Q&A with the gentleman of Boogie Woogie, Kenny "Blues Boss" Wayne -- rollicking blues of yesteryear

"Blues is roots and roots are always the same. When leaves on the tree die, they are part of the fertilizer that feeds the roots".

Kenny "Blues Boss" Wayne:

Exciting, Creative & Soulful

Kenneth Wayne Spruell was born in Spokane, Washington in 1944, and spent his early years in New Orleans with his Louisiana-born parents. He was eight, and already a child prodigy on piano, when he moved with his family to San Francisco and then to Los Angeles. Encouraged by his preacher father, the Reverend Matthew Spruell, to play gospel music, he was also secretly introduced to the radically more exciting boogie-woogie by an uncle. By his early teen years, Wayne he was playing dozens of gigs in the early '60s -- including a 1962 appearance at the Alpha Bowling Club with the great Jimmy Reed. It was an infamous gig; everything Kenny’s father feared about the ”devil's Music.” A vicious brawl erupted in the crowded, smoky, alcohol-fueled club, and one man attacked another with a broken bottle, blood spraying everywhere.

By the end of the sixties, he was on-stage with the cream of the Los Angeles soul and R&B scene — playing with Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett, Billy Preston and members of Sly & The Family Stone and the Doobie Brothers. Moving to Vancouver, Canada in the early ’80s — he soon won a strong reputation on the B.C. and Prairies club scene. His full transformation into “Blues Boss” (his nickname came from the title of Amos Milburn's Motown comeback album) came following a 1994 tour of Europe. Kenny's longtime passion for boogie-woogie and blues paid off in the form of star treatment from piano-loving European music fans. Kenny ‘Blues Boss’ Wayne released his first solo album Alive & Loose (1995), which featured Shuggie Otis, on Andy Griggs’ Real Blues Records. Since joining Stony Plain Records in 2011, Wayne has released An Old Rock On A Roll (2011), which earned him a Blues Foundation nomination for the Pinetop Perkins Piano Award, and Rollin’ with the Blues Boss (2014) featuring Diunna Greenleaf, Eric Bibb & Tom Lavin w/Powder Blues. His new third album on Stony Plain Records, Jumpin’ and Boppin’ (June 3, 2016 release date) is a throw-back to classic, rollicking blues of yesteryear. Jumpin’ and Boppin’ is firmly rooted in the jump blues style of Louis Jordan and Amos Milburn. It could have easliy been made in the 1950’s, which is a further testament to Wayne’s immense talents, staying power and stature as one of the genre’s formost jazz/boogie-woogie pianist. Special guest Duke Robillard is the perfect guitarist and Russell Jackson, B.B. King’s long-time bassist, locks in the rhythm section, alongside Charlie Jacobson Joey DiMarco, Sherman Doucette & Dave Babcock who contribute their talents to this recording as well.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Photos by Dee Lippingwell, Aigars Lapsa, Nara West & Olga Karpova / All rights reserved

When was your first desire to become involved in the blues and who were your first idols?

I have always wanted to play music and specifically the piano because we had one in our home. It was an old Baldwin piano but I loved it. I was brought up influenced by Gospel music, which is the evil twin of Blues. I would listen to records by Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Errol Garner, and Duke Ellington & Count Basie and sometimes to BB King. I played a variety of different music until 1994 when I found my true love, the Blues and the history of the Blues.

Which artists have you worked with and which of the people you have worked with do you consider the best?

I did a one-night gig with Jimmy Reed at the age of 16 but it turned out to be a disaster because a fight broke out and my father pulled me off the piano and told me not to ever play any blues. My father was a preacher. I didn’t start to play the blues until 1994 while I was in Spain. I have had the opportunity to work with Joe Louis Walker who introduced me to the blues fans in Europe. I am so grateful to have met, recorded and performed with this wonderful guitarist. More recently, I have recorded with Duke Robillard who also produced my previous album. Both Joe Louis Walker and Duke Robillard are both great guitarists. I have performed piano duets with Johnnie Johnson, Floyd Dixon, Pinetop Perkins, Big Joe Duskin, Henry Butler and other great up and coming piano players. In my earlier years, I have performed with Bonnie & Delanie, Billy Preston, Sylvester and members of the Doobie Brothers and Sly & the Family Stones and Santana.

Is the “Blues” a way of life and what does the BLUES mean to you? 

I don’t think that anyone really wants to live the blues or have the blues but it is a way of life for some people. We sing and play the blues to forgive the past but never forget the past. We find joy and passion when we share our stories to people who are eager to listen and learn. Blues is a story of the human being feeling love and hate. Blues is very necessary for personal growth. It’s a way to express where you’ve been and where you want to go in life.

"The best advice to me is to “be true to yourself’. I’ve also been told to “just do your best and don’t struggle with trying to be better than anyone else because there will always be someone better”." (Photo by Dee Lippingwell)

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

I believe the best is yet to come but as for today, it was being in front of thousands of excited fans in Nice, France who really enjoyed my music and performance.  The worst, as I mentioned before was with Jimmy Reed and the fight that happened early that night.

Is there any similarity between the blues today and the blues of the sixties?

I think that the blues in the sixties was more for the night -clubs and being intimated. You didn’t have to be as loud because people were sitting closer and listening to you. When the venues and stadiums start getting larger, then the music starts getting louder. Some bands today are playing like they are in a stadium when they are only in a small nightclub. Today’s’ blues is more rock blues than traditional vintage blues but it’s all right because the listening audience has changed over the years. The majority of blues fans are white which is different than during earlier years, it was predominately black. It is wonderful to see us all singing, dancing and enjoying this great genre of music.

What do you learn about yourself from the blues music?

I’ve learned how to be honest and respectful to all the bluesmen and blueswoman before me. They created and passed on an important musical art form that originated in the southern part of America. I’ve also learned to be patient and focused as to what blues is all about and to learn more and share more about the blues. I don’t consider blues to be negative, for it has been a very positive move for my career.

Is it easier to write and play the blues as you get older?

Writing and playing has always been a joy for me and when the time comes for me to express an idea, it still comes easily. I’m still able to communicate my ideas and tell more stories as I get older.

Are there any memories from “Jumpin’ & Boppin” studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

The recording session was so much fun and a learning experience for me as a Producer. While recording at this session, my only wish was to do the best job that I could conceding that I was coming down with a cold and partially losing my voice. We were on a time schedule so that we could release this record by June 2016. I was playing at nights and recording in the day so I had to keep focused and keep my energy up. The recording went very smooth from putting down the band tracks, as well as sending the tracks to Duke Robillard in Rhode Island to add his parts. I wish that I was in better condition however that might not have made a difference because the musicians helped me thru that session.  They all were very professional and quick to lay down their parts. It was good to have my good friends Duke Robillard (guitar), Russell Jackson (bass), Dave Babcock (saxs), Joey DiMarco (drums), Sherman Doucette (harmonica) and young Charlie Jacobson (guitar rhythm) on board to help out.

"Blues is a story of the human being feeling love and hate. Blues is very necessary for personal growth. It’s a way to express where you’ve been and where you want to go in life. (Photo: Kenny "Blues Boss" Wayne and the late great bluesman, Pinetop Perkins)

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences?

I’ve met serveral great blues pianist and had the opportunity to perform duets with such piano bluesmen like Pinetop Perkins, Johnny Johnson, Floyd Dixon, Allen Toussant & Henry Butler and several others. I’ve also performed with Ike Turner, Jimmy Reed & Joe Louis Walker who introduced me the European blues lovers.

What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

The best advice to me is to “be true to yourself’. I’ve also been told to “just do your best and don’t struggle with trying to be better than anyone else because there will always be someone better”.

What were the reasons that made the 60s to be the center of Blues/Swing/Soul researches and experiments?

The blues/Swing/Soul was a joyous sound which made people feel good even though sometimes they were not treated very nice. That kind of music was something that grounded people much like that of Gospel music which is the foundation of the music that we hear from the people who created the blues music.

What do you think were the reasons for the blues boom at the end of the sixties? 

Blues is roots and anyone who veers away from the blues eventually returns, as they get older.  Country music and Gospel is the same way. As we get older, we become closer to the root.

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past?

I miss how the music of the past drew people in, instead of the loud playing that pushes people away. It was classy and sassy with words and melodies that you can remember. Now it seems to be just long and loud solos that do not pertain to the song that is being sung. As we get older, we slow down and play less and say more. Lots of people think that by playing fast that you’re saying something but most of the time, it’s just musical scales. It’s when you’re playing slow, is when you’re telling a story with feeling. Most people feel what you feel, if you take the time to explain your feeling without shouting out loud.

What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I have lots of hope for blues because it is in every type of music that we hear today. I think that after the loud roars of loud amplifies are done, we’ll be listening to music that is soothing. I call it the sounds of after the loud noise is over, then you can coast without trying so hard to get heard.

From the musical point of view is there any difference between the US and Canada?

From a musical point there is no difference. Canada does not have a large black population but it doesn’t matter because most of the people going to blues events are white.

Make an account of the case of the blues in Canada. What touched (emotionally) you from the local music circuits?

Blues in Canada is very much like the blues in the US because lots of folks migrated North to find work and to be treated fairly. Canadians listened and learned just like others in the world. Lots of Americans have moved to Canada much like I did to find it more relaxing and open to new ideas. Canada has a history of black immigrants from the East Coast (Underground Railroad) to some of the island on the West Coast. Jellyroll Morton had a house gig in Vancouver in the early 1900s! The North isn’t as deep rooted as the South but many musicians from Mississippi moved up to Chicago and kept their roots intact and so did the musicians that moved to Canada. Canada loves and respects the blues even though they never had to go through the hard social times. We’re all one big family.

How was your relationship with the other bands in Los Angeles? 

The musicians and the bands in LA are very serious about making it big in the music business.  Sometimes the business came before the music.

I wonder if you could tell me a few things about your meet with Jimmy Reed.

The Jimmy Reed experience was so short that I never had the opportunity to personally meet and talk with him. My cousin Henry Avery who was the drummer for that night hired me for the gig. He persuaded the band to hire me as a piano player for $15. Trouble started so early that night that I didn’t get a chance to meet or talk with Jimmy Reed.

What does Blues offer you and why do you play the blues?

I play boogie-woogie or jump blues because it’s a happy piano style and you can’t be drunk playing at this fast pace.  You’ve got to be clear headed in order for your fingers to be in the right place.

"Writing and playing has always been a joy for me and when the time comes for me to express an idea, it still comes easily. I’m still able to communicate my ideas and tell more stories as I get older." (Photo by Nara West)

How would you describe your contact to people when you are on stage?

I connect with the audience when I first walk on stage. People appreciate when a performer dresses up for their show. I wear flashy and sparkly suits. I love the 1940’s zoot suit look with the fedora hats and two-tone shoes. It just looks classy and the audience is ready for a classy show.

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?

The most interesting period of my life is happening now. All of the things that I’ve experience in the past are taking place now. For example, people are remembering my name, my music, my singing and my look. I am now in charge of my musical career and I’m not relying on other band members to fulfill my dreams.

What are some of the memorable gigs you've had?

My first memorable gig was in Spain when I was asked to play some blues. Before that request, I was playing popular standard songs by Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington etc. that were great but my real surprise was the response when I played the blues.

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD musician?

You’ll be a good musician when you listen to good records and open your mind to new things. I’ve performed with many great musicians which has been my musical experience.

How do you want to be remembered?

I’d like to be remembered as the ‘gentleman of the boogie-woogie’ and the ‘boss of the blues’. I’d like to be remembered as a blues artist that teaches people that the piano has always been a big part of the blues.

What was the first gig you ever went to?

My first gig was in Los Angeles at a café in front and a juke joint in the back where they would gamble. I was playing the organ and had a trio (drums & sax).

How was your recording hours with all your guests?

All of my guests on my records were very professional and creative and knew exactly what I wanted from them.

"Today’s’ blues is more rock blues than traditional vintage blues but it’s all right because the listening audience has changed over the years. The majority of blues fans are white which is different than during earlier years, it was predominately black. It is wonderful to see us all singing, dancing and enjoying this great genre of music." (Photo by Aigars Lapsa)

How did you first meet Duke Robillard?

Three words to describe Duke. I met Duke in last year 2010 in Toronto, Canada. We were on the same festival and we had never met before that. My manager Rick Bates sent Duke a copy of my old recordings and Duke loved them. Duke agreed to produce my CD and he was the producer for Holger Petersen’s Stony Plain records and wanted me to record for that label. I agreed, because Stony Plain is a great roots record label. Duke Robillard is a great person, musician & producer.

Which of your work would you consider to be the best?

I’m really proud of all my musical compositions because I’ve had some great musicians to record with me. I’ve had Shuggie Otis, Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith, Bob Stroger, Russell Jackson, Mel Brown, Jeff Healey and many other great musicians.

What gift would you give to Fats Domino?

I would like to give Fats Domino the love that I have for him and his music. I would like for him to know that I am continuing his Louisiana traditional.

What are your opinion about Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett?

I love both Bonnie & Delaney and they were very talented and patient with me while I was learning about the music industry.

What mistake of blues business you want to correct?

I had a lot of missed opportunities in the past because I didn’t take charge of my life and take the opportunities that were offered to me. I have always been a part of a band and I would turn down offers that could have furthered my career.

You have traveling all around the world. What are your conclusions?

I love travelling and meeting people especially if they have listen to my music and waiting to see my live performance. I’d like to keep doing that and making people happy.

What do you think you missed most of the 60s?

I missed an opportunity to study after high school at Julliard’s School of Music. My father didn’t want me to be a full time musician so I studied business.

"I have lots of hope for blues because it is in every type of music that we hear today. I think that after the loud roars of loud amplifies are done, we’ll be listening to music that is soothing. I call it the sounds of after the loud noise is over, then you can coast without trying so hard to get heard."

Is there anything that you miss from your childhood times?

No. I am the only child and I had just about everything that I wanted. Ok, maybe one thing; I wished that I had learned to play the guitar and saxophone. I did have the opportunity to play the upright bass for a little while. Here’s a little story about me playing the bass: In 1960, I had a group called ‘The Latin - Jazz Prophets’ mainly of my high school friends. One day while rehearsing the song ‘Green Dolphin Street’ an elderly gentleman was listening to our rehearsal. I was very young then and I didn’t know who he was, other than a friend of the saxophone players’ mother. He complimented me by saying “you sound pretty good” and then he asked if he could play the same song with the band. Reluctantly I handed him my bass and they played the same song. When the song was over, I took back my bass and I told him that ‘he sounded pretty good too’. Well later that day, I find out that his name was Charles Mingus and I was so embarrassed at what I said. That was an innocent mistake and a very good lesson. Mr. Mingus came back another time and told me that I should learn to read music so that I knew what I was doing. I later stopped playing the bass and stayed with the piano.

To which person do you want to send one of your songs too?

If I had my wish, I’d like to send one of my songs to Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew so that they could hear and appreciate my talents.

What do you think is the characteristic of you personality that made you bluesman? 

I play the piano with a mixture of New Orleans, St. Louis & Chicago styles all into one. This is what makes me unique and respected by many bluesmen who have passed on and who are alive today.

Who have you learned the most secrets about blues music?

My uncle Charlie was the first person to introduce me to blues and jazz records. My father only listened to Gospel music. I had a mentor who encouraged me and his name is Linton Gardner the brother of the jazz pianist Errol Gardner. Linton gave me lots of important information about music and the music business.

Three words to describe your sound?

The three words would be Exciting, Creative & Soulful. I am progressing wonderfully worldwide thanks to Philippe Langlois from Dixie Frog records with promotions in France and other parts of Europe and Mark Pucci is promoting me in the USA.

"Blues is another interpretation of Gospel Music and they both were born from suffering."

Why did you think that “Blues Boss” continued to generate such a devoted following?

I started using ‘Blues Boss’ from Amos Milburn’s last recording called ‘return of the blues boss’ in which he passed away shortly after that recording. My style was very similar to Milburn’s so like many other piano players in the past, I decided to carry on Amos Milburn’s legacy and I adopted the name ‘Blues Boss’. It fits me very well and it gives me a sense of pride of who I am.

Who are some of your favorite blues musician of today and what was one of the last records you bought?

Most of my favorite musicians have all passed on. Today, I don’t listen to any new artist because most of them are trying to sound like the old ones. I can do that myself. I encourage people to be themselves because it’s almost impossible to be better than the originals. There are three that are still alive; Allen Toussaint, Little Willie Littlefield & Dr. John. I haven’t bought any new CDs in years. I do exchange CDs with other performers when we meet at a festival.

What are some of your favorite blues standards?

Sweet Home Chicago. Backwater Blues, Blueberry Hill, Wang Dang Doodle, Tangueray.

How do you get inspiration for your songs & what musicians have influenced you most as a songwriter?

Songs are just out there; they’re floating in space. All you have to do is grab a music idea or lyrics or you can pick a subject that interests you or write about something that happened or that’s going to happen. Fats Domino has been my primary inspiration but Paul McCartney writes beautiful songs as well. I like a lot of the country music stories as well.

How has the music business changed over the years since you first started in music?

I think today, you have to have something that is easy to market it. In the past, all you needed was a band and some music that was picked by a radio station.

"Blues music is black cultural music that has now spread worldwide. Bands all over the world play and love the music that was presented by the bluesmen and women of the past." (Photo by Nara West)

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us.  Why do think that is?

Blues is roots and roots are always the same. When leaves on the tree die, they are part of the fertilizer that feeds the roots. This means that the older we get, the closer to the root we become. Roots are Blues, Country music & Gospel music.

What do you think about the BLUES IS DEVIL MUSIC? Give one wish for the BLUES

Blues is another interpretation of Gospel Music and they both were born from suffering. I believe that all music was intended to be good but in the hands of the wrong person, it could be detrimental. A lot of blues came directly from spiritual songs in which the lyrics were changed from Jesus to some woman or man. My father used to say that there are two spirits and that is one living spirit in the church and a dead spirit in a bottle. The spirit in the bottle can make a person do stupid things and that seems to please the Devil. That’s why they call it the Devil’s Music.

The Blues is going to continue forever for as long as there is Gospel Music; Blues will always be at the doorstep. Blues is in just about any kind of popular music that we hear today even Rap. Blues is a part of musical life. The younger generation is trying to come up with something different but it still has the ingredients of the Blues.

What is the impact of Blues music and culture to the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

Blues music is black cultural music that has now spread worldwide. Bands all over the world play and love the music that was presented by the bluesmen and women of the past. Blues music started off by singing about the struggle that blacks had to endure in the early 1900’s. Now Blues is in the mainstream of music which can be heard on movie tracks, commercial ads and has received different types of award recognition.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

I’ve always had a love for New Orleans and St. Louis because those two cities contributed so much of the music that I grew up listening to. New Orleans has that mixture of the French African culture and St. Louis has the mixture of the big band sound.  Both of those cities is where my heart is at. Just to hear the rockin’ Fats Domino to the jumpin’ sounds of Louis Jordan is a real treat.  And of course I love the smooth Texas sounds of Amos Milburn & Charles Brown and the many styles of the genius Ray Charles.

Kenny " Blues Boss" Wayne - Official website

Photo by Olga Karpova

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