Photos: Scott Frederick
Bad Brad Wheeler is one of the most respected and beloved members of our community. Aged 44, Wheeler is host and producer of the Little Bit Louder Now weekday-afternoon KRCL show. A seasoned blues musician, Wheeler plays the harmonica and the slide guitar, and he’s been building slide guitars for over 16 years—that’s how he taught himself to play, by building his own instruments, much as the early blues musicians did. At 6’6”, he has a commanding stage presence anywhere he decides to play. He inspires our community with his epic playlists, blues riffs and harmonica spit, whether he’s performing with The Rubes at Bar X, Joe McQueen at Garage on Beck or with Willie Nelson on the outlaw country legend’s 80th birthday. For Wheeler, it all starts with the blues, from Blind Lemon Jefferson all the way up to The Alabama Shakes, from Gary Clark Jr. all the way back down to Robert Johnson. “Just like you can’t have soup without water,” says Wheeler, “you can’t have American music without the blues.” He’s right.
The blues has its own sound, identity and lifeblood. It’s definitely an American-made call out into the void. Wheeler caught this blues flu a long time ago while playing his harmonica any chance he could get. “I started playing the harmonica on a dare while I was standing in line at a keg party,” says Wheeler. The blues has been with him ever since. Wheeler takes this knowledge and passion a step further by teaching it to others, especially those with the most open minds: grade-school children. Through the Blues in the Schools program, Wheeler has taught close to 40,000 elementary students how to play the harmonica, as well as the “who, what, when, where and why” of blues music. He tells the kids, “Think of the blues as ketchup, because ketchup makes everything better.” One time, during his teachings, Wheeler received a little pushback from a student. “Lil’ Bow Wow never sang the blues!” the kid confidently challenged. Wheeler responded, “I don’t know anything about Lil’ Bow Wow, but I do know about Howlin’ Wolf.” Lesson learned.
Bad Brad Wheeler gives us music, and he challenges us. He gives us a song and lets us explore it as far as we want to go, from R.L. Burnside to Fishbone, from Alex Chilton to The Replacements and from Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown to Sonic Youth. He gives us Bob Dylan when we need shelter from the storm, The Rolling Stones when we can’t get no satisfaction and John Lee Hooker when all we need is one bourbon, one scotch and one beer.
On April 3, Wheeler was going to the Downtown Salt Lake City Library to listen to a radio jazz show with his longtime mentor, Ogden jazz icon and legend Joe McQueen. The 97-year-old McQueen, the first African American in Utah to play at white-only clubs, embodies Utah jazz—long before we had the professional basketball team—and has played with legends Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie and more. Sometime in 1998, Wheeler was playing his harmonica on a blues night at a local bar. One of his friend’s fathers, then a professor of jazz at Weber State University, called McQueen down to “see this kid play.” Wheeler recalls that when McQueen came through the door, the whole room went silent. The first words out of McQueen’s mouth were, “This is goddamned rock n’ roll and blues! I play jazz!” Regardless, McQueen stuck around to become Wheeler’s best friend.
That April day, on their way to the library, things would turn a little sideways for both Wheeler and McQueen. They were having trouble getting into a parking spot, and Wheeler jumped out of the car to help guide McQueen in. “I guess he hit the gas instead of the brake,” Wheeler says. “The car accelerated and pinned my leg up against another car. At first I thought I could just walk it off—then I noticed all of the blood. It looked as if my leg had exploded.” As Wheeler lay in that Salt Lake City parking lot bleeding out, his first thoughts were, “I might die.” While Wheeler waited for medical help and tried to process the situation, the only person Wheeler wanted near him was his best friend McQueen. McQueen held Wheeler’s hand, and they prayed together as the ambulance arrived. Wheeler becomes emotional when he recalls these events. It is obvious that in that moment, Wheeler was hurting just as much for McQueen as he was hurting for himself.
Bad Brad Wheeler: Dealin’ The Blues
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