Barrence Whitfield: Savage-Mania Is Back

By A.J. Wachtel
April 2011

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Three things you donít expect from Barrence: First, he sleeps stationary in a bed every night. Second, offstage he carries on normal conversations and is very calm and collected. And last, in his long and legendary career, the best is yet to come; his most explosive material ever is just around the bend and its subtitle is "Back to the Future." Barrence Whitfield is a full-throttle soul screamer whose Little Richard/Wilson Pickett/Solomon Burke/Soul/Funk/Rockabilly/Blues sound is the ultimate experience in concert-going. Part of the myth is that many venues give the admission charge back if the participant doesn't leave a Whitfield show in a sweat. Fasten your seatbelts and rush to read this interview as Barrence de-accelerates and tells us how to join him in the fast lane.

Boston Blues Society: Newark, N.J is a working class, college town. What did you grow up listening to?

Barrence Whitfield: Pretty much soul music. I grew up right in the heart of Central Ward and I witnessed the 60's riots right in front of my house.

BBS: You opened for Johnny Winter early in your career at the South Mountain Arena in South Orange, N.J. sponsored by the Millburn, N.J. Senior High School Class. I was there at the show. How did this happen and did Johnny check you out?

BW: My band won a High School Battle of The Bands and the first place prize was opening for Johnny Winter. Before that gig, we had only played in small clubs, but doing a 45 minute set at South Mountain Arena was FANTASTIC. And I donít know if Johnny saw us play that performance or not.

BBS: In 1977 you came to Boston to go to school and you became a journalism major at Emerson College. You also worked at Nuggets Records in Kenmore Sq. Were you a Rat regular? What's your favorite memory of Mitch, The Rat's famed doorman? And did you work for money at Nuggets or records?

BW: No, I wasnít really a regular at The Rat. My first show there was to see The Stranglers. My place was The Paradise. I didnít go to The Rat much until I started playing. I remember Mitch always saying to me (lowering his voice to mimic Mitch's static) "Hi Barrence. How are you? Come on in." At Nuggets it was really just a small job and I worked for both money AND records (laughs). I was starting to hear a lot of good music back then. Andy Doroty was the manager of Nuggets and he became the first and only manager of The Savages at the time.

BBS: You have a huge record collection and now you are a well-respected musicologist who lectures on music and its societal impact. In one sentence, can you tell me your view on music and its effects on societies? And what are a few of the rarest records in your collection?

BW: Well I can tell you that music is a big part of today's youth. A lot are going back to buying vinyl and a lot just download music - here today, gone tomorrow. It's not something you look at and appreciate. The first time you saw a Beatles album. The first time you saw a Stones album, or The Real Kids. That memory is gone in today's youth. My rarest album? I just got a Little Willie John album, the guy who did "Fever." It's from 1959 and it's on King Records. I donít really know what itís worth but I've never seen it in anyone's collection. Basically, I have some cool stuff in my collection that I listen to, not just collect.

BBS: You were "discovered" by guitarist Peter Greenberg from DMZ and The Lyres. What's your favorite Monoman Jeff Connolly story? He has a HUGE record collection too. Do you ever talk records with him and compare notes on your collections?

BW: (laughs) My favorite Jeff Connolly story? One time The Lyres were playing at some gig and Jeff yells at Peter and Peter comes over with his guitar and does the "el kabong" thing to his friend onstage. I havenít seen Jeff in a really long while but Peter is a big collector also and we talk a lot about records.

BBS: SPIN Magazine maintains you have a "frenzied performance." How do you capture and record this excitement in your studio projects? Is this a difficulty or problem for you to make your live act and studio recordings comparable and similar? Do people ever leave your show complaining you donít sound the same on your recorded work as you do live and onstage?

BW: Well, usually you get more when you see us live. Pretty much every record I've ever done has been done live in the studio and without over-dubbing so you get the "real" sound. We always try to keep the sound as "live" as possible, so when you see us live it doesnít vary too much. On our first album, "Barrence Whitfield and The Savages," it is pure rawness. We recorded it on an 8-Track too.

BBS: You've won 7 Boston Music Awards including: Best All-around Vocalist, Best R & B Vocalist, Best Club Band and Best R & B Band. Which award gives you the most street cred ?

BW: Probably Best R & B Vocalist because the year I won it in the late 80's I won it over a guy named Bobby Brown.

BBS: You are bigger in Europe then in Boston. Why is that? Throughout the years a lot of local bands with national followings have said the same thing to me. Gang Green. Morphine.The Del Fuegos. What does this say about Boston?

BW: What it says to me is this: When I first went to play in France, Boston was THE MECCA. Not Austin, TX. Not New York City. Not L.A. New Rose Records had The Real Kids, me and Willie Alexander and they did a great job over there for us. Once you got over there you had a built-in following. The first time I went to England it was really exciting. They were saying: "Barrence is the next Little Richard" and when I looked down in the audience I saw Elvis Costello, Jools Holland from Squeeze and now with an English T.V. show, and Robert Plant. Incredible. Thereís a real appreciation for American rock Ďní roll over there.

BBS: Which brings me to ask: Robert Plant and Elvis Costello are both fans of yours. Who is cooler to hang out with?

BW: I just got a chance to hang out with Robert Plant a month ago at The House of Blues. BOTH are great and really know music. They both know a lot about blues and rock Ďní roll. It's really great to talk with both of those guys Ďcause we really have something in common.

BBS: It's been said your show is "like church without the guilt." Care to comment?

BW: (laughs) I entertain with the idea of taking people away from any pain, discomfort or stress for an hour or two. What an experience: I'm sweating from my head to my toes at the end of the show. (laughs)

BBS: You've opened for Bo Diddley, Tina Turner, George Thorogood, Robert Cray, Solomon Burke, Los Lobos, Taj Mahal, Etta James, Buddy Guy and the list goes on and on. Which major artist would you dream of being on the same bill with?

BW: Good question. There's a show I'm doing in Australia, April 18-24 called The Byron Bay Blues Festival with B.B. King, Bob Dylan, ZZ Top, Los Lobos, Leon Russell, George Clinton and P-Funk, Ben Harper, Sue Tedeschi and Eli "Paper Boy" Reed.

BBS: In 2007 you sang "The Music Keeps Rollin' On" in the movie "The Honeydrippers" starring Danny Glover. Did you get a chance to socialize with Danny and what does appearing on a movie soundtrack do to your career?

BW: I didn't get a chance to meet him but I did meet the movie's producer, John Sayles. Being on a soundtrack really heightens your credibility. Plus, at the end of the movie when the credits are rolling and your song plays, you're like "Hey WOW!" Plus the money's good.

BBS: You have one current band called "The Monkey Hips." What's the story behind this group?

BW: I talked to Allen Sheinfeld (Memphis Rockabilly Band) and we wanted to get something together. We originally called the band "Monkey Hips and Rice" after the 50's song by The 5 Royales. I still gig on occasion with them.

BBS: You have a new CD out with a couple of the original Savages. What's the story on this release?

BW: It came out of nowhere. Getting back with Peter Greenberg on guitar and Phil Lenker on bass; I never thought it would happen. But it came with the re-issue of Barrence Whitfield and The Savages on ACE Records in the U.K. It brought us together to record a new record and plays some gigs. Our first gig was last year in New Mexico and it was our first gig in 24 years. Our new CD, "Savage Kings," is due out late in April; first it will be released in Spain on Munster Records and then it will be out on vinyl in the U.S. on Shake-It Records. It's been a long time: we're ready to rock and people are ready to see us again.

For more information of Barrence Whitfield please check out www.barrencewhitfield.com

www.barrencewhitfield.com

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