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From Savannah to Memphis: a Q&A with Victor Wainwright

Savannah-bred blues pianist preps for Tybee Post Theater gig

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Pianist, singer, and songwriter Victor Wainwright may call Memphis, Tennessee home currently, but he’s actually a Savannah boy. Wainwright, who was born with blues in his blood, spent his early life being mentored by his musician father and grandfather before venturing off on his own. It was a non-musical job offer that landed him in Memphis, where he soon realized that he needed to pursue his passion full force.

Nowadays, Wainwright tours internationally and has garnered acclaim for his unique talent and playing style. He’ll be returning to Savannah for a (nearly sold out) show at the Tybee Post Theater on Saturday, May 18, and we spoke to him beforehand about his career so far and why he’s excited to come home.

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So you were born in Savannah?

Wainwright: I was, man! My grandad and dad, and all my family, are all from Savannah. My family still lives there.

How’d you get into music?

Well, my grandfather taught me to play the piano and my daddy taught me how to sing. My grandfather passed away a couple of Decembers ago, but he played a very important role in the type of music that I play now and what I listen to. My dad grew up playing with him - drums or guitar, depending on what he needed at the time in the band.

When I came along, of course I was introduced to all this music that they were playing. I was just brought up into it, but always had it in me. They knew how hard it was out there, and they wanted me to have an education and all of that. I decided with a bunch of stubbornness that I was going to be an air traffic controller. A friend of the family was an air traffic controller, which I thought was pretty cool. So I went down to Florida and spent four years learning how to be an air traffic controller. Then the FAA called me up and stationed me in Memphis.

What are the chances that you ended up being stationed in this really vital music town? It’s kind of amazing. When you got there did you realize that you really should be just playing music?

Yeah, it didn’t take long for me to realize that I couldn’t balance the two. This city of music was really hollering my name.

Fast forward a bit and now you’re making records and touring all over the world. Tell me a bit about your writing process? Do you play around on keys and find parts, or do melodies come first?

Wainwright: It’s funny, I don’t write on the piano. I write songs in my head and put ideas down on my phone. A lot of times I wait until much later to put words to it. I just take the melody ideas, get them into a concrete form, and then I introduce it to my band. Then I finally sit at keys as the last part [of the process].

I know you play both piano and Hammond organ - which do you find yourself preferring? I know a lot of players are pretty devoted to one or the other, especially in the style of music that you play.

I play a lot more piano than organ. I don’t travel with a B3, so I just have a keyboard that I use patches on. I’m not really inspired by the Hammond patches on the keyboard, so I don’t end up playing as much organ as I would if there’s one sitting on stage. I’m not a devoted Hammond player - I’m barely even a devoted piano player.

I’ve won four different years of Piano Player of the Year at the Blues Music Awards, which is the highest blues award you can win. So what’s funny to me [about that] is that I feel like I just happen to be a piano player. My granddad played piano, and I took after the style that he played. I developed my own style from there, which is not like I anything that I can really point to.

It was really just born out of necessity. I wanted to play an instrument while I sang and entertained people, and piano was just something I knew how to do.

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