Reese Wynans is everywhere. Scan the history books and he's there on every page: a vital strand of rock 'n' roll DNA, present at a thousand cultural flashpoints. Over the last five decades, you might have found him cutting his teeth with the early nucleus of the Allman Brothers Band. Taking the stage with Boz Scaggs. Saving the '80s blues scene with Stevie Ray Vaughan's Double Trouble. Bringing the blues to the people with Joe Bonamassa. Adding his thumbprint on piano and B3 to the work of Larry Carlton, Delbert McClinton, Los Lonely Boys – and hundreds more. Nick Jennison talks with the man who's played with just about everyone who's anyone: Reese Wynans.
During a celebrated career that recently saw him inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, the one omission on Wynans' résumé was that this fabled keys man had never released a solo record – until now. Sweet Release is the album we always knew Wynans had up his sleeve: a glorious collision of stellar musicianship, classic material given fresh mojo and a glittering roll-call of star guests – including Keb' Mo', Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Warren Haynes and Bonamassa himself on production – that confirms the deep respect Wynans commands on the scene.
"This record is something I've had in my mind for a while," explains Wynans. "Joe said to me: 'What are you waiting for?' I didn't really have a good answer. These songs are windows back into different eras and different times of my career. It's a collection of the songs I've played with musicians in the past, and it shines a light on a couple of blues bands that I think need a little bit more recognition."
To play Sweet Release is to be led by the songs through Wynans' fascinating backstory. His roots in '50s Florida are given a tip of the hat in the form of two tracks by Tampa Red: the local blues legend whose piano-men, Thomas Dorsey and Big Maceo, would figure highly amongst Wynans' early influences. "I loved the tinkly old blues piano stuff," he remembers. "Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnnie Johnson with Chuck Berry – something about the piano always did it for me. When I got in my first band, The Prowlers, I bought an electric piano and I never thought about doing anything else. It was the way my brain worked. I wanted to play piano in a rock 'n' roll band."
This record is something I've had in my mind for a while," explains Wynans. "Joe said to me: 'What are you waiting for?' I didn't really have a good answer.
So the die was cast. By the late-'60s, Wynans was playing alongside future blues-rock royalty in Florida up-and-comers, the Second Coming. "Dickey Betts was one of our guitar players and our bass player was Berry Oakley," he says. "We had a house gig at a club in Jacksonville, learning to jam and make more out of the blues, exploring the Hendrix and Cream catalogues. Duane Allman was in Muscle Shoals at the time and he heard about us, and would come down on a weekend and sit in with us. Duane ended up hiring Dickey and Berry and breaking the band up to form the Allman Brothers. But that's OK, y' know, because we went on to do other things. For Sweet Release, we covered the old Les Dudek song, Take The Time, which reminds me of being back in Jacksonville during the dawn of that Southern rock era."
Other songs salute the '70s, when the keys man could be found flanking Boz Scaggs as the rising songwriter established his reputation on the West Coast. For Wynans, one song in Scaggs' acclaimed catalogue shone brightest, and decades later, it gives Sweet Release its title track. "I thought it was a great song back then," he reflects, "and through the years, I've been waiting for people to cover Sweet Release. But no one ever did, so I suggested it for this album."
Of course, the Sweet Release tracklisting wouldn't be complete without a nod to the great Stevie Ray Vaughan. In 1985, Wynans' world changed forever when the iconic Texas bluesman drafted him into the Double Trouble band for the era-defining Soul To Soul and In Step albums. "It was unbelievable to play on a stage with those guys," he remembers. "I have to tell you that I hardly ever heard Stevie play a bad note. He was on his game every single night. It was daunting because I had to step up every night as well. And of course, the Stevie songs on Sweet Release – Crossfire, Say What!, Riviera Paradise and Hard To Be – are our tribute to him."
In 1990, SRV's tragic death robbed the blues world of an all-time great and Wynans of a cherished friend. But the keys man bravely brushed himself down and walked on, soon becoming one of Nashville's most in-demand players with credits for headline acts including Lee Roy Parnell, Brooks & Dunn and Hank Williams Jr. In 2015, the seed of Sweet Release was planted when post-millennial blues master Joe Bonamassa called up with a tantalising offer. "He wanted to do a series of shows at Red Rocks where we would feature the music of Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters," says Wynans. "And y' know, that's right up my alley. So things went on from there."
It was Bonamassa's encouragement that prompted Wynans to embark on Sweet Release. And though the guitarist was initially reticent about producing the album himself ("I had many personal doubts," he writes in the sleevenotes, "about taking on a responsibility as great as producing Reese Wynans' first solo album in his 50-year career"), he finally gave in to temptation. "I wanted this record to sound almost like a live band," says Wynans of the pair's shared vision for Sweet Release, "but I still wanted it to be relevant, with fidelity that's as good as the topical records that are out now. I was going to do more funky instrumentals, but Joe's idea was to do more vocals. He wanted me to take the first solo and have the light shone on me. He was wonderful in the studio. I would do a record again with him in a second."
Sweet Release feels like a musician coming home. Wynans was already a familiar face at Ocean Way: the Nashville studio where he'd previously added fairy-dust to endless tracks for other artists. And when sessions began for his own solo album, it was a joy to reconnect with the Double Trouble rhythm section of Tommy Shannon (bass) and Chris Layton (drums) – plus modern guitar great Kenny Wayne Shepherd – and lay down stinging contemporary takes of SRV gems like Crossfire and Say What!. "Everybody knew the songs," Wynans recalls. "There was hardly any need to even run through them – it was perfect right from the start, and we played each song three times at the max. There's a lot of people who play Stevie songs and try to sound like he used to. With Kenny Wayne, it's like he has the same DNA that Stevie had. He just wanted to rip it – and I just loved what he brought to it."
Meanwhile, Bonamassa lent his own famed guitar skills to SRV moments like Riviera Paradise. "I'd always thought of that song as a movie soundtrack," considers Wynans of the In Step highlight, "so I wanted to do it with all the strings on it. And I wanted people to realise that it's OK to play that song, that it's not some untouchable song nobody should ever play. Joe's solo on Riviera Paradise was beautiful. His solo on Tampa Red's So Much Trouble was very fiery, too, and so was his vocal."
Elsewhere on the tracklisting, it's testament to Wynans' reputation that a starburst of special guests were eager to contribute. "Someone mentioned that the Crossfire bass riff kinda sounded like a Sam & Dave song," recalls Wynans, "so Joe thought of of getting Sam Moore to sing it. Getting Jimmy Hall and Bonnie Bramlett to sing on Hard To Be was my idea. I wanted it to be like a Delaney & Bonnie rave-up, so I called Bonnie, who I knew, and Jimmy, who I'd worked with before. Doyle Bramhall II was my first choice for the Otis Rush song, You're Killing My Love. As far as doing the Willie Mitchell song, That Driving Beat, my favourite singer just about in the entire world is Mike Farris – so I called him and asked him to come in and sing."
Perhaps most tantalising of all was the title track, which saw a procession of blues-scene titans stepping up to the mic. "Joe's idea for that was having one singer after another on the verses," says Wynans. "So he called Vince Gill, Warren Haynes and Keb' Mo' to sing. I thought the way that we played it had a little bit more of a Southern feel. That's my favourite song on the record."
Even on the year's most star-studded record, there's one name that shines brightest. For a full half-century, Reese Wynans has been the engine-room behind America's greatest roots music. Now, with Sweet Release, this modest legend has delivered the long-awaited solo album that puts his own name top of the bill and places his world-class talent in the spotlight. "I've never had an album out with my name on it before," he considers, "so I'm very excited. I'd like this record to make people feel happy and celebrate the music. Because that's what we were doing…"
Reese Wynans 'Sweet Release' Tracklist: