Kenny “Blues Boss” Wayne

blues and boogie-woogie piano
Vancouver, British Columbia

 Photo by: R.Mellado

Photo by: R.Mellado

With his dapper zoot suits, Kenny “Blues Boss” Wayne looks every bit the musician Living Blues hails as “bringing the piano back to the front ranks of contemporary blues.” When Kenny Wayne’s fingers hit the keys, you know you’re in the presence of a true blues boss.

Though not the only blues style Kenny Wayne plays so masterfully, boogie-woogie is one that has a central importance in both his repertoire and his life story: it was his mother, a boogie-woogie devotee, who inspired his early musical journey. Boogie-woogie is the only form of blues that is exclusively piano-driven. Most blues historians place its origins in 1920s Texas, as dance music played primarily at house parties. Here, the piano player was often the entire band, so boogie-woogie developed distinctive, driving left-hand “figures” that allowed the piano player to evoke a full rhythm section underneath the right-hand melody.

Born in Spokane, Washington, Kenneth Wayne Spruell spent most of his childhood in New Orleans, and his teenage years in Los Angeles. The two poles in his life were his father, an African Methodist Episcopal minister who discouraged all but “sophisticated” music, such as big band jazz, and gospel, and his mother, whose boogie-woogie and blues records provided the surreptitious soundtrack of Kenny’s childhood. He began playing piano at age eight under the tutelage of the Julliard-trained church organist but, as he says now, “What my mother and I used to do when my father was at extended church meetings is we would sit and do boogie-woogie [together on the piano].… I did the bass runs and she did the high notes, and we would switch and just play a few things I knew.” He seemed on the verge of convincing his father to support his budding blues career when, at age 17, he was hired to back blues legend Jimmy Reed for an L.A. appearance. Unfortunately, a fight broke out at the gig, his father dragged him out, “and that was the end of my blues career on that second song.”

Wayne built a solid career as a session musician and sideman in the ensuing decades, backing L.A. and San Francisco musicians and big-name acts like Sly Stone and the Doobie Brothers. In 1994, a chance suggestion from a fellow musician turned Kenny Wayne back to the blues. A year later he released his first solo recording, and “the Blues Boss” was born. In the ensuing years, he’s put out 10 albums and won a Juno Award (the Canadian equivalent of the Grammy®). Having developed a passionate following for his extraordinary musicianship and vibrant interpretation of blues piano, Kenny is acknowledged as a revelatory talent.

Kenny will be joined in Richmond by one of his favorite backing line-ups, a trio of top musicians from the Chicago blues scene. The driving rhythm section of bassist Melvin Smith and drummer Willie Hayes currently plays with Chicago blues legend Lurrie Bell, and both spent many years backing the late, great Koko Taylor. Guitarist Wil Crosby has played for a host of Chicago greats; he worked for years with Mavis Staples, and now tours with Aretha Franklin.