Kelowna-based pianist Kenny ‘Blues Boss’ Wayne truly has the world as his stage. The acclaimed musician – a master in the boogie, funk and New Orleans-influenced R&B – performs at Fratters Speakeasy Aug. 1-2nd.
He’ll be serving up the top-notch cuts from his latest project, Rollin’ With the Blues Boss which was released this past April. The project, produced and recorded in Vancouver by Tom Lavin, marks his second CD for Stony Plain. It also features guest appearances on one track each from Eric Bibb and singer Diunna Greenleaf.
“This latest one is a little more into the storytelling” he explains during a recent chat from his home. “Most of the things I write are pretty much hypothetical – they could happen to anyone. But this one is a little more real for me.” That includes everything from being pick-pocketed in France to overcoming typical hardships in relationships.
But whether tunes spring from his imaginative goldmine of creativity or tap into real-life experience, the exuberance and energy are unstoppable. And he never takes a bit of it for granted – he’s grateful to his legions of fans around the world for taking the time to listen.
He’s also carrying on something of a treasured tradition.
“I know it’s a classic way of playing piano, but many of the original people that played that way are no longer with us.”
Born in Spokane in 1944, Wayne’s family settled in Los Angeles where the West Coast blues scene was bubbling over. Showing a gift for playing piano early on, Wayne was encouraged by his preacher dad to play gospel.
With folks like Lloyd Glenn, Amos Milburn and Floyd Dixon ruling the airwaves in the early 1950s, it was a tall order for the youngster to steer clear of ‘the devil’s music’. But by his early teen years, Wayne was playing dozens of gigs in the early ’60s — including a 1961 appearance at the Alpha Bowling Club with the great Jimmy Reed.
As Wayne recalls with a chuckle, “My dad grabbed my mom with one hand and ran up to the stage and yanked me off the piano bench and led us through the kitchen and out the back exit. That was pretty well the end of my blues career for over 20 years.”
In 1974, Wayne moved to San Francisco to work with R&B band Earth Rise. Stints with other bands continued but disco was starting to impact the live music scene.
Wayne put together an R&B revue called The Mighty Ken Explosion and headed to Canada. The band broke up in the late 1980s, and Wayne settled in Vancouver.
He soon won a strong reputation on the B.C. and prairies club scene.
His full transformation into ‘Blues Boss’ came following a 1994 tour of Europe.
His longtime passion for boogie-woogie and blues paid off in the form of star treatment from piano-loving European music fans, particularly while in Spain.
“I was playing all of this romantic music – trying to fit in with the Spanish culture by doing all these Spanish songs. However, the place I played in was a British pub and they weren’t too keen on being romantic. They wanted to rock.
“So at that point, a gentleman from Scotland came up to me and asked if I knew any blues. I said yes, and he said, ‘I bet you would do a good job’. So I started playing blues, and lo and behold my tip jar started filling up. I noticed people were really responding.”
At that time, those same kinds of tunes weren’t really going over well back home in Vancouver. There were stricter ideas about what was wanted. But Spain changed everything and suddenly there were no limits in Wayne’s mind.
That period also opened up so many doors internationally – a huge unexpected blessing, he adds. “Playing this type of music, I never had any clue this would ever happen. I remember talking to my wife about the changes that had been happening – if you were able to play on a penthouse overlooking Vancouver, you were somebody,” he chuckles.
“But the music I do now has kind of reached out world-wide. People want to experience it, and that’s been a real treat for me to have them wanting to hear my blues and boogie-woogie piano.” After he plays Red Deer, he’s off to Edmonton then flies to France for a string of shows. Then it’s onto several South American countries.
“When you start crossing oceans and seeing different cultures, it’s just mind-boggling. It’s so fascinating to me.”
Over the years, three releases for the indie Canadian label Electro-Fi were all nominated for Juno Awards — and his 2006 release Let it Loose was a Juno winner.
Further to those, he released An Old Rock on a Roll in 2011, with the project earning him a Blues Foundation nomination for the Pinetop Perkins Piano Award and a 2012 Living Blues Awards for Best New Contemporary Blues Recording of 2011 as well as one naming him ‘Most Outstanding Keyboard Musician.’
As to the latest CD, musical highlights abound.
Leavin’ In the Morning kicks things off in style with a bouncy, bluesy riff and You Bring Out the Jungle In Me is aided by a punchy horn section that provides the same kick on other songs, too.