Since his first appearance on the American scene, Barrence Whitfield’s been a kind of delightful enigma. Whitfield launched his first edition of the Savages in 1984, when Madonna, Michael Jackson, LA hair bands and hip-hop were the big things happening. In contrast, his first album, “Barrence Whitfield and the Savages,” and the 1985 follow-up, “Dig Yourself,” were R&B rave-ups that sounded like they could have been made in the early 60’s. Whitfield’s voice was, and still is, a pure raw, raucous soul instrument that’s been compared to such greats as Wilson Pickett, Little Richard, Howlin’ Wolf and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. The last is especially notable, because throughout Whitfield’s records you invariably find bits of tongue-in-cheek humor, the novelty element, like in ‘Girl from Outer Space’ on “Ow,Ow,Ow” and ‘Dust on My Needle’ from “Let’s Lose It”, where the recording skips at the end as if it’s a vinyl record with – yep, dust on the needle. Whitfield is a “vinyl over CD” (or any other format) advocate, and when he isn’t touring, he works at vintage record store The Record Exchange in Salem Mass., as the resident expert on all things R&B and more.
Original founding member of Barrence Whitfield and The Savages, Peter Greenberg, (previously guitarist for the much loved Boston punk/garage band The Lyres) reunited with Barrence in 2010, to test the waters, which led to "Savage Kings" (2010) and the current release, “Dig Thy Savage Soul.” (2012.) "Dig Thy Savage Soul" has been selling briskly, getting universally outstanding reviews, and Barrence Whitfield and the Savages have been touring in Europe and the US.
I spoke with Whitfield recently in Beverly, Mass, where he lives. Whitfield in person is the polar opposite of his wild man onstage persona – he’s laid-back, unaffected, congenial and humorous, almost professorial at times, in his wide musical knowledge and experience.
Who’s the guy on the pipe? (on the album cover)
I got that pipe in Spain. I didn’t know who it was when I bought it, but then people told me it was Napoleon. But the picture for this cover came from me and Peter seeing an old a promo poster of Howlin’ Wolf, where he had a beret and a huge pipe, it was one of those Sherlock Holmes pipes… and we said, “I love that photo, let’s try to do something like that," so we did it.
So after all these years, you and Peter reunited.
Yeah, the first three years, 1983-1986 were the years we were together, Peter had already been in DMZ and the Lyres, so by the time 1986 had come around, he met a nice woman, decided to get married, he changed his stripes, and left music for a long time. Then in 2010 out of the blue he invited me out to Taos, where he lived. He was doing a DMZ reunion, and he was also playing with this band Manby’s Head, with Mike Mooney, who wrote some of the songs for the album. (Dig Thy Savage Soul) Peter wanted to reissue the first Barrence Whitfield and the Savages album, so we had to sign some legal contracts. He told me that he was doing some playing with this band, and I said, ‘Hey, if you want me to ever come out here and visit, and we could so some jamming… so within the next two or three weeks he called and said, ‘Barrence, I booked some dates, you want to come out and do some shows?’ And we got Phil (Lenker), bass player of the original Savages to do it, and we flew out there. First time we had played in a long long time. We played just in New Mexico, but by the end we talked about doing it again. We put together some material, but we needed to have a record label, and I knew this record label in Spain. I contacted them and they said ‘We would be honored to put out your next record.’ (The resulting record was “Savage Kings”)
You toured once that record came out?
With that record out we went to France and Spain, Italy and Germany to do some shows. It was very successful over there, we were more recognized than here.
At that point, you’d planned to put out another album…
We wanted to find a record label here in the US, we’d already done the recording, we were looking for someplace to shop it around, so we sent it to Bloodshot and they said, “We’ve been playing this in the office every day, we want to put it out!“ So the album came out in August 2012. Everything that’s been said about it has been great. Not just in America, but around the world. I just got a review of the record the other day from New Zealand.
Tell me about recording the album – the record’s got a very live sound. How did you get that?
All the basic tracks were recorded onto 8-track tape live – bass, drums, guitar… all my records have been done that way… and the sax was in there too. Then we did overdubs. I think it’s the way rock and roll should be. There’s so much tech out there, and they’re going for the same kind of sound, but we’re doing it the way it used to be done. We did it at Ultrasound Studio in Cincinnati, a lot of R&B artists recorded there in the 70’s.
Your voice at times has a definite Howlin’ Wolf, Captain Beefheart vibe to it…
Actually, we recorded a song that was going to be on this album, Beefheart’s ‘Zig-Zag Wanderer,’ that’s from (Beefheart’s album) “Safe as Milk,” we knew we were bridging a new… revolution by doing Captain Beefheart. But we didn’t end up putting on the record. That’s still in the can.
On ‘I’m Sad About It,’ (from “Dig Thy Savage Soul”) that seems to have a little Screamin’ Jay feel…
Yeah, it’s a soul tune written by a guy named Lee Moses, Atlanta, Georgia, 60’s – again, he’s one of those unsung heroes of rock and roll and soul nobody knows, but I mentioned the song in England, and they knew who Lee Moses is. It’s a great soul tune, we did one of his songs on the “Savage Kings” record, ‘Bad Girl.’ He’s a very very powerful singer, so this song (I'm Sad About It) was just perfect.
Why do you think there’s more awareness in England?
I think it’s appreciation for R&B and soul. It’s always been there. It’s always been there. From the times of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, that’s what they were listening to.
You could take most of the songs on this record, and put them on a radio show with R&B songs from the 60’s, and unless they’d heard the record, people wouldn’t know the songs were current. I think it’s a compliment to the record that it’s got the R&B sound itself, but also the live feel you get from those old records. We’re you going for that?
Yeah, in some ways we were, but you know, what we were going for was just a sound people could relate to, there’s all this technology where you can fill up a CD with maybe 60 minutes of music on it – this wasn’t that. This is an album oriented recording, 12 songs, you know, so that you can put it on and hear the whole thing in one sitting. There’s songs on here that will stick in your head, and that’s exactly what we were going for. They’re short songs that people can go back to and want to hear again.
How was it playing on the Jools Holland TV show in England? (video link)
It was great. It was a trip to be playing across from the Pixies. Tony Joe White was on it. I also got to meet Hugh Laurie. He's a piano player, you know. He was on the show. I'd love to get a note from him one of these days, just talk to him. Because of the production of the show and everything, we didn't get a chance to sit down and really hang.
What's coming up? Touring?
Next year we'll still be touring, that's in the works. I think there's a lot of new fans, a lot of babies who were running around in their diapers when we started who are in their 20's, so I think that's another thing. I mean, there's kids out there listening to like... the Jonas Brothers, who need to be saved. (laughter) If they want to be saved. Having this record come out in the year 2013, it matters to people. It's something hasn't been done for a while, it hasn't been done out in the mainstream, I think people have forgotten about it, you know, and here were are, fifty year old guys banging and sweating and it's just like it was back in 1965, 1958... 1979, you know, it's just basic rock and roll, basic soul, basic rhythm and blues. People still like that stuff, no matter if they say - "That's my grandfather's music, or my great grandfather's music," it still matters today.