Johnny Wheels and the Swamp Donkeys head to Memphis
Johnny Wheels and the Swamp Donkeys routinely play two-hour shows, and Wheels always gives it his all.
In Wheels' case, it's more of a challenge than other lead singers and harmonica players, given that he has lived as a quadriplegic since an accident at age 12.
"I have a highly compromised diaphragm, and I use myself as an accordion to force air through the body," said Wheels, 36, whose real name is Johnny Kennicott.
"That's draining. It puts a strain on me. And, I was recently sick, so I'm still trying to build my energy back up. I don't know if I'm as strong as I've ever been, but I don't want to give up. Some nights I'm incredibly strong, and others I'm not. It's extremely hard, but I try not let it show through."
It certainly hasn't stopped Wheels, who leads a band that will participate in the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tennessee, Jan. 28 to Feb. 1. More than 200 bands gather in Memphis for the competition; Rae Gordon and Ty Curtis have placed high in recent years among local performers.
Salem-based Johnny Wheels and the Swamp Donkeys will join duo Louis Creed & the Geezer and youth group Generation Head Strong as contestants in Memphis. They each won local competitions at the 2019 Waterfront Blues Festival.
"From what I undertand, (the IBC is) the biggest opportunity for our musical career so far, which is very exciting," said Wheels, who's originally from Willamina.
It's the latest good fortune for Wheels, who befriended Jim Belushi after meeting him at one of the actor/singer's music gigs and joining him on stage. Belushi held a harvest party/fundraiser for Wheels at his Southern Oregon cannabis farm, helping raise money for Wheels' new vehicle (a Mercedes Sprinter).
"He's opened my world to some pretty big things," said Wheels, who also has met Dan Aykroyd (Belushi's brother's partner in "The Blues Brothers" movie).
And, one of the band's songs, "Lovers With the Blues," will be part of the film "Lorelei," starring Jena Malone and Pablo Schreiber; it was shot in Portland.
Wheels and his band — Taylor Frazier (bass), Brandon Logan and Michael Rabe (guitar), and Doug Knoyle (drums) — play cover tunes and originals, mostly at smaller venues throughout Oregon. Wheels calls Buddy Guy a big influence, but he also takes some from Lynyrd Skynyrd and KISS. In Memphis, they'll play songs by Jonny Lang and Slim Harpo, among others, and along with some originals.
They've been a band for about three years; the Swamp Donkeys have been together for much longer.
"I'm disabled, and most of my pay goes back into the band," Wheels said. "So, I try to revolve it through the band."
Frazier rooms with Wheels and helps him with logistics. Wheels suffered paralyzation as a pre-teen when he dove into a shallow river and broke his neck.
Wheels hasn't seen any lead singers like him; many people with his injury, he added, live under worse conditions.
"I've learned to use gravity and tricks to do a lot more," he said. "I hold harmonicas in my hands, but it's hard to do, because cupping is an important technique to open and close and flutter, and I'm not able to do that with my hands."
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