Q&A with the ambassador of Chicago blues music Mike Wheeler - a heartfelt tribute to his mentor, Jimmy Johnson

"I feel that music should make you dance, think and also be aware of what’s going on around you and all over the world. Be willing to accept other people perspectives."

Mike Wheeler: Chicago Blues Hall of Famer

Mike Wheeler has a vast knowledge of music and a voice that's reminiscent of the late Sam Cooke. He can sing and play everything so well that you may forget what the original record even sounds like. From Jazz to Rock, from popular music to Top 40, he slides in and out of musical genres with sophistication, ease and indulgence. Mike Wheeler is a brilliant staple in the Chicago blues community, playing and writing songs for a variety of Chicago artists including, Nellie Tiger Travis, Peaches Staten, Sam Cockrell, Demetria Taylor, Big Ray & Cadillac Dave. Mike was a well known member of Big James &The Chicago Playboys, a notable band in Chicago and recorded five albums with the group. He has travelled the world as an ambassador for Chicago blues music. He's been to Monaco, France, Switzerland, Spain and Belgium, just to name a few. He's also shared the stage with the most elite musicians the world has known, including Willie Kent, Koko Taylor, Buddy Guy, B.B. King, George Benson, Jimmy Johnson and Shemekia Copeland. Mike was inducted in the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame in 2014.

(Mike Wheeler is a brilliant staple in the Chicago blues community / Photo by Casey Mitchell)

Mike Wheeler & The Delmark All-Stars, new album titled “Serves Me Right To Suffer” (2024) – a heartfelt tribute to Mike’s former mentor and hero and bandleader, the late, great legendary Jimmy Johnson! “Serves Me Right To Suffer”, was written by John Lee Hooker and recorded by many artists including the late Jimmy Johnson. Here it’s performed and recorded live by Chicago blues guitar star Mike Wheeler.  The tune was recorded by Mike and the Delmark All-Star Band during the label’s 70th anniversary celebration at Space, Evanston, IL on September 20, 2023 and features stellar guitar solos by Mike Wheeler and Dave Specter.  Recorded as a Tribute to the late Jimmy Johnson. Mike is joined by Dave Specter on guitar, Roosevelt Purifoy on Hammond B3 organ, Larry Williams on bass and Cleo Cole on drums. Live performance produced by Elbio Barilari - Mixed by Harry Brotman & Julia A. Miller at Delmark Records - Mastered by Harry Brotman at Harry Brotman Musical Services.

 

Interview by Michael Limnios        Special Thanks: Delmark Records & Kevin Johnson

How has the music influenced your views of the world? What does the blues mean to you?

Music has influenced my views of the world by giving me a perspective of what’s going on everywhere.

For me the blues is everyday life. The trials and tribulations of what we all go through.

How do you describe your sound and songbook? What's the balance in music between technique and soul?

I describe my sound and songbook as a combination of blues, soul and r&b. I think the balance between technique and soul should be 50/50 if possible. You can practice technique but if you’re not playing or singing from your heart the people won’t feel it.

Why do you think that Chicago Blues & Delmark Records continues to generate such a devoted following?

The history of Delmark Records has a lot to do with it. A lot of legendary musicians have recorded there. The new owners are musicians also and they’re keeping the tradition going with new fresh ideas.

"I mostly miss the players. They were teachers who taught by example. Jimmy Johnson, Eddie Shaw, Willie Kent, Lonnie Brooks, Otis Rush, Magic Slim and Koko Taylor just to name a few. To hear the records and then see and hear them perform live. I miss that. My hope are that the younger generation of all races will embrace this music. No fears!" (Photo: Mike Wheeler & Jimmy Johnson, Chicago 2013)

Are there any specific memories or highlights of your career that you would like to tell us about?!

One highlight of my career was sharing the stage with BB King, Buddy Guy, George Benson and Jimmy Johnson at Legends one night. They jammed together for over an hour. It was a great night!

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I mostly miss the players. They were teachers who taught by example. Jimmy Johnson, Eddie Shaw, Willie Kent, Lonnie Brooks, Otis Rush, Magic Slim and Koko Taylor just to name a few. To hear the records and then see and hear them perform live. I miss that. My hope are that the younger generation of all races will embrace this music. No fears!

What is the impact of music on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want the music to affect people?

I feel that music should make you dance, think and also be aware of what’s going on around you and all over the world. Be willing to accept other people perspectives.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

My mentor Jimmy Johnson taught me two important lessons that I live by:

  1. Be kind
  2. Take your job seriously

What are you doing to keep your music relevant today, to develop it and present it to the new generation?

I’m mostly just being myself and trying to write songs that I like and hopefully the younger generation can understand and accept.

Mike Wheeler Band - Home

(Mike Wheeler / Photo by Andrew Olifirenko)

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