Bruce Wheeler was unemployed, painting his own house in the Woodsdale neighborhood of Wheeling, and he was puzzled as to what to do next with his career. He had taught at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and was involved with the annual Three Rivers Regatta, but he quit for an opportunity involving live, outdoor entertainment in western Pennsylvania that quickly faded away when one of his partners suddenly passed away. He retreated to his Friendly City home not feeling too friendly himself, and he admits it.
He was suffering from a bad case of the blues.
“And while I was painting the house, I had someone come up to me who was attending a party in my neighborhood, and she asked me if I was impressed with the (Janie Altmeyer) playground on the riverfront because she thought it was wonderful. That was the first year that the Junior League of Wheeling had the playground constructed,” Wheeler recalled. “I had just been down in that area, and that was when Wheeling Heritage was in the development phase with Heritage Port, and I’m guessing that it was between the second and third phases at that point because it was almost done but not quite.
“That’s when I wondered if anyone in Wheeling had a clue about what to do with it when it was completed, and that’s when I found myself doing what way too many people in this area were doing at that time, and that was being very negative about where I lived,” he said. “Everyone was saying negative things about anything and everything in the area, and I heard myself doing the same thing, so I stopped myself and answered my own question. I knew that I knew what to do with it, so that’s when I decided that I should do outdoor events at Heritage Port, so that what I set out to do.”
Wheeler, also the executive director of the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra, planned three festivals for June, July and August of 2001. One would highlight the jazz genre, the second, folk music, and the third event would feature the Blues, but when the construction schedule of Heritage Port lagged, the Jazz Fest was cancelled, and for financial reasons the folk music event was cancelled, too.
“So I did do the BluesFest in August 2001, and there were more people on stage than there were in the audience, and I would have probably given it up, but a gentleman with one of the bands approached me and said that he hoped I would keep doing it because he felt a really good vibe here in Wheeling, and he told me it would make it.
“Well, of course that meant I couldn’t give up. I had to get to year two, and I figured it out. And the second year was better, but it still wasn’t that good. We saw a 20 percent increase in attendance, but 20 percent of not much still wasn’t much. It was still very difficult,” he continued. “And then, in 2003, it was the 100-year anniversary of the discovery of the Blues so it was ‘The Year of the Blues.’ So that meant I couldn’t give up after the second year.”
Fans of the Blues genre traveled to Wheeling, but local folks failed to attend the first few years. That changed, however, and the annual Yuengling Heritage Music BluesFest is now in its 16th year. Blues fans in the Upper Ohio Valley, in fact, now support concerts outside of the three-day festival each August. Wheeler founded, “Blues Tuesday” at River City Restaurant during the month of July in 2014, and since then he has added shows throughout the year.
The concerts feature nationally touring Blues artists and have attracted up to 220 fans to the local eatery and banquet center.
“‘Blues’ Tuesday came from the fact that people from this area came to me and told me that it was shame that they only get one weekend of Blues music each year,” Wheeler said. “They asked me if I would do something else, and I thought about it. Then I started thinking about it as a good little promotional thing for the BluesFest, so that’s why a couple of years ago we started it on the Tuesdays in July so we could have a good lead-up to the event.
“My goal was to get the word out about the BluesFest, and it worked really well,” he said. “And then Jason (Miller) from River City came up to me after one of the shows and asked me if I would consider doing more of the shows. I knew it was good for the bands, it was good for getting the word out about the BluesFest, and it was good for River City and the city of Wheeling.”
And the Show Goes On
The Yuengling Heritage Music BluesFest is the only pay-for-admittance event at Heritage Port, but since the beginning, Wheeler has opened the gates to the public for a lunchtime show on the first day each year, and the same plan is in place again in 2016.
On Friday, Aug. 12, “The Taste of the Blues” will begin at 11:30 a.m. and the Jimmy Adler Band is set to perform and so is Ben & Joe. Jimmy Adler hails from the Pittsburgh area and will soon represent western Pennsylvania at the annual International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tenn., in January. Ben & Joe will make the trip, too, to compete in the solo/duo competition.
“This will give a lot of local fans and those who travel in from outside this area to come down to Heritage Port for lunch and a few performances by some of the artists who will be performing during the weekend,” Wheeler said. “Most of the vendors will be open, so the people who come to the, ‘Taste of the Blues’ will be able to get something to eat and enjoy some great music.”
But once again Wheeler has added more live entertainment in downtown Wheeling, and again the addition is in reaction to fans who adore his festival.
“We have decided to do it a little differently this year for the people who come to Wheeling from out of town,” Wheeler explained. “There’s usually a large group of them that usually gather to go to dinner, and they have rotated around to different restaurants around the city. This year they tell me they will be at River City.
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“Those folks contacted me and asked if I would do something of a kickoff party for BluesFest, and I thought it was a really great idea,” he continued. “At first I explained to them that on the Thursday before the beginning of BluesFest I’m always very busy because we only have the one day to get everything ready. But they convinced me that they would be available if I need them, and my family told me they would help, too. So that’s what we will be doing on Aug. 11 at River City with The Jimmy Adler Band and Ben & Joe.
“And of course at the end of the Thursday night show they’ll all get on the stage for a jam session,” he added. “That’s how the Blues does it.”
Through the first 15 years of the Yuengling Heritage Music BluesFest the biggest names from across the world have performed at Heritage Port, and the same can be said about this year’s lineup.
“The list of performers that have been to Wheeling kind of reads like a list of the, ‘Who’s Who’ in the Blues world,” Wheeler said. “Through the years we have been very blessed with good weather, and I credit that to who is up there looking down on us. There’s that Blues band in the sky, I tell people. There are a lot of notable Blues musicians that have passed away who really take care of that for us, I believe.
“In the first year alone we had an incredible lineup, and we’ve been very fortunate to attract the best there is in the world every year since,” he continued. “The performers know about the Wheeling BluesFest, and many of them reach out to me to see if it’s their turn yet. And once they play here, they usually always want to come back because it’s a great crowd who knows the Blues.”
The lineup for the 2016 Yuengling Heritage Music BluesFest:
FRIDAY, AUGUST 12 5:00 to 6:00 Quinn Sullivan
6:30 to 7:30 Sue Foley
8:00 to 9:00 Rod Piazza And The Mighty Flyers
9:30 to 11:00 Shemekia Copeland
SATURDAY, AUGUST 13
12:00 to 1:00 IBC Winners Ben Hunter & Joe Seamons
1:30 to 2:30 Albert Castiglia
3:00 to 4:00 Ben Miller Band
4:30 to 5:45 Paul DesLauriers Band
6:15 to 7:30 Curtis Salgado
8:00 to 9:15 Janiva Magness
9:45 to 11:00 Harmonicon with Sugar Blue, Billy Branch and Jason Ricci
SUNDAY, AUGUST 14
1:00 to 2:00 Ben Prestage
2:30 to 3:30 Jonn Del Toro Richardson
4:00 to 5:15 Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds
5:45 to 6:45 Tinsley Ellis
7:15 to 8:30 Laith Al-Saadi
9:00 to 10:30 Butch Trucks and the Freight Train Band
“I am really happy with this year’s lineup. I like the flow when I think about how it will flow,” Wheeler explained. “One of the reasons why I do this is that I used to be a singer in a rock n’ roll band, and putting together the lineup is my way of performing. When I get the smiles and applause from the audience, I know that I did a good job.
“There are a lot of people who do not know all of the history with the BluesFest, but there’s plenty of it for the fans to discover,” he added. “It was a tough ride in the beginning, and it continued for a few years until we got over that hump. But now we have fans that come in from all over the country and a lot of fans who live right here in our area, so I am very much looking forward to this year’s show. It’s really become a reunion for so many.”
Best Goes to Memphis
And yes, there’s more.
One goal Wheeler has owned since 2001 has been to send a local Blues band to Memphis to compete in the International Blues Challenge, but the Blues Foundation has frowned on the idea because the competing bands have always been crowned by a local Blues Society.
The event attracts hundreds of Blues bands from throughout the world, and two local bands have competed in the past. The Adrian Niles Band made the trip to Memphis a few years ago and advanced all the way to the finals, Wheeler reported, and Pittsburgh-area band Billy the Kid & The Regulators competed in 2014 and captured third place.
This year, though, the second stage at the Yuengling Heritage Music BluesFest will feature Blues bands in the kind of competition for which Wheeler has wished. Performers from northern and southern West Virginia, the Pittsburgh area, and even Missouri will compete for the trip to the 2017 International Blues Challenge.
“Since last year’s BluesFest a group of Blues fans who have been coming to the festival since the first year decided that they needed to help promote the Blues. That’s why they formed the Blues Society of Northern West Virginia that is a part of the Blues Foundation,” Wheeler explained. “It is based in Weirton, and they have done a couple of events so far in that area, but then they told me they would love to have a Blues competition.
“It was something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time, but it was also something I didn’t see myself having time to do because of everything else involved with the festival,” he continued. “So I told them they could use our second stage, so this year we will have 14 competitors, and the winner will get a minimum of $1,000 in prize money and will be entered in the IBC competition in Memphis.”
So another dream comes true despite how unlikely it all seemed after the first few BluesFests at Heritage Port. Although Wheeler had cashed in his retirement savings and taken out a second mortgage on his freshly painted house, he owed everyone, and his wife nearly divorced him.
“And, to be honest, I knew what I was doing was pretty stupid, but I like to put everything I do into the ‘Rocking Chair Test.’ And that test says, ‘Will you feel good about who you are and what you have done when you are old enough when all you can do is sit in a rocking chair and think back,” Wheeler explained. “That’s when I knew I would rather be broke and living with someone who is giving me a place to live and look back and know that I at least tried.”
He likes what he sees now, and the bills are paid; he still owns the house, and he kept his beautiful bride.
“The BluesFest kept growing about 20 percent or so every year and I just kept figuring out how to make it to the next year,” Wheeler said with a smile. “And here we are, 15 years later, and we have an internationally recognized Blues festival that is respected by the fans and by the artists, too. And there’s nothing negative about that.”
(Cover photo by Steve Novotney; additional photos provided by Bruce Wheeler)
Weelunk received compensation in exchange for publishing this article.