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Piano C. Red

Blues pianist James Wheeler, also known as Piano "C" Red, was born in Montevallo, Alabama, on September 14, 1933. At the age of twelve, Wheeler learned the basics of blues and boogie-boogie piano and just four years later moved to Atlanta, where he lived and performed for the next decade. It was in Georgia that he was given the name "Red," after the red suit he always wore on stage. The "C" (for Cecil, Wheeler's middle name) was added to differentiate Wheeler from another blues pianist from Georgia who went by the name Piano Red. Wheeler then relocated to Chicago and has lived there ever since. He performed with the legendary Count Basie Band at the High Chaparral in Chicago and appeared nightly at Joe Chamble's Club on 47th Street.

Wheeler was also a regular on the Maxwell Street blues scene, where many legendary blues performers got their start. In the early 1960s, Wheeler sat in with such greats as Elmore James, Eddie Taylor, Jimmy Rogers, Hound Dog Taylor and Sonny Boy Williams. He later played there with his own band, the Flat Foot Boogie Men. As the Maxwell Street Market area was threatened with redevelopment, Wheeler was active in efforts to help preserve the Maxwell Street Market and its longstanding role in the blues community. Even though the original market no longer exists, Wheeler and his band still play in and around the area, in addition to performing at other Chicago blues clubs.

Over the years, Wheeler has performed with many Chicago blues legends, including Muddy Waters, B.B. King, KoKo Taylor, Buddy Guy, Little Walter, and Junior Wells. He has also made recordings with Chess, Sound, Dawn, and Big Boy Records.

For more than forty years, Wheeler has worked as a cab driver by day and blues musician by night, and for this reason named his 1999 CD release Cab Driving Man. Because of his continued presence in the Chicago blues scene, Wheeler was featured in the June 1996 issue of Living Blues. Wheeler was also interviewed by Niles Frantz from WBEZ's Eight Forty-Eight program.

Wheeler was shot and paralyzed during a robbery at a gas station in Chicago on March 23, 2006. He passed away on June 3, 2013.

James Wheeler was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on April 4, 2003.

Accession Number

A2003.065

Sex

Male

Interview Date

4/4/2003

Last Name

Wheeler

Maker Category
Occupation
Organizations
Schools

Montevallo High School

First Name

James

Birth City, State, Country

Montevallo

HM ID

WHE02

Favorite Season

Summer

State

Alabama

Favorite Vacation Destination

Family

Favorite Quote

What's Up?

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

Illinois

Birth Date

9/14/1933

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Chicago

Country

United States

Favorite Food

Salmon Croquettes

Death Date

6/3/2013

Short Description

Blues pianist Piano C. Red (1933 - 2013 ) played with blues legends such as Muddy Waters, B.B. King, KoKo Taylor, Buddy Guy, Little Walter, and Junior Wells.

Favorite Color

Red

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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Piano C. Red's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Piano C. Red lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Piano C. Red talks about his family background

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Piano C. Red describes his father, Robert Wheeler

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Piano C. Red talks about his mother, Lucille Evans, and his great-uncle, a contractor

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Piano C. Red talks about how his parents met and about his family

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Piano C. Red describes the sights, sounds, and smells of his childhood

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Piano C. Red describes his biking trips from Montevallo to Birmingham, Alabama

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Piano C. Red describes seeing entertainers in Birmingham, Alabama like Louis Jordan, Pigmeat Markham, and Little Esther

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Piano C. Red remembers a near-death experience between Montevallo and Birmingham, Alabama

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Piano C. Red talks about his grade school years at Montevallo High School in Montevallo, Alabama

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Piano C. Red talks about learning how to play the boogie-woogie

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Piano C. Red talks about boogie-woogie players

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Piano C. Red explains why he dropped out of high school and his interest in education

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Piano C. Red talks about factory work for young black men in urban areas

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Piano C. Red recalls his early dreams to become a musician

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Piano C. Red talks about his jobs after dropping out of high school

Tape: 2 Story: 10 - Piano C. Red talks about moving to Chicago, Illinois to pursue music and forming a band with other musicians

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Piano C. Red describes how he practiced on a piano in the early years of his career

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Piano C. Red describes the beginning of his professional music career

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Piano C. Red talks about the Flat Foot Boogie Blues Band and his song-writing process

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Piano C. Red describes the challenge of making a living as a musician

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Piano C. Red talks about buying a suit on Maxwell Street

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Piano C. Red talks about musicians playing on Maxwell Street and how he made a living playing

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Piano C. Red talks about the disintegration of his deal with Chess Records

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Piano C. Red talks about the influence of the blues on English rock and roll musicians

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Piano C. Red describes changing tastes in music

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Piano C. Red hums the twelve-bar and eight-bar blues and talks about his CD "Cab Driving Man"

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Piano C. Red talks about declining interest in blues music

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Piano C. Red talks about the difficulty of playing in blues venues on the North Side

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Piano C. Red talks about the ability of the blues to speak to many different emotions and situations in life

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Piano C. Red talks about "New York and Chicago", "Miss Annie Lou", and his songwriting process

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Piano C. Red talks about Willie Dixon's impact on blues music

Tape: 4 Story: 9 - Piano C. Red talks about his love for performing

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Piano C. Red talks about performances which received standing ovations

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Piano C. Red talks about his CD "Cab Driving Man" and his musical aspirations

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Piano C. Red describes his hopes and concerns for the African American community

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Piano C. Red reflects upon his legacy

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Piano C. Red talks about how he would like to be remembered

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Piano C. Red shares anecdotes about Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, Hound Dog Taylor, Elmore James, and Lefty Dizz

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Piano C. Red talks about Buddy Guy, Sam Lay, and B.B. King and about Chicago's place in blues history

Tape: 5 Story: 8 - Piano C. Red talks about his parents' view of his success

Tape: 5 Story: 9 - Piano C. Red narrates his photographs

DASession

1$1

DATape

4$4

DAStory

3$7

DATitle
Piano C. Red hums the twelve-bar and eight-bar blues and talks about his CD "Cab Driving Man"
Piano C. Red talks about "New York and Chicago", "Miss Annie Lou", and his songwriting process
Transcript
Can you give us an example of what you mean by twelve-bar and eight-bar blues? Can, can you hum a little bit of each, you know, let us, you know--$$Well, well, I would say like, like Fats Domino deal, he would say [humming]. That would be eight-bar blues. And 12-bar blues is like [humming], come back [humming], (unclear) [humming], and right back, that's 12-bar, see.$$That's--$$So, are, are, you know. What a lot of the hip hops, what they doing, they just get in one key, and they'll there for about 20 bars. They may stay off 30 bars and they'll go into, they may go into a minor. And if they're playing in major, they go into a minor and, and change it all around, and come back two bars. And they go back to the, to the, to the, to the--what that would be the, to the, tonic, I believe. And then they stay there for another eight, 16 bars, or whatever. You understand? So, so you have, and it's a, you got it all, you know, and it's not like Dixieland. Now Dixieland blues is, is a, it's a, it's, it's almost like reggae. And I'll tell you something else, too--a lot of people is getting into the reggae now, too.$$Now, a lot of diverse music out here now, it--$$Right, right.$$--it has to be true.$$Right.$$It has to be true.$$Right. But if you got, if you got a good, if you got a good sound, and if you got a good sound, peoples gonna--now, when I'm, when I'm playing in the clubs. And when I showed them my CD, "Cab Driving Man", peoples say, oh, yeah. And when I'm in the, in the, in the cab, and I tell them I have a CD, I go, "Cab Driving", a lot of them say, hey, can I buy that? Where can I find that? And never heard it before.$$You can play it for them in the cab.$$Oh, yes, I have did it, sure. And, and I'm playing in one club one night and I'm, and I playing the same thing. It was at Lilly's on Lincoln Avenue. And I sold about, I sold about a hundred CDs.$$[Off Camera Interruption]$So do you ever speak in schools or anything about the blues or did you ever had a (simultaneous).$$I haven't had a chance to--when I was doing the Blues Fest [Chicago Blues Festival], I did, when I did the Blues Fest, Blues Fest, out there in Grant Park [Chicago, Illinois], you know. See, and I got one song on there and you're gonna hear on the, on the CD about New York and Chicago ["New York and Chicago"]. And it's like this fellow, he, he worked very hard. He come home with his pay and his, his wife, she's not treating him right. And he tell her, he say, well, say, don't know--I don't care what I do for you. You're not happy. You don't treat me right like you should. And he tell her, say, well, I got bad news for you. I'm going to Chicago. Sorry, but I take, can't take you. And when he get, when he get to Chicago, he said, I want all you Chicago women to raise your window high 'cause this New York daddy gonna be creeping by (laughter), you know, see. And I'll be doing that and I would (unclear). If I do that in Chicago, I won't be on the stage and I'll be singing that number here in Chicago, you know. I'll, I'll sing it that way. Now, if I'm in New York, I'm going to change it around (laughter) 'cause I'll get in trouble with the (unclear) in New York, you know, see. Yeah, so they're say, you know, hey, you know what, that, what it makes what, what I guess I like about creating my own songs, writing my own song, is because I want to have something that--the meaning to everybody, where when you hear it, you can, you can really or you could say, well, it makes a lot of sense, see. Now, when the one I kept with the one that they're going to release here, is what left, left the (unclear) on it. It's entitled "Miss Annie Lou", talk to your daughter. It's on there, too, you know. And it's like if you're going with a young lady or you just marry this young lady, and she, and, and you marry, you've been married for about a month, two months, you know. And all of a sudden, she goes out, and she--you, you get off from work and she say, I want to go to my girlfriend house. I want to go out and, and, and, or play cards with my girlfriend. I went out. But she out there running the streets. And so, Miss Ann Lou, and then not Miss Ann Lou is her mother. So she say, Miss Ann Lou, please talk to your daughter for me. She's a mean mistreator. She just won't let me be, you know (laughter), you know, let her go on with that. But when you hear all of them, you know, you'll say yeah. And it, it's very exciting, though, when you can express yourself because it happened, one, once in your life are sung, it's almost like somebody reading your mail. Something have happened in your life is what you're hearing in that song.$$So are your, your songs mostly about your life experiences or--$$Yes, to a certain extent.