“Between the very few records I heard and the gospel background, I think that kind of summed me up,” says Kenny “Blues Boss” Wayne. His dad was an AME minster who liked only sophisticated big band music, but Mom would play blues 45s before she went out on the town with her girlfriends. And Kenny could pick up whatever he heard and play it on the piano after one listen.
“It’s a real fine line between blues and gospel. There’s not too much difference other than the high notes I would say. The high notes being the tinkling of the ivory. In gospel music you don’t tinkle the ivory.” Kenny found the middle ground between the two styles. The left hand is like God, and the right hand is like the devil.
“What my mother and I used to do when my father was at extended church meetings is we would sit and do boogie woogie. My mother loved the boogie woogie. I did the bass runs and she did the high notes, and we would switch and just play a few things I knew.”
Wayne’s more than half a century career can be loosely defined as the push and pull between the devil’s high notes and God’s low notes. He takes the nickname “Blues Boss” from Amos Milburn’s last record, The Return of The Blues Boss. “Yeah, he did “Bad Bad Whiskey” and all that stuff. But that was a song my mother liked, but I never played that in front of my dad. I never played it in the house. If I went over to my cousin’s house or anybody else’s house, we played blues, and that’s what we would do, but in our house it definitely wouldn’t be blues. The records I heard from my mother ’cause she was a social person. This was the kind of music she heard when she was getting ready to get dressed to go out, and my dad didn’t necessarily go out with her. She went out with her girlfriends or the ladies of the Eastern Star or whatever that was. So, they had their night out, and so she put on these records.
“I couldn’t put the records on. My mother could put the records on. So she put it on because her purpose was getting ready to go out, and they were gonna have a few drinks and so that was ok, but for me because I wasn’t gonna go out, and I wasn’t gonna have any drinks, I shouldn’t be listening to that kind of music. It wasn’t really tolerated for my ears. She loved Little Willie John, and then she played Amos Milburn, and she just liked that kind of music, and that was her and her friends’ kind of music.”
As he got older, Kenny would learn that that distance between those high and low notes was a cultural chasm. “It’s almost like tinkling up someone’s dress. You just don’t do that. No, no. You keep your hands on your lap and that’s pretty much right straight in front of you. And I think that’s the difference between the blues and the gospel.
“The high notes, the tinkling of the ivory is a little devilish. When you’re way up in the high Cs, and you’re staying up there and tinkling those ivories, it does something to the female. It’s a strange thing, but that frequency that female feels. Maybe the male doesn’t quite feel that, but the females? When I’m playing something and I’m way up and tinkling that ivory, it’s devilish because you’re tickling that frequency.
“So when you’re in church you’re not supposed to be thinking about and playing that way. Gospel music usually tries to keep their piano playing in the mid-section. There’s a lot of things you can do in the middle, and it doesn’t mean you can’t go up to a high note. It just means you can’t stay up in the high note. The high note’s trying to get attention. That’s exactly what it’s trying to do, and in gospel music it’s not your job to get attention. The devil wants your attention. So that’s Kenny Wayne psychology.”
His mother’s secular influence on Wayne’s muse clashed with his father’s more “sophisticated” taste and exploded in confrontation when Wayne was 17. He had been hired in Los Angeles to play piano for a pickup band backing Chicago blues legend Jimmy Reed. “I almost had my father swayed to at least give the blues a chance. He was convinced that this was not a juke joint. This was a venue. It was basically a hall that you could rent out. We’d had events there before. They had the Shriners meetings, my mother’s Eastern Star. So the venue was not a juke joint where you had to be 21 to get in.
“Dad wasn’t really familiar with Jimmy Reed. My mother was. She loved Jimmy Reed and Little Willie John and all those guys, B. B. and all. My dad had respect for B.B., and big sophisticated blues bands. It’s those other ones he had problems with. I think he had more problems with juke joints more so than the musicians’ music.
“He always wanted upscale stuff. If you’re gonna do something, always look at upscale: Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington. Everything was a big band. We got ’em good seats right up in the front. We brought Jimmy on. He sat down and he was starting to play.
“That’s when the fight broke out with a couple sitting right next to my mother. This guy came in. The table’s five feet from the stage. You can bring your bottles in, and of course that’s when the brawl happened. I didn’t see him do this, but I did look over and see a scuffle with the security grabbing this guy, and there was blood all over this guy’s head and on my mother’s dress.
“The band leader was telling us to keep playing. ‘Whatever you do, don’t stop.’ So, we kept playing. I’m looking over at the side, and he said, ‘Keep playing. Don’t worry about it.’ And I’m looking at him ’cause my mother and dad were standing up. Before I knew it, my dad grabbed me from the back of the collar and said, ‘We’re leaving,’ and he dragged me out, went through the back kitchen. The security guy opened the back door. I went out there, and that was the end of my blues career on that second song.”
It would be more than 30 years and a country away before Wayne got back into the blues bag full time. Instead, his ability to play just about anything on piano after one or two lessons got him session work, club and concert dates with high profile acts like Delanie & Bonnie, Billy Preston, Sly Stone, and the Doobie Brothers.
“I was pretty well known in the L.A. area in the early and late ’60s, especially the guys around the Hollywood area. So, I had that style. I had the gospel background. I had the R&B. I mean the R&B and funk and all of that stuff came right out of the church. I played all the time, and I had the right equipment. I had a B-3, I had the clavinet, I had the Rhodes, and I had a van. I was pretty well known in the area. When anybody needed somebody that needed very little rehearsing and had that style and just jump in and play, I was that kind of guy.”
Wayne just never knew who he’d run into. One night at a rehearsal playing bass with his band the Latin Jazz Prophets, a musician he’d never seen before came up to him. “He comes up to me and says, ‘You sound pretty good. Would you mind if I played your bass?’ I ended up talking to Roland’s mother in the kitchen and came back. They finished, and I go in and grabbed the bass back and said, You sound pretty good, too.’ So, everybody was cracking up.’”
The bass player turned out to be jazz icon Charlie Mingus. “He did come back a few weeks later, and he told me I should learn how to read. He said, ‘You sound good, but you know what? You can speak, but you don’t know what you’re saying.’ So, at that particular time I decided not to play the bass. (laugh) That was embarrassing. So, I never did pick the bass up after that.” But the blues kept coming back to haunt Wayne.
“I didn’t actually start delving into the blues until 1994. I was playing a lot of covers mostly for dancing cabarets and stuff like that. So I never really seen a market for the blues even when I was in San Francisco. Back in the ’70s the East Bay, Oakland area, and of course in San Francisco, they had all the top bands like Sly and Doobie Brothers and the guys that were doing big concerts, and I only knew one blues guy at the time. That was Sonny Rhodes, and so Sonny hired me for a gig, and I went and played, and I don’t think I got paid that night. “They didn’t have a table for my keyboards, and they put it on a table. Then, they didn’t have a light. So, they put a little lantern next to me and put a red bulb in it, and I’m thinking about my dad. ‘What would he say?’ So, I thought I would go back to the Bay Area and hang around with successful people who got these Rolls Royces and are playing these big arenas. So, I did that.
“In 1994 I was in southern Spain, and I’m playing basically Spanish music, and I listen to Nat King Cole Española, and I learned all the songs on there, and I could sort of know it. There was another piano player from London, and he was playing all Jerry Lee Lewis stuff, and Frank Sinatra, and he was making all the tips, big tips, and I’m playing all this romantic stuff and not making anything. So, this guy from England comes up to me and says, ‘You look like you can play some blues.’ I said ‘Yeah, I can play some blues. I don’t know any blues, but I can make up something.’ “So, I played the blues for him, and I started getting tips. I said, ‘Shit, he’s gotta be kidding me. I’m playing this old shit, and I’m making some money.’
“Now, this other piano player comes on and I say, ‘You know, I think I’m gonna play some Fats Domino and some Little Richard.’ I’m playing some blues in between that, and this guy says, ‘You know, when I listen to you play the blues you remind me of Champion Jack Dupree.’ I said, ‘Well, who is that? Sounds like a fighter to me.’ He says, ‘I’ll tell you what. I’ll mail you some copies. I have some CDs, some tapes.’ “So he sent me some tapes of Champion Jack Dupree. So, I listened to some of him. I could see a little similarity. A good buddy from Germany lived in Vancouver. He said, ‘This guy gave you a hint,’ and I said, ‘Ok’ and I wrote a bunch of blues songs, and that was my (1995) Alive and Loose CD, and that was the first one, and then from then things started happening. I was getting more attention playing the blues than I was getting every other kind of music. Had this guy in Spain not said, ‘Play the blues,’ I probably wouldn’t be playing blues now.” Wayne’s 10th CD, Jumpin’ & Boppin’ is all originals in the Amos Milburn tradition. The one cover is “You Don’t Know Me” written by country artist Eddy “The Tennessee Plough Boy” Arnold, but Wayne was inspired by Ray Charles’ version.
“I love the way Ray Charles did it. It’s almost like I would have done it the same way if I just heard a country version of that song. That’s why I kinda picked up – his background was pretty close.
“Most blues piano players got their shtick from the church, or from someone who had been part of a church who they admired. So, a lot of stuff I could do that way because we used to take songs even when I was in the youth choir like “Amazing Grace.” I mean “Amazing Grace” was basically a 3-4 beat song, and most Baptist churches would take it and make it 3-4 or 4-4 beat to give it that pulse. I love that song, so Ray did it, and a lot of stuff I did sounded kind of like Ray doin’ it.
“I haven’t ever heard Eddy Arnold’s version, but I know that he’s the writer. I haven’t a clue what it would sound like, but I think a lot of the country music – I think I kinda approach a lot of the country music kinda like with a gospel feel. “It’s his interpretation. He has a way – I mean the things that he does – everything he does it melds any genre with the gospel type which is basically soul. Soul and gospel music are basically the same thing except the subject you’re talking about, but he brings out, it’s his soul-plus genius. He can put those two things together really in a genius way without saying, ‘Oh, that’s a gospel sound.’ He’s able to put even some of the R&B and the country and even some of the big band – ’cause he was a sax player. So, he was very good at arranging.
“He could actually mix gospel with all the other genres of music. If you get a different gospel player, for example, who just played gospel music, and you want that gospel player to play the blues, it probably wouldn’t come out quite the same. It would come out like he’s playing gospel, but there’s something you can change.
“I don’t know what it is, but you can make it more of a bluesy type thing where a street gospel player wouldn’t be able to or not even want to play it the way a bluesy guy would because he don’t want to be going into the devil’s den, but Ray was able to go into that without offending one or the other. “If you’re a gospel person, you can hear that song “I Got a Woman” It sounds similar to a gospel sound, but then when you put the other elements into it, it sort of changes. So, Ray approached the country music like kind of country gospel music and gospel like a blues gospel. He’s very unique at doing that. So that’s the genius that he could just put that together. It seems like it’s simple, but it’s not quite simple. It’s almost like B. B. King hits that high note on guitar. So if you get 20 guitar players all hitting high notes like B. B. does it have the same effect? You got the note there. That’s his note that he goes up to. You got the fingering, but there’s something else that’s missing.”
It was one thing to listen to Mom’s boogie woogie records, but quite another to take lessons from the church organist who a Julliard graduate and agreed to teach an eight-year-old child prodige the devil’s music on the big pipe organ. “I said, ‘If he can play me a boogie woogie on this big church organ, then I would study and do all my musical homework.’ So, that was our deal. I had a very good ear because he would change notes, and I would play what I learned, and he said, ‘Are you reading this,’ and I said, ‘Yes, sir!’ He said, ‘No, you’re not because I made some changes in there. You’re playing the way it (played it).’ So, I had a pretty good ear.”
Visit Kenny’s website at: http://kennybluesboss.com/
Interviewer Don Wilcock has been writing about blues for nearly half a century. He wrote Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, the biography that helped Buddy Guy jumpstart his career in 1991. He’s interviewed more than 5000 Blues artists and edited several music magazines including King Biscuit Time.