It’s 2:30 in the morning in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and the ship’s a-rockin’. Victor Wainwright is playing to a packed house in the piano bar of Holland America’s Nieuw Amsterdam during the recent Legendary Rhythm And Blues Cruise.
The room seats 50 or 60 folks comfortably, but you couldn’t squeeze another listener into the cramped quarters if you tried. They’re jammed standing-room only against one another and grooving to the music as he fires off one song after another on the 88s. They’re listening to one of the most soulful voices in the business. That’s the way it’s been lately for one of the busiest and most popular artists emerging on the scene today.
At 33 years old, he’s the Blues Music Association’s reigning Pinetop Perkins Piano Player Of The Year and has been nominated for the award again this year, the third time in a row he’s been tabbed for the honor. A former Blues Blast Award Sean Costello Rising Star Award nominee, he performs about 300 gigs a year, divided among solo performances, work with his own group, WildRoots, and with bandmates in the new supergroup, Southern Hospitality, who were with him on the cruise. It’s hard to believe he’s got any sleep at all, juggling the piano bar with SoHo sets and accepting invitations to jam practically around the clock.
A pleasant, down-to-earth crowd pleaser, he’s large, but not tall man who simply radiates the enjoyment he gets from the audience with an ear-to-ear smile. His facial expressions range from pious altar boy to wild-eyed, mischievous devil, and he sometimes amazes listeners by getting up from his stool and balancing his heavy Roland keyboard on his ample midsection during the middle of a tune.
Not bad for a young man who, only a few years ago, was sitting in the control tower, probably bored out of his mind working as an air traffic controller at Memphis International Airport in Tennessee, where he now resides.
It didn’t take Victor long to realize that the keyboards – and the road – were his true calling.
A native of Savannah, he’s the son and grandson of folks who, in his terms, “get paid to play the piano.” Both men have worked professionally out of their North Georgia homes, gigging occasionally in neighboring states. By age eight, Victor was accompanying them, often serving as a roadie, helping load and unload keyboards and amplifiers, and occasionally getting a chance to sit in.
Victor honored them recently with the release of his latest CD, “Family Roots.” A double album, it features granddad Jesse and dad Victor Sr. playing and singing with WildRoots on one disc and Victor and the band on the other, is only available for purchase at his live performances.
“I was learning from them at home,” said Victor in the adjoining casino before his piano bar performance. “They’d bring me up on stage some. My grandfather Jesse was The Man — he taught me how to play. And my father, he encouraged me and taught me how to sing.
“It was the perfect balance of blues on Saturday night to church on Sunday. Sin to salvation. That’s the whole history of it all – just like here,” he chuckles. “Here we are playing slot machines, and in just a minute, I’m going to sing some gospel music!”
While Wainwright’s material bridges Memphis and New Orleans, his style of play is all his own. “It’s a mix between what my grandfather plays and what I picked up from the Rev. Billy C. Wirtz through Sunnyland Slim, Pinetop Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, too. It’s barrelhouse meets New Orleans meets boogie woogie meets genuine rock ’n’ roll meets honky tonk,” he says.
During his high school years, Victor played with Eric Culberson at the Savannah Blues Bar, the guitarist’s joint that’s been a fixture in the city’s historical district. Culberson also included Wainwright’s early band, Girls Gone Wild, in his performance lineup. But a move to Florida truly accelerated Wainwright’s musical ambitions.
He attended Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, one of the best places in the world to get a degree if you’re planning a career in the aviation or aerospace industries. It was there that he hooked up with folks at KingSnake Records. Owned and operated by the late Bob Greenlee and based in nearby Sanford, it was a small label with an impressive roster of musicians, including Ace Moreland, Noble “Thin Man” Watts, Ernie Lancaster, Bill “The Sauce Boss” Wharton, Dr. Hector And The Groove Injectors, James Peterson, Jumping Johnny Sansone, Joe Beard, Chicago Bob Nelson, Alex Taylor and others.
He earned a bachelor’s degree, but his post-graduate studies in the blues came a short while later when he met the multi-talented Wirtz. A student of Chicago blues keyboard master Sunnyland Slim, Wirtz has earned acclaim both as musician and a comedian. His raucous stage show welcomes parishioners to the First Church Of Polyester Worship And Throbbing Horizontal Teenage Desire as he pokes fun at hot topics in a humorous way. In addition to being a gifted showman, he’s one of America’s foremost experts on gospel music, a journalist whose columns have appeared regularly in Blues Revue Magazine among others, and he’s also had a career in professional wrestling as manager of the legendary Nasty Boys.
“Victor was playing locally, but I took him to his first national gigs,” Wirtz says. “He had just graduated, and they hadn’t decided where they were going to send him, which was Memphis. Pretty fortuitous!
“At the time, my own career was in second gear and Victor provided a spark. For a while, it was pretty cool. We worked together for about a year and a half and did one little album called ‘Pianist Envy.’ There are about a thousand copies floating around.
“I saw the potential there with Victor. For the first time in a long time, I saw someone who was younger, that seemed to have some clue of this music business. It was good. I was ready to do some sort of the passing of the torch of some kind,” says Wirtz, who, in his 50s, is still young in blues terms. “I passed along some of the stuff I know about working crowds and the road in general.
“Playing the music is the easy part,” he says. “Getting up on stage and banging on your piano…that’s easy. Driving, dealing with fans, getting to gigs on time, that’s the hard part. But he’s catching up with the realities of this business because they’ll burn you right out.
“I had Sunnyland Slim, and he had me. Hopefully, he’ll do the same for someone down the road. I’m really interested in seeing what direction he goes in.”
It might surprise some folks to learn that Victor doesn’t read music. “If Barrelhouse Chuck or David Maxwell walked in and asked me to play Chicago style or something else, I’d tell them that’s not my game,” he says. “I’ve never learned to play anything by the notes. As much as I have respect for people who can listen to a Pinetop record and playing every lick like Pinetop, I’ve always found it more appealing to me to learn to do something that people could identify as Victor Wainwright.
“I feel like it’s served me well so far. And Billy taught me that the most important thing is for people to be having fun. It’s actually nothing about hitting the right notes. If you’re welcoming and have the right intent behind the notes that you’re playing – the emotion, the right musical intent going on between you, the folks you’re playing with and the crowd – that’s where the magic happens.”
It didn’t take long for the road to beckon for good once Wainwright settled in Memphis, his college degree in hand, and started his day job with the FAA.
“My daddy calls me a $100,000 keyboard player,” he says wistfully, referring to the salary he could have earned for guiding planes to the ground.
The premise for WildRoots actually began in 2004, when Victor entered into collaboration with Stephen Dees, the Novo Combo bassist who’s toured and recorded with Hall and Oates, Foghat, Pat Travers, Todd Rundgren and others. They met at a benefit concert in Ormond Beach, Fla., and formed a partnership that eventually resulted in Wainwright’s first solo album, “Piana From Savannah,” and the creation of Wainwright’s label, WildRoots Records. In addition to Victor’s own work, the lineup now includes rising talent Robert “Top” Thomas.
The band Victor Wainwright And The WildRoots emerged five years later with the highly successful “From Beale Street To The Bayou.” It was honored by BluesWax magazine as one of the top ten albums of 2009.
With a lineup that now includes guitarist Nick Black, bassist Will Hanlon and drummer Billy Dean, they’re touring constantly when Victor’s not booked for the occasional solo act or working with Southern Hospitality.
You’d have to be living under a rock this lately to have missed the meteoric rise of that supergroup, which teams Victor with two other equally talented musicians: Damon Fowler, the popular lap steel, slide and dobro playing songwriter from North Florida, and J.P. Soars, the searing guitarist who fronts the Red Hots, the South Florida band that won top prize in the International Blues Challenge competition a few years ago.
The group started by accident. Wainwright and Fowler were both in the crowd in Delray Beach, Fla., on a night when Soars was gigging at Boston’s On The Beach, an oceanfront eatery that’s been promoting blues acts for better than 30 years. Often, during the late set, it’s common for the headliner, usually a national act, to open the stage for a jam with other visiting pros, and J.P. invited both men to join him on stage.
“We played for a while, and it was magical,” Victor recalls. “The next thing you know, somebody suggested we form a group. We were kinda laughing about that at the end of the night. I said all right, but it was just talk. After all, we were already really, really busy with our own bands.”
But then the phone rang.
A representative of the Heritage Music Blues Festival in Wheeling, W.Va., was on the line to Fowler’s booking agency, Piedmont, desperately searching for a last-minute replacement for first-generation blues superstar Honeyboy Edwards, who was well into his 90s and in failing health.
“When Damon found out, he suggested we do it, so we did,” Wainwright says.
The night before the gig, all three of the guys were scattered around the country, performing with their own bands. They flew to Wheeling at five in the morning without sleep and took the stage without a single rehearsal. “We just showed up and played our own stuff,” he says.
They were an instant hit, fitting together like hand and glove, with Victor getting up from the keyboards and gleefully cheering on the guitarists during their solos as he prompted the audience to show their appreciation.
Their attention-getting and award-nominated first album together, “Easy Livin’,” came about in much the same way. “We came in and recorded it completely live, and that was it,” Wainwright says. “What you hear is what you get.
“With us, it’s like being on a porch on a summer day in the South with a glass of ice tea. We don’t take anything too seriously. With Damon, J.P. and I, the crowd is always invited to a party. With my own band, it’s more grandiose.”
Juggling two bands and solo work is grueling, so much so, in fact, that Victor decided last fall to take a good look at himself and alter his lifestyle to assure fans and himself that he’d be around to enjoy for the long term. He took the entire month of September off, entering a clinic to address his addiction to nicotine and other related problems.
As he stated in an open message to fans, he’s now smoke-free, eating healthy and making sure he gets a good night’s sleep, something he didn’t do in the past. One of the benefits, he says, is that he’s already dropped about 25 pounds from his ample frame.
“This fresh start of body and mind has brought a new beginning for me,” he says, “and I really appreciate all the love and support I’ve received.
“I want to do this as long as possible. And when you’re on the road 300 days a year, life in general can get intense. I’ve learned to cope with that.
“Unfortunately, we’re in a career where people almost expect you to be messed up. They want you slightly bigger than life, but still approachable. They want to party, and they want you to party. So what we have to do is just make sure we take care of ourselves.
“And that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”
For great videos of Victor live in concert, visit http://victorwainwright.com/media/
Photo by Bob Kieser