JAMES WHEELER is a quiet man. One of those types who
has been putting in decades of work backing other musicians while shying
away from the spotlight himself. After forty plus years James Wheeler is
James Wheeler was born in Albany, Georgia on August 28, 1937. Wheeler
didn't follow the usual path of listening to the blues and picking up a
guitar as a youngster. His favorite music as a youth was the big band
sounds popular in the day. Folks like Joe Stafford, Glenn Miller and
Duke Ellington. "I like to tell people that I came in at the college
level and down to the starters level. That was the sound that I had to
listen to. Louis Jordan was my main man. He was my idol for a long
time." Wheeler never even played an instrument until he moved to Chicago
Nineteen and ready for a change in life, James Wheeler headed north to
join his older brother Golden Wheeler in Chicago. Golden had come to
Chicago a decade earlier and got caught up in the sounds of the city. He
was fascinated with the sound of the harmonica and after Little Waiter
befriended him he began to learn to play. As soon as little brother
James arrived in Chicago he was thrust into the sounds of the blues.
Golden was playing with Waiter Smith, Donald Griffin and Johnny Swan at
the time, and occasionally jamming with Eddie King and harp player
Willie Black. James began to thump around on the guitar when hanging out
with the gang, and eventually picked up an old Harmony acoustic guitar
with a pick-up in it. James began to see bluesmen like Howlin' Wolf and
Freddie King playing in the clubs, and his interest peaked. By the early
1960s Wheeler was jamming regularly on the West Side and landed a steady
gig with Billy Boy Arnold at the Club Arden.
In 1963 Wheeler decided to form his own band. The Jaguars consisted of
Wheeler on guitar, bass player/vocalist Johnny Howard and drummer Sam
Burden. The band cut their teeth at the King James Club on 111th St.,
but their first big break came when they filled in for
Syl Johnson at
the Just Me Lounge at 59th and Morgan.
This gig opened the doors to various house band stints including stays
at the Bonanza, Just Me Lounge, Payton Place and the Burning Spear.
During the next ten years, Wheeler played behind blues greats like
McKinley Mitchell, B.B. King, Millie Jackson, Otis Clay and O. V. Wright.
After The Jaguars broke up in 1972, Wheeler was enlisted to form Otis
Clay's touring band, the OCB's. He stayed with Clay for the next three
years and in 1975 went on tour with the Impressions. For the next decade
Wheeler held a day job and only played on the weekends with guitarist
Buddy Scott. Wheeler's next break came in 1986. "One evening when I got
home my brother called and said some people had been trying to find me.
I asked who it was and he said Otis Rush. So I got in touch with him and
he said: `Look I've got to go into the (Kingston) Mines this weekend and
need a guitar player.' So I said `O.K. Just for that weekend,' you know.
Little did I know it would last for 7 years." It was Rush that
encouraged Wheeler to start singing and made a spot for him singing in
his show. Wheeler left Rush in 1993 to join the band Mississippi Heat
and made three records with them. Lately, Wheeler has done a stint with
Magic Slim and currently works in Willie Kent's band.
Ready! finds Wheeler out front and on his own for the first time.
With a little help from a few old friends. Wheeler shows his mastery of
a variety of blues styles. After forty years as a sideman it's about
damn time James Wheeler stepped out front. One thing's for sure, he's
[Quotes from an interview with James Wheeler on February 7, 1998.]