By Michael Lester
By the time Joseph Wooten was 8 years old, he and his four musically gifted brothers were already spending weekends on stage as an opening act for bands like War, of “Low Rider,” “Why Can’t We Be Friends” and “Spill the Wine” fame and, later, r&b/soul legend Curtis Mayfield.
Victor Wooten, Joseph’s five-time Grammy Award-winning bass-playing brother, “was 5 at the time. I was 8.” recalled Joseph, Steve Miller Band’s regular keyboardist since 1993. “We’d come home on a Friday from school, and Victor and I would take a nap” to rest up for that night’s show.
Their late mother Dorothy once plucked Joseph and Victor from school for an early dismissal during the 1970s for an impromptu visit with a guy by the name of James Brown, one of the boys’ musical heroes. The Godfather of Soul was performing close to the Wooten home, so Dorothy taxied her boys to Brown’s hotel room for an unforgettable meeting.
“I don’t know how my mom knew where they were,” a baffled Joseph fondly recalled with a laugh. “How incredible for a parent to know how important it was for us to meet James Brown. It made a huge impression. I remember they opened the door to that hotel room, and I could see all these incredible shoes laying all over the place.”
Over four decades later, it’s the Wootens, all based in Nashville, who are musical royalty. They continue making music and building a family legacy that may go down rivaling the likes of the Jackson 5, minus the sensational tabloid headlines.
Victor, named by Rolling Stone as one of the top ten bassists of all time, and Roy “Futureman” Wooten, inventor of the “Drumitar,” a guitar-looking contraption that plays like drums, are perhaps the most well known among the Wootens as founding members of banjo great Béla Fleck’s Flecktones.
That pair, along with Joseph and Regi “The Teacher” Wooten , a guitarist and Nashville-based music teacher, bring their funk, jazz and R&B blend Thursday to the Keswick Theater in suburban Philadelphia’s Glenside. Joseph Wooten will also perform with the Steve Miller Band at Toyota Pavilion at Montage Mountain in Scranton in a show that also features Journey on June 10, 2014.
They’re performing on stage as a family for the first time since their saxophone-playing brother Rudy Wooten’s death of natural causes in 2010 at the age of 52.
During the 11-city tour this month, they’ll be playing songs from their ill-fated 1985 album, in addition to covers of the Jackson 5, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder and, yes, James Brown.
“Everybody in the band sings. I probably do the most singing,” acknowledged Joseph, who turns 52 Saturday.
Crowds can also expect “a little country,” Joseph offered, unsolicited. He noted the Wootens performed country shows at Busch Gardens while growing up in Virginia. “Both my parents were country music fans.”
Joseph said the four surviving Wooten brothers (Victor is the youngest at 49, Futureman is 56 and Regi is the oldest at 57) credit their parents for keeping them grounded as they grew up and helping them sidestep pitfalls of fame that too often ruin careers of child showbiz stars.
Dorothy worked as a civilian on military bases, where their father Elijah “Pete” Wooten, a Korean War veteran, made a career, first in the Army and later in the Air Force. North Carolina natives, they made moves to military bases in Virginia, Hawaii and California. Mr. and Mrs. Wooten once took out a loan to buy their five boys new musical gear when it became clear they had talent and were serious about playing.
“They didn’t push us into music,” Joseph proudly recalled. “The three older brothers started playing on their own, and Regi said, ‘You do this, and you do that, and we can have a band.’ We wanted to be part of what the older brothers were doing.”
The Wootens released an 1985 album on the Arista Records label that flopped and left them disillusioned with music’s business side.
Much of the musical playing on the album wasn’t their own. Roy’s drums were largely replaced by a drum machine, and Victor’s bass was substituted on all but two of the eight tracks by the sounds of a Minimoog synthesizer, Joseph explained.
“We had the best bass player in the world,” Joseph said, laughing incredulously. “It was a big learning experience for us in that we learned we needed to be smarter about what we signed. We had to be resilient.”
Joseph, the father of two sons who once collaborated with the late Whitney Houston as a backing vocalist, acknowledged it was Rudy’s sudden death that helped fuel this short tour. Rudy was found dead in his Inglewood, Calif., home with his sax strapped around his neck.
Meanwhile, Victor, the father of two daughters and two sons, has said in recent interviews he plans to take a break from touring once he hits 50. That will be next September, raising questions about the near future of the Flecktones.
“At some point, the public will probably demand they get back together,” Joseph said. “That band was something special. It would be a shame for them not to do something.”
For the next week or so, the public will get the Wootens on stage. As a family.
“Everybody’s getting older, and we felt it was the right time,” said Joseph, who launched a side gig as a motivational speaker in Buffalo schools several years ago.
“Everybody has separate careers. It’s tough to get everyone’s schedules (synched). Hats off to Victor’s managers for getting everyone together. It’s hard to get us all in the same room at the same time.”