Featured Interview – Mike Wheeler

Doesn’t matter if you’re talking about a head of state, a multi-national oil baron or a heavily-worshiped professional athlete.

The truth is still the truth.

And the truth is, behind every successful man, there stands a strong, wise and hardworking woman.

That applies to veteran bluesmen, as well.

Chicago Blues Hall of Fame member Mike Wheeler is quick to point out this truth.

“All these years that I’ve been doing what I’m doing, my wife Jeannie has been my number one fan and she will be there and will always support me. She’s never doubted me,” Wheeler recently said. “For you to reach your full potential, I believe that you have to have somebody with you that believes in you. When you want or need to do something, you have to have someone there that says you can, as opposed to someone there that doesn’t think that you can. My wife has never doubted me. We’ve been together for over 30 years and she’s always been understanding when it comes time for me to buy equipment or to do this or to do that. She’s never given me any problems. With a partner like that, the sky’s the limit.”

Wheeler is flying especially high these days, as his second album for the venerable Delmark Records label – Turn Up!! hit the streets with a gale force on national Tax Day. Although it’s still in its infancy, he says the response has been so far, so good.

“Yeah, people that have heard it, like it. The club owners have been playing it in their clubs and they have been getting a great reaction to it,” he said.

Blues music has long been a comfortable home for double-entendres of all kinds and Wheeler’s latest album will surely make a person stop and think a bit, especially when it comes to the title track. The song – “Turn Up!!” – is a smoky, horn-bolstered tune that’s filled with the essence of a strong physical attraction between opposite sexes. But when you take the title of that song – Turn Up!! – and plaster it on the front cover of your album, it almost becomes like a call-to-arms for the listener; almost like, ‘Hey! Here’s our new album, people. Turn Up!!’

“It can sure have more than one meaning. You know, in urban areas, ‘turn up’ means to go out and have fun and to have a good time. ‘Turn up’ means I’m enjoying myself tonight,” said Wheeler. “And it also means that when I’m with my woman, I’m turned up – I feel better. So even though it has more than one meaning, it’s still kind of the same thing.”

Wheeler’s first release for Delmark – Self Made Man – came out in 2012. With as fast as things move in these days and times, an almost five-year wait between albums can sometimes seem more like 10 or 15 years. But the 54-year-old Wheeler says that between new tunes being created and a big European tour, Turn Up!! just simply had to wait for its sweet time to come.

“Well, this CD was supposed to have been done in 2014. But we just kept delaying it because we kept coming up with new and more material for it,” he said. “So it wasn’t really delayed on purpose; that’s just how it happened. It could have been done in 2015, but we did a European tour last year and that kind of got in its way. Our producer, Steve Wagner, just told us to wait until we got back (from the tour) to start recording it.”

So that’s just what they did.

Wheeler is quick to give props to the entire Delmark Records family for the role they have played in helping to establish his as a household name in the homes of blues lovers all over the globe.

“Steve Wagner and Bob and Sue Koester have believed in us and backed us from the beginning,” he said. “Without them, we’d probably just be some guys out there that were still trying to make it.”

Wheeler is intent on making sure that his legacy is firmly in place when he’s through playing the blues. And the way that he sees it, a lynchpin of that legacy will be found in the songs that’s he created for himself. That goes a long way in explaining why Turn Up!! is filled with his original compositions and is lite in the cover-song department.

“As a musician and as a song-writer, you have to do stuff that defines you as a person. I mean, I like playing cover songs, but the way that life works is, when you leave here, you have to leave something behind that defines who you were as a musician,” he said. “And that’s what I try to do. For years I played covers and other people’s stuff, so that’s one reason why right now, I prefer to do my own stuff.”

It’s not like Wheeler is in possession of some mystical water-spout that spews out completed songs when the nozzle is opened. No, just as it is with just about every other musician, song-writing is an intense process and can sometimes be difficult, at best. However, when it comes to finding inspiration for the material that he will hone into a tune, that part is not so hard, says Wheeler.

“A lot of times, they’re (his songs) based on things that I’ve seen people go through or things that I’ve gone through in my life. Sometimes I’ll get an idea from something that I hear someone say. There’s just so much stuff that goes on in everyday life that has the potential to be used in a song,” he said. “Then if you write about it, maybe somebody else can relate to it, because they may be going through the same thing themselves.”

He can play shuffles and 12-bar blues with the best of them, but one thing that has helped to set Wheeler apart from a large part of the blues-playing pack is the eagerness in which he incorporates a host of other elements into his songs. They can transition from a whisper to a scream, from a jazzy passage to a complete heavy metal breakdown and from passionate to powerful, a lot of times, all within the framework of the same song. Wheeler explains that is by no means an accident.

“The thing with me is, even though I’m a bluesman, I do listen to a lot of different kinds of music. In the household that I was raised in, we listened to everything,” he said. “I think that your influences and the stuff that you like to listen to should come out in the music that you make. Hopefully, other people will like it, too. But I try to put something for everybody on all the CDs that I do. Even when we’re playing live shows, I try and read the room and put something for everybody into what we play up on the bandstand. As much as I love the blues, I just don’t sit and listen to the blues all day long; I listen to everything and I think a lot of people are like that, too. That comes out in the music. If you play the same shuffle or the same groove throughout your whole record, when you’ve heard the first song, you’ve heard it all. That’s not how I want my music to be … that’s just the way I am.”

Maybe Wheeler is not quite on par with Brett Favre’s NFL record streak of 297 consecutive games started at quarterback, but his work ethic is every bit as legendary as the former Green Bay Packer’s was. It seems like Wheeler and his bandmates – Brian James (keys), Cleo Cole (drums) and Larry Williams (bass) – rarely ever take a night off from gigging around the Windy City. Their weekends are filled with shows at Harlem Avenue Lounge, Rosa’s, Buddy Guy’s Legends or the House of Blues. On Mondays, they’re at Blue Chicago. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, the Mike Wheeler Band can be found at Kingston Mines. And on the other couple of days that make up a week, you can bet the crew is plugged in and ready to turn up somewhere around Chicago.

“Well, first of all, you’ve got to love your job (to do it almost every night of the week, for hours on end). I worked a day job for 30 years and I did not love that job, but I did it because I had to. But I love playing music, so for me, it’s really not like a job – even though it is,” he said. “It’s something that I love to do, so I don’t ever have trouble getting up and playing music. If I can find a way to fit three shows into one day, that’s what I’m going to do. And the band’s the same way. When we together, to me, it’s magic. I really look forward to playing with those guys. I really do think I was born to play music. It’s a privilege to play music and it’s an honor when people want to pay money to hear you play your music.”

Those that are familiar with Wheeler’s guitar works as a part of Nellie Tiger Travis’ or Peaches Staten’s bands – or from the numerous times that he’s shared the stage with Shemekia Copeland, Buddy Guy or Koko Taylor – can attest to, the man is definitely well-versed when it comes to finding his way up-and-down the neck of a six-string. Those same folks might also be a tad bit surprised to learn that Wheeler considers himself a singer first and a guitarist second.

“Well, there’s a lot of other guys out here playing guitar that are better than me … but everybody has their thing and singing has always been my thing. I always wanted to play guitar equally as good as I could sing. I’ve sang ever since I was a little boy and started off singing in church,” he said. “I think it would be a fair assumption to say that I’m a singer that plays guitar. I love listening to guys like Sam Cooke, Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, Al Green, B.B. King, Michael Jackson … there’s just so many great vocalists that I love. That’s how I developed my style, from listening to all those cats and putting it all together. Anybody that could sing, I was intent on listening to and trying to emulate what they were doing.”

One of those ‘great vocalists’ that touched the life of Wheeler (along with many millions of others), was also a masterful guitarist. It’s no wonder then, that Wheeler had a strong admiration for the recently-departed Prince.

“Oh, man, he was a major influence on me. His first album was more of an R&B record, but when his second record came out, he had a couple of rock cuts on there, like “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?” and “Bambi.” I said, ‘Oooh, he’s good.’ Then after that, to find out he was playing all the instruments and stuff … wow! And then you add in his song-writing; I mean, he was just good at everything and he didn’t limit himself to just one genre. He did it all and I’ve got a DVD where he’s playing the blues on it. He was a big influence on me. I’m got everything he did and even met him a couple of times. He influenced everybody, even bluesmen. Him and Michael Jackson had an enormous influence on all forms of music, especially with guys that are my age – including those that play the blues.”

He had formed his own group way back in 2001, but it really wasn’t until he left the employ of Big James & The Chicago Playboys in 2011 – after the group’s The Big Payback (Blind Pig) hit the streets (Wheeler’s fifth album with the band) – that Wheeler buckled down and decided the time was ripe for him to devote the lion’s share of attention to his own budding career. As it is in most cases, the timing was just right for the events that were about to follow to get started.

“Yeah, the timing of it was just right. I had worked a day job at the University of Illinois for 30 years and I retired from that in 2010. When you get up in age, you don’t know how much more time you’ve got in your life, so you have to start doing the things that you want to do,” he said. “I love Big James like a brother and the exposure that I got from playing with him kind of sent me on my way to what I’m doing now. But yeah, it was just time for me to play the music that I wanted to play and focus some on me … not in a selfish way, you see, but in the kind of way where, ‘Hey, it’s my time now.'”

With the biggest part of his career still remaining in front of him, there’s still plenty of shows to play and a lot more albums to do before Wheeler decides to call it a day and slow down the nightly pace that he’s currently keeping. But his induction into the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame as a Master Blues Artist a couple of years ago did offer up an opportunity for Wheeler to pause a bit and reflect, especially on those that came before him and may not have quite earned their just deserts.

“Well, when I got inducted into the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame, I was certainly flattered and definitely excited. But at the same time, I was kind of sad, because I know there’s some more guys that have been doing it longer than I have, that should have went in (to Hall of Fame) before I did,” he said. “But I’m not the one that makes those decisions … I just want to help sing the praises of all the guys that have paved the way for us to be able to do what we’re doing today. But anytime someone acknowledges that they like something that I do, that makes me happy.”

Visit Mike’s website at: mikewheelerband.com

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