me on the piano because she wanted to be out front on stage. They had a tour of Canada around 1981 of all the Sheraton hotels across Canada. It was good money, accommodations, food, everything. I thought that sounded pretty good. Of course, once we there, they didn’t like it that much, being that it was the winter time. I thought the people were really friendly and nice. Vancouver was very much like San Francisco, being a seaport.
“I went back to San Francisco, put a band together and then I went back up to Canada, did a tour, got married, and stayed. That’s how I wound up this way. It’s always a woman. Musicians are usually looking for love in all the wrong places, but that grounded me, I’ll tell you that. You go to a place, you like the city, then of course, you find a lady who has a job and a place to stay, and you just make your home there. Of course, now it’s been about two or three of them. One wasn’t good enough, I had to go for three others.”
The pianist decided to record a tribute to Nat King Cole, using the subsequent CD to get a lot of work in five star hotels around the world. During one engagement in Costa del Sol, Spain, he shared the stage with a British piano player who covered everything from Frank Sinatra to Jerry Lee Lewis. His playing partner supplied the spark that changed Wayne’s career.
“ One night he said, can you play any blues? I replied that I could, but I didn’t know any blues song to sing. He said I reminded him of Champion Jack Dupree. At that time, I was thinking about recording with a bunch of guys I knew. They said, why don’t you do a blues album? I didn’t think of it being something that would catch on or even get played on the radio. It’s wonderful to have a blues record, you know, to show people you can play the blues. But how is that going to help me make a living?
“Anyway, so I said, okay, and I did one called Alive and Loose, my first album. We got about 20 people in the studio, and gave them some wine and cheese, and I sat there on the piano with the group, and we recorded, just as if it’s a live performance. I got some really great response the media . I even got a cover of a blues magazine. I thought, well, wait a minute, I’m getting more recognition playing this stuff than I did for everything that I’ve done for the last 20 years. Of course, the recognition I got over the years had been from fellow musicians. They knew my capability, but the media did not. So I thought the blues might work out.
“Then I thought, now that I got that record out of the way, I think I should work on some kind of image. I always did dress up with a suit and tie. I saw this movie called The Mask with Jim Carrey. When I saw those bright suits, I thought, with this boogie woogie stuff I’m doing, everybody seems to jump around. And I saw myself with those suits. So I went out and got the fabric, had a guy start making me those suits. He was into these big fedora hats with the big feather, the Cab Calloway type of look. That’s what I need, so okay, now I got the look.
“So, I’m the guy sitting behind the piano, boogieing. Next I needed a handle. A good friend of mine said, you know, you remind me of Amos Milburn, the great singer and piano player that did “One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer”. I remembered that my mother used to play that song all the time, but I never knew who the artist was. I started looking up some things about Amos Milburn, and found out his last album was The Return of the Blues Boss. So now I’ve got this zoot suit look. And I thought, Blues Boss. I going to just grab that one. I took the Blues Boss, the 40s look, and sort of make history with that.
Wayne was signed to Electro-Fi Records in 2001. His first release for Andrew Galloway’s label based in Toronto, Canada came out the following year, the first of three albums for the company. A simple twist of fate lead to another change in direction.
“My manager at the time, Rick Bates, wanted to get guitarist Roy Rogers to produce my next record. But Roy had just come out of some type of operation, and he needed time to recuperate. And at that point, I wanted to get this record out. I didn’t feel the need in waiting around six or seven months while Roy recovers.
“ I did a performance in Toronto where Duke Robillard was playing on the same bill. Now, I had met Duke, but I couldn’t remember much about him. I saw him with Jimmy Witherspoon, but I was there to see Jimmy Witherspoon. I did my performance, after which Duke came up to me and he says, Man, I produce projects for Stony Plain Records? Would it be okay if I spoke with owner Holger Petersen on your behalf about doing a recording? I think he’d love it. I told Duke I wasn’t sure if Holger would go for it, since I had been on Electro-Fi. But Holger agreed and it all worked out where I moved over to Stony Plain with Duke producing.
“We went up to Rhode Island, where Duke lives, to record. He told me he had a guitar player for the sessions. And so we’re in the studio, we’re playing and Duke says, do you mind if I play on a couple of your songs? I said, no, feel free. I’d love to have you. Well, he played on the whole album! Every time the studio door opened up, they’d be bringing in a different amp. And I thought, okay, here comes the new guy I’m supposed to meet. But Duke would come back in with a different guitar and be ready for the next song. After we were done recording, I said, hey Duke, I never didn’t meet this new guitar player you were going to bring in! Duke said, yeah, I know, I decided I would do the whole thing.”
Released last year, his fifth album for Stony Plain, Blues From Chicago to Paris, was done in recognition of Willie Dixon and Memphis Slim. The idea for the album came out of the pandemic lock-down.
“They were only allowing duos and trios on stage. Four, five, and six piece bands just weren’t allowed, at least in Canada, unless it was a massive stage, and you had ten feet between each other. I didn’t know how long it was going to last or how I would come back. Then I started thinking about a trio. And I thought just a basic trio – piano, bass, and drums- wouldn’t quite do it for me because I like to hear a lot of different instruments playing. But then I thought of Memphis Slim’s piano trio recordings, and my deep love for Willie Dixon. So we start listening to their trio stuff, picking songs that a lot of people are not doing.
“We heard the Big Three Trio records, which Willie was part of. And I liked some of that because it had kind of like a Mills Brothers type of thing mixed with the blues. They had the vocal harmonies that were really nice. And I thought, well, that’s a rare thing that you don’t hear that a lot these days.
So we went with the concept of the blues from Chicago as both guys were based in Chicago, but Memphis Slim went to Paris and, and other parts of Europe. Many times he brought Willie over with him, so they they toured together a lot.
“We were just going to turn the mic on and play, mistakes and all. We did not try to go back to overdub and correct. We just played it. The goal was to not just play the song. We tried to capture the spirit that Slim and Willie had when they played, the playfulness between the two of them.”
In addition to Wayne on piano and vocals, the trio consisted of Joey DiMarco on drums and Russell Jackson on upright and electric bass. Jackson was a member of B.B. King’s band for seven years, and also backed up Otis Clay, Kenny Neal, and Lucky Peterson. He was nominated for the 2023 Blues Blast Music Award for Bass Guitarist of the Year, and for his work as a member of the Silent Partners.
“Russell and I both lived in Vancouver when he started playing more acoustic bass. I would hire him when I was playing piano lounges and stuff like that. Russell has a real good ear, great chops, and is not afraid to expand the music. We have been able to compliment each other without actually practicing. He loves that Willie Dixon slapping bass style, and that’s kind of the bass I like to hear on that type of stuff, especially the boogie stuff.”
The piano man is still excited about music, and plans to make another recording in the near future. He hopes that his record label will be there to support him in whatever direction his spirit takes him.
“ I’ve got some songs that I guess are more R& B. I kind of flip back and forth. My R&B stuff has a little bit more of a message to the world. Those are the kinds of songs I want to get out of my system, plus those kind of rare piano blues. You hear piano players in a blues band, but you don’t hear that thing like in the days of Memphis Slim, or Sunnyland Slim, or Roosevelt Sykes, those guys playing piano while the guitar is just strumming, instead of being the lead instrument. I’d love to get some of these traditional piano blues songs back out there again so people don’t think that the blues is only guitars and harmonicas. As years go on, it’s been a mission, to keep that piano blues stuff alive.
“ I can say that I have a deep love and respect for gospel music. My foundation really starts there. Some of my favorites include the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Blind Boys of Alabama, and the Soul Stirrers with Sam Cooke. They did uplifting music that I hear in a lot of the blues players. It was basically the gospel music like Ray Charles did, and then he went from there, changing the lyrics. That got everybody dancing, even in churches. It was a different kind of dance, but it was still a dance. And they got up and moved, and, and clapped and rejoiced. And that’s how I look at the blues.
“I would say from a piano aspect, if you are a gospel piano player, moving to blues is very simple. There are some key things that are a little different, especially some of the high notes, which are not really permitted in the gospel music, because they say that the high notes represent the Devil. And those boogie woogie piano guys, you know, the left hand is God and the right hand is the Devil. One’s trying to gain attention and the other one’s not. So, that would be what I would leave for everyone. The blues to me is definitely a spiritual journey, and one hell of a mission!”