Kenny “Blues Boss” Wayne will never forget what a concert promoter told him and his then Los Angeles-based band before they crossed the border to do their first tour of B.C.
It was not the expected warm welcome to Canada.
He said, “you’re all going to die.”
This wasn’t a threat, but a warning as Wayne and his bandmates were planning to drive north in the winter, in a Californian car.
“He suggested we rent a Canadian vehicle with winter tires instead of driving our own car up there,” said Wayne, chuckling at the memory.
As it turns out Canadian winter road conditions didn’t scare this world-class pianist away.
While his former bandmates ended up moving to Las Vegas to get away from the cold weather, Wayne settled permanently in Vancouver, and he has since travelled the roads from the West Coast to Prince Albert to Flin Flon to Toronto to Montréal and back for 30 years now.
Recognizable on stage in his swank and colourful zoot suits, black and white wingtip shoes and funky fedoras, the smooth dresser and all-round class act moved to Kelowna in January, joining his wife after she transferred from the University of Columbia’s Vancouver campus to the Okanagan campus.
Wayne is about to play in Vernon when he joins up with local guitar master Les Copeland for a show at the Prestige Hotel’s banquet room, Saturday.
“I’ve been asked a few times why I moved to Kelowna and I tell them because there’s not that much in Vancouver,” said Wayne, referring to what he says is a lack of live music venues in the city. “I’d rather be with a group of people in the area that like nice wine and seem happy with what they have.”
And as Wayne is still constantly on the road, Kelowna seemed like a natural fit with its international airport as well as easy access to the Trans Canada and Coquihalla highways.
Although Wayne is known as the “Blues Boss”, he didn’t actually start playing that 12-bar “barrelhouse” piano style native to New Orleans until he was an already established musician.
Born in Spokane, Wash., Wayne lived in New Orleans when he was a young child, and says he was influenced by the music that surrounded him on the street and in church, but it wasn’t until he moved to San Francisco at the age of eight that he started music lessons.
By the time he was 18 he was rocking the piano, playing mostly Top 40, R&B and soul with bands in San Francisco and later in Hawaii and L.A.
Wayne didn’t really jump, jive and wail as a blues barrelhouse and boogie woogie player until he settled in Canada.
Actually it was while playing a gig overseas circa 1994 that he received what he calls a “reality check” from another piano player.
“I was playing a place near Marbella in southern Spain, and they had another piano player from London. I was playing Nat King Cole, that romantic stuff, and he was playing jump jive like Jerry Lee Lewis. People would put money in a jar and he would have a bowl full by the end of his set, and I would only have a little bit,” recalled Wayne. “The English guy later came to me and said ‘you really should do the blues.’ I did and he said ‘you sound like (famed American blues pianist) Champion Jack Dupree’.”
After that advice, Wayne started playing more like his heroes, Fats Domino, Roosevelt Sykes and Professor Longhair, and his bowl started getting fuller.
Unsure if the music would go down as well in Vancouver, Wayne says a friend suggested he do a recording. After bringing in approximately 20 musicians into the studio with him to record live “off the floor,” the result was his first blues album, Alive and Loose.
And, lo and behold, people started taking notice.
“I started getting write ups and then someone suggested that I submit (the album) to the Junos. I sent in the application last minute and then it snowballed from there,” said Wayne.
His three releases for the independent Canadian label ElectroFi were all nominated for Juno awards, and his 2006 release, Let it Loose, won for Best Blues/Gospel Album.
Nine recordings in (Wayne’s last album, An Old Rock ‘n Roll, was released in 2011 on Holger Peterson’s Stony Plain label) and he is still going strong at the age of 69.
Winner of piano-keyboard player of the year at the 2011 Maple Blues Awards, and nominated for the Pinetop Perkins Piano Player of the Year by the American Blues Music Awards in 2012, he continues to tour the world and has played with a who’s who of blues and R&B artists.
Wayne also plays Fats Domino in the tribute show Legends of Rock and Roll, which came to the Vernon Performing Arts Centre in February.
“My hands are still moving,” he said. “I am very thankful. It took me being up here (in Canada) to realize what I should have been doing all along.”
One musician Wayne recently connected with is Copeland, whom he first saw when the guitarist backed up the late blues legend Honeyboy Edwards at Vancouver’s Yale Hotel.
“It was the first time I saw chairs on the dance floor with everyone just listening. This was on a weekday and there were more people there than on the weekend,” said Wayne.
After seeing Copeland perform, Wayne received an e-mail from the guitarist, not realizing who he was at the time, asking if he would be interested in doing a show in Vernon.
“I thought that his name sounded familiar, and then I remembered seeing him with Honeyboy. I also asked around about him, and (fellow blues artist) Wes Mackey said ‘he’s my favourite guitar player,’” said Wayne.
Influenced by the New Orleans flavours of the Prestige Hotel’s Bourbon Street Bar and Grill, where Copeland has a regular gig, the men will play the first set together as a duo as well as solo, and then will join up with Copeland’s band for the second set, which should have everyone up and dancing.
Saturday’s event includes appetizers, courtesy of Bourbon Street, and a cash bar. Doors open at 7 p.m. and show time is 8 p.m. Tickets are $20 available at Cracked Pot Coffee Emporium, Vernon Towne Theatre, East Side Liquor Company and at the door.