Remembering Tom Wheeler

GP pays tribute to our longtime editor-in-chief, the incomparable Tom Wheeler.
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Tom Wheeler (left) interviews Michael Bloomfield, 1978.

Tom Wheeler (left) interviews Michael Bloomfield, 1978.

I had the unfathomable good fortune to recruit, hire, and, later, pass my torch as Editor in Chief of Guitar Player to Tom Wheeler, and that torch flamed even higher, brighter. We met and clicked at a NAMM show, and right away, he started firing off query letters. I declined every one, because we already had the topics assigned, or they were fresh off the press. But those pitches of his were so clever, so funny, and so peppered with nuanced vocabulary and turns of phrases rarely heard in guitar circles, it occurred to me we’d better snag him before someone else did.

I invited him up from L.A. to talk. He was hesitant. He told me he was teaching guitar. When he added that one of his pupils was Barbi Benton at the Playboy Mansion, I detected both ambivalence and irony in his voice. So I persisted, and he soon signed on.

We became coworkers, friends, and co-commuters. We laughed every inch of the drive to and from work, arriving with aching stomachs from wicked punchlines and mutually contrived jokes in progress. We marched in lockstep. I got him his first home. He later turned one of his over to me—the place where I still live. We raised families in tandem and babysat each other’s offspring. We competed to see who could find the most errors in each other’s editorial copy, and we took turns winning. Together, we interviewed John McLaughlin, Al Di Meola, and Paco De Lucia.

Tom said that I had raised the editorial standards to new heights. I counter he surely pushed them up and over the top. His humility was extreme but praiseworthy. He swore me to silence about his having written a song about his hero, Chuck Berry, entitled “Sheik of Chicago,” recorded by Joe Stampley. He got Steve Vai his movie role in Crossroads. Once, I picked up B.B. King at the airport and brought him to our warehouse, where Wheeler held his own with apparent calm in a jam with B.B.

Tom’s long-time buddy was Steve Fishell, pedal-steel guitarist for Emmylou Harris and now producer on gazillions of sessions. He shared an email he got from Wheeler after B.B. died: “I wondered what was the etiquette—would I offend him if I slipped in a lick or two? But he lit up with a smile and gave me a look that said, ‘Okay, let’s go!’ So we traded licks. I had seen him several times since then. You know, I wasn’t even sure he would remember me (I don’t want to overstate our friendship), but he always did. A few years later, Anne [Tom’s wife] and I are sitting with him after the show in the rear of his luxury bus, listening to Pavarotti, and out of the blue, totally unexpectedly, B.B. says, “Hey, Tom! Remember that time we jammed together?”

Fishell adds, “Of course B.B. King remembered jamming with Tom. Tom always left an impression—whether it was through his kindness, his wisdom, his intellect, or his talent with a guitar.”

He modified his ear to hear what was comin’ down the rail, and to switch tracks before some musical derailment. He never lost his grip on the divining rod he used to find that for which readers thirsted. He inherited a wildly talented editorial staff that included Dan Forte, Tom Mulhern, Jas Obrecht, and Jon Sievert. The fur flew far. Frequently. Things didn’t get easier as he added his own staffers. After all, people that extraordinary were hired because of their different strengths—a recipe for feudal war and for brilliant advancements in editorial breadth and quality.

His days were wild and bright in a kaleido-scope of fanatical readers of his prolific oeuvre; snarky startup mavericks; genius engineers with brain synapses soldered to fire faster than pedalboard wires; long-toothed academics and electronic, ivory-tower-ites; nitpicky historians; OCD archivists; sanctified, certified, Grade A, No. 1, free-range, musical icons; not to mention a line of journalism students extending over the horizon who waited long and fought hard to get into his classes at the University of Oregon.

One final story: When I finally got Tom up to the San Francisco Bay Area for his job interview, I hosted a dinner for him with a young couple that I was trying to convince to give up their place to him. They were post-hippie hippies, eager to move to a farm. The young woman said that she loved animals—especially cows—because they were so spiritual. Tom asked her to elaborate. She said, “Oh, didn’t you realize that ‘moo’ spelled backwards is ‘oom’?” Tom and I exchanged a sidelong glance before covering our mouths with our napkins to stifle face-reddening guffaws with fake coughs.

So here’s a sidelong glance, looking at you, kid. The reverberating echo of our shared laughter will raise my spirits when I feel low because you’re gone. Tom Wheeler has left the building.