The Core: The Wooten Brothers

The Core: The Wooten Brothers

Béla Fleck & The Flecktones bassist Victor Wooten and Steve Miller Band keyboardist Joseph Wooten regroup with their older siblings for their first family tour since the passing of their brother Rudy.

Family Time

JOSEPH WOOTEN: I do a Christmas show with my brothers every year here in Nashville, but The Wooten Brothers haven’t toured in quite a while. So we knew that it was time to do a project together—nobody’s getting any younger. COVID was a break for everybody. Nobody knew how long it was going to last so everybody tried to find ways to survive, and we did a couple of things together. We did a Christmas special online. We did a fundraiser to keep Rudy’s Jazz Room —which is named after our brother that passed away—going. And, at a certain point, we just realized that we wanted to focus on doing something with the brothers together. [Rudy Wooten died of natural causes in 2010, after battling mental health issues for years, reportedly while wearing his saxophone around his neck.]

We finally got everybody’s schedules to match up and made some music. The music is good, and we’re going to try to support it this fall. We wrote a song called “Sweat”— it’s funky. After playing with the Steve Miller Band for 30 years, which is also fun, it’s just really enjoyable to play with my brothers.

VICTOR WOOTEN: After the pandemic, we all had gigs that we had to make up. But we looked far enough ahead and found a few windows where we could get together to record. So we ended up recording in a few different time frames. The other thing that happened is that, during the early part of the pandemic, I got contacted by a gentleman through Facebook who used to work for Don Kirshner. Back in the ‘70s, there was a TV show called Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert that spotlighted bands. Growing up in the era before YouTube— before we had access to everything—we would stay up waiting to see who was going to be on that show. He had heard about us five brothers—these young kids living in Newport News, Va., that played, danced and sang but did it differently from The Jackson 5.

This gentleman says that he came to check us out when we were kids. He described the garage where we used to jam, and he said that he still had the cassette demo that our mom gave him. I had forgotten that, at some point, the brothers had actually gone into a real studio and recorded a bunch of original music. This was when Rudy was at the height of his playing—he played two saxes at a time. This gentleman tells me that his wife is ill and that they need money for hospital bills. He wanted to put this cassette online to see what he could get for it, but he wanted to reach out to me first. I found out how much money he was going to ask for it, got the brothers on the phone, and we paid him more than he was asking. And when we got this cassette, we remembered a bunch of music that we had forgotten about. After that, we went through this storage unit and found some reels of tape from the same session and another project of original music. So there are two albums or more of original music from the ‘70s and early ‘80s that nobody’s heard. We are thinking of releasing a new song and then releasing an old song. And then we’ll eventually have an album’s worth of material that we can mix together.

Child’s Play

JW: My dad fought in the army during the Korean War. After the war was over, my mom wanted him to get out of the military. So he got out just long enough to enter the Air Force, which, at the time, my mom wasn’t happy about. But, thank goodness, they made that work. So the Wooten brothers were born on Air Force bases all across the country. And one of the places that we were stationed—after Vic, who is the youngest, was born in Idaho— was Hawaii. My older three brothers, Rudy, Roy and Regi, were in elementary school, and the school issued them instruments. One of those instruments was the ukulele— Regi took Roy’s ukulele, and he was magnificent on it. He could already play whatever he heard. Around the same time, Roy started beatin’ on things, shakin’ a chain—he eventually winds up playing the drums. Rudy had the recorder, and he could play whatever he heard without effort. So Regi started thinking about putting together something that all the brothers could do together, forever—and he thought that we could have a band. So he comes to Victor and I and, in essence, says, “Joseph, if you do this, and Victor, if you do that, we can have a band.” And he started teaching us one note at a time. It’s pretty incredible. He was only 10 years old, but he had the patience, the musical feel, the empathy and the knowledge to teach his five year-old brother and his two year-old brother to be a part of what the older brothers were doing. We started getting a little bit better and, by the time we moved to California, we were good enough to open for War. Victor was five, I was eight, and the older three brothers were 11, 12 and 13. Victor was so young that he had just learned how to write his name. And, just two years later, we opened for Curtis Mayfield.

We were children but we already had a career that was given to us by our older brother, who was still a child himself. By the time that we got to the ‘80s, we were opening for The Temptations, Ramsey Lewis, Frankie Beverly and Maze—we already had a life path while other kids were taking the SATs. It kept us out of trouble and kept other people from trying to get us into trouble because we had an identity. We had a purpose. So, when we got a record deal in the mid ‘80s, we weren’t surprised because we had known for a long time that we had ability, but all of those things are the ancillaries to the vision of a 10-year-old kid.

VW: We stopped going on the road as The Wooten Brothers as often after the ‘80s. Because of a bad record deal, we found the f ive of us not playing together exclusively, like we were before. And that eventually led to some of us being in New York and some of us being in Virginia. I ended up visiting Nashville and never leaving—it’s just been a very long visit. [Laughs.] But that led to The Flecktones; it led to Joseph getting the gig with Steve Miller. We would still play together in Nashville a few times a year, but it was much less. When I started developing a career in the mid ‘90s, at first, I just went out with a friend of mine on drums—bass and drums. Then, when I was making enough money to bring Regi and Joseph out, we started being able to play together a little bit more. But it’s rare that we’ve focused exclusively on the Brothers. Now, that’s what we want to do.

All You Need Is Lovell

JW: Rudy was the middle brother. His full name was Rudy Lovell Wooten, and he was a very loving person. The word “love” was in his middle name. When he heard about Rahsaan Roland Kirk, the blind saxophone player that used to play two saxophones, he just instantly gravitated to it. He was our one-man horn section. When Rudy, Roy and Regi were in college, there was an instructor named Consuela Lee. She was Spike Lee’s aunt— Spike Lee had musical aunts and uncles, and his dad was also an upright bassist and a composer. The first time she heard him play, she said, “He’s ready for New York right now,” even though he was a 17 or 18-year-old kid.

This tour is a chance to introduce him to the rest of the world. Even people that know The Wooten Brothers, most of them don’t know the middle brother as much as they know the rest of us, and we haven’t toured since he died.

VW: Being brothers, we’d hear about other musical brothers when we were growing up. As the Marsalis family started to rise, we’d hear about them. Of course, we knew about The Jackson 5, though we didn’t know any of them personally, and there was another group of brothers called the Burfords. Kofi and Oteil Burbridge were the brothers that we knew right away since they lived near us, and there were other great musicians, who weren’t brothers, in our area as well. A lot of the guys who would join Dave Matthews Band were a little north of us—Carter Beauford, Tim Reynolds and Butch Taylor. It seems like Dave Matthews picked this fusion band Secrets and got the whole band. They were all great— another area bassist, James Genus, is playing with Herbie Hancock and the alto sax player from Secrets Steve Wilson, is doing a lot of stuff in New York and played with Chick Corea.

The Circle Game

VW: I spent part of this year playing with Cory Wong. He’s really got it together. He’s a smart guy and, of course, very talented, but talent doesn’t always get you there. Talent’s not enough these days. It was fun to just be the old guy. I got to walk in and play part of the show—do my little thing and get a lot of credit. [Laughs.] He set me up to look good. But I’ve learned a lot from Cory in the same way he has learned a lot from the bands and artists before him. We talked quite a bit about The Flecktones. He has a recording of the first time he came to see us. He felt like we gave him permission to do instrumental music and to know that it could work. So it was nice to know that we have influenced the next generation and that they can come back and influence us. I enjoyed seeing how Cory runs his organization—how he treats his band, how he runs his show. His show is totally orchestrated. Every time they circle up before a gig, he brings everybody together just like a football team might huddle before a play. I’ve learned some things that I’m sure will be incorporated into our touring as brothers. And so the circle just keeps turning— the old influences the new, the new influences the old, and this music thing just keeps going.

Better Together

JW: You’ll hear some familiar funk on this tour, you’ll hear some older compositions you haven’t heard before, you’ll hear some things from Victor’s career and you’ll hear some new music. The main thing—the common denominator—will be that you’ll just enjoy it. I don’t think we’re going to play anything that goes over anybody’s head, but, hopefully, we’ll play things that bring everybody together, which is the purpose of music in the first place. And we’ll do it as brothers. Hopefully, people can see how close we are, and it will remind them of how close we can all be.

VW: At the risk of sounding egotistical, we come from an era when you had to be good to make it. These days, you don’t have to be good. They can make you sound good, they can make you look good. Back in our day—and, again, this sounds egotistical—the only criteria you needed to be famous was to be good. You didn’t have to look beautiful, you didn’t have to be thin, you didn’t have to dye your hair orange, you didn’t have to take your clothes off. We’re good at what we do and, when we do it together, we’re really good. We’re going to bring you backward and forward at the same time. A lot of young people playing new music don’t really know where it came from, and we are going to teach them. We are in the exclusion era of our country—us against them, all separate, I have to win. We want to unify people. You’re going to leave our concerts better people.

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