INB’s Mike Wallace can’t sing in front of his mother, but he’s an award-winning lead singer in a Blues band that’s on its way to the International Blues Challenge in Memphis.
“I always tell my mom she has to turn around if she wants me to sing to her,” said Mike. “I’m sort of shy that way.” But once he gets in front of a crowd of strangers, he’s not shy at all. His awesome vocals have led Springfield’s own Back Pack Jones to earn a number of awards in just a few years.
Mike has always liked to sing. He was part of the choral groups at Springfield’s Southeast High School, and became an honorary band member thanks to the close proximity of both groups. In 2012, a band teacher asked Mike to sing as part of a band at his retirement party; Mike jumped at the opportunity. “It was myself, another student, a security guard and a guy the teacher met through a mutual friend. We were the band.”
After a couple of months practice, the group performed for about an hour at the retirement party. They were such a hit, another retiring teacher asked for an encore. With that confidence, band members dubbed themselves Back Pack Jones and starting performing around the capitol city.
“At that point,” Mike said, “we had to decide what kind of music we wanted to sing. Rhythm or Blues? We all loved Blues, so we narrowed it down to that.”
With that decision made, band members felt confident enough about their work to enter the annual Old Capitol Blues and BBQ blues competition held annually in Springfield. “We entered and we won!” remembered Mike. That win gave them a chance to perform at the International Challenge for the first time. Of the roughly 170 bands in the competition, Mike said Back Pack Jones made it to the second round of about 40 top bands.
By the next year, Back Pack Jones added a horn section bringing their group to 10 members. They went to Memphis again, but didn’t make it to the semifinals. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t an awesome year for the group. In 2014, they released their first CD, Betsy’s Kitchen, and opened for BB King when he played at the Sangamon Auditorium at the University of Illinois’ Springfield campus. “It was an awesome opportunity.” Mike said adding, “I think we sold more merchandise than he (BB King) did that night!” Mike made sure King left town with a copy of the group’s CD.
Mike explained that producing and recording the CD was very much a team process. “We only had a budget of $4,500. That’s not very much.” It took Mike and his friends 10 months to create the CD from start to finish. Mike wrote one of the songs by himself, co-wrote two others, and the group collaborated on virtually everything.
Today, Mike said Back Pack Jones performs two to five times a week. Because he loves the singing, Mike says late-night practices and long hours aren’t a burden. He comes to work each morning as an INB Customer Care Center representative, pleased to talk to whoever is on the other end of the phone.
Mike’s day job helps him pay for his passion. Equipment. Travel. It all adds up. While the group is excited to be heading to Memphis again, the cost to take all six band members for four days adds up. They are getting $500 from the Illinois Central blues Club, a prize for taking first place in last year’s Blues and BBQ competition. To help offset the other costs, they’re part of a fundraiser beginning at 7 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 28 at the Alamo, 115 N. 5th St., Springfield.
Then they head to Memphis on Jan. 31 for four days of 24-7 “hob-nobbing,” as Mike described it. He explained that record label reps, radio personalities and blues magazine writers will all be on hand. “The bands perform all up and down Beal Street in the bars and clubs. We won’t know which bar or club until we get there.” He says over 200 bands are in the competition, and each band is guaranteed two performances.
Mike says blues really are “international.” As a matter of fact, he says England is a hotbed for blues singers. He has even met band members from Middle Eastern countries and Australia.
Mike says he understands why so many people are drawn to the blues. “Blues is so much more than a sad story and a sad song,” he said. “It’s upbeat and happy. It has positive messages. It has storytelling.”
Mike’s favorite song that he sings is called, “Looking for the Promised Land.” He described it as a song of hope. The lyrics include this refrain: “And all that they wanted was a place where they could be. Living their lives standing tall and free. My brothers and sisters, it’s the same for you and me. We’re looking for the promised land.”
It’s Mike’s favorite because he says it unites all of us. “It doesn’t matter who we are . . . we are all part of the human race. We’re here until the end of time. We might as well all enjoy each other and learn from each other. We’re all here, looking for that Promised Land.”
You’ll find Back Pack Jones’ complete biography on the band’s Facebook page.