Friday, November 11, 2016

The One and Only Barrence Whitfield!

"I just want people to walk away knowing that they’ve seen a great show, and they know that Barrence Whitfield is still with them."

Image result for barrence whitfield sparksI had the great pleasure of chatting with Barrence Whitfield, the lead singer of the legendary Boston-based band Barrence Whitfield and the Savages. I first saw Barrence and his band perform in the early 1980s and took many folks to his shows – I loved turning people on to this unique, highly talented performer. Savages shows are full throttle from beginning to end, a unique blend of classic hard-driving R&B with a rocking garage band ethos, with a bit of James Brown and Little Richard thrown into the mix as well. Barrence, who has been described as "the last great soul shouter," never fails to give everything he’s got, every performance. By the end of the show performer and audience alike are equally exhausted and fully charged up at the same time. There was nothing like a Barrence Whitfield show and from the clips I’ve seen, little has changed. We talked about his career and his fantastic new album – and we talked quite extensively about a band we both love: Sparks! Turns out he’s a huge fan. Our conversation about Sparks is captured the second half of this interview.

The website for Barrence Whitfield and the Savages is worth checking out, as is their Facebook page. And I hope you enjoy my interview with this remarkable entertainer!

The Early Years

Monte: Barrence, it is such a pleasure to speak with you. Can you talk a little bit about how you got into music?

Image result for barrence whitfield and the savagesBarrence: I started performing in the early 1980s. I went to Boston University for a year, then I went to Emerson for about three years. I was about to come out of school, but I always had this vision that music was going to be part of my life, and I think the (realization) came over me one night when I was working at (Harvard University’s book store) the COOP as a floor detective, which I wasn’t very good at. I kept walking through the record department. I kept saying to myself, “what am I doing? Why am I here? This is not me.” And two days later I gave my resignation. That’s when the search began, though it looked like it found me.

I hooked up with Peter Greenberg. I didn’t know much about Peter. I heard about his reputation with the Lyres (and DMZ). I had a friend who worked at Nuggets, and he heard me sing around the store, he said you know, you’ve got a pretty decent voice. A friend of mine is looking for a singer, putting together a band. You should hook up with him.”  I came to find out that Peter had worked at Nuggets himself at one time.

Monte: When I think of Barrence Whitfield, I think of you, with the Savages almost like a backup band. You’re saying that it’s more of an equal relationship.

Barrence: Peter Greenberg is the one that really started it all. What he wanted was a band in the sense of the Lyres, that kind of raw feeling, but he wanted a black singer. He wanted a singer that could sing like Little Richard, and could scream…sing like Roy Brown, Wynonie Harris, Wilson Pickett…
We got together, he played me all his great records from his collection, took me to his place in the Back Bay. We just hung out and listened to music. I never actually auditioned, he just said, “you’re the man.”

Monte: Now you had a background in gospel, so you already had an accomplished voice. When I listen to it, I hear Little Richard, Don Covay, some Screaming Jay Hawkins…you have such a unique full throttle approach to your music, and I think that’s what makes you so distinct.

Barrence: But getting together with the right band was always the important thing to do. We sat in the rehearsal spot, right down the street from Fenway Park, for six or seven months just hammering it out, learning stuff, doing these wild, unknown rock and roll covers like Mama Get The Hammer (the Fly’s On The Baby’s Head), Bip, Bop, Bip…we just hammered it into our heads. When we finally did get out there in 1983, it was opening up for the Del Fuegos. They were right on the cusp of getting extremely popular.

Monte: But you played local shows before 1983.

Barrence: Yeah, it was all Jeff’s Last Call, the Rat – you know how it was in Boston back then. You could just go to all these clubs, see six or seven bands in one night. So we were hitting the scene hot and heavy.

Monte: You released your first album in  1984. What were your expectations at that time, in terms of building a career?

Barrence: It was definitely an exciting thing to do. We had already done shows up and down the East Coast, (and in Chicago). We went (to England) in 1986. There was a radio DJ over there by the name of Andy Kershaw, a famous guy over there, he was a protégé of John Peel, and if it wasn’t for him I would have never gotten over to Europe. He was such a big fan of the band, he came all the way over to see us in 1985, and then he got us over there in 1986. We did a show called the Old Grey Whistle Test, a very famous show, and that’s what brought us over to England.

The England thing was something really out of the blue. We wanted to see what the reception was going to be, having this band that played garage rock and roll with a little Rockabilly, Little Richard, and all that. We were very surprised by (the reception). It was an exciting time for us. Being transplanted gave us a different point of view. England to this day continues to be a great place for us to play.

Monte: And here you are today, after all those years, still making great music.

Barrence: We have all gotten a little older…but we still have the energy. When I got back with Peter (a number of) years ago, after not seeing and talking with him for 26 years, Peter and (bassist) Phil Lanker, there was this feeling like “bing,” it’s gonna happen again. It may not be like it was back in the 1980s but who knows, it could be better. I was still out there, singing, playing, going to Europe.
In 2010, we wanted to get a record out. The one who came to me was an old friend of mine who worked for a record label called Munster Records out of Madrid, Spain. I called him, I said that Barrence Whitfield and the Savages are making a comeback and we were wondering if you would want to do it. Three days later he called me back and said, “we’d be honored.” We went in the studio and recorded Savage King, which came out there first and then here in the United States.

Monte: It’s clear that the band is in top form right now.

Barrence: This band is definitely the tops. We get out there and we sweat like we did back in 1983. I think when we started it (again) a few years ago, the first time we hit a note, we said “it’s back again.” We knew it.

Monte: How many of the original Savages are with you today?

Barrence: Me, Peter, and Phil Lanker, the bass player. Our sax player is Tom Quartulli, just fantastic. Andy Jody is the drummer. Great drummer out of Cincinnati. Peter had played with him. A young, whipper snapper guy. A really powerful drummer, he’s just there. He kind of reminds me of our first drummer, Howie Ferguson, who I think was one of the great drummers of all time. He played with the original Real Kids, a fantastic drummer. He was like the drummer for the Stones…

Monte: Charlie Watts. My drumming hero.

Barrence: He was in the pocket, all the time. You can hear him on the first two albums.

The Latest Album: Under the Savage Sky

Image result for barrence whitfield sparksMonte:  In getting ready to talk, I listened to the first album, and the most recent one, Under The Savage Sky, back to back. There’s definitely a continuity. A very reliable, consistent approach that you guys take to your music. I think your most recent record is exceptionally strong, a real "garage band" feel.

 Barrence: (The album is) kind of us guys getting older, and about situations in our lives that we’re going through. We kind of put it out there on the record. We also did some stuff that Peter brought. And we wrote some stuff with a gentleman named Mike Moonie. A great friend of Peter’s. He was in a band with him in New Mexico. He can take a lyric or word I’ve never heard of…this song Willow is about an incident that took place in New Mexico, about a young lady about 15 years old who joined a cult. The guy that ran the cult had his eyes on Willow. The guy almost raped her. She had him arrested.

So the songs are delving into certain things, but still with that rock feel that we’ve been known to do. There’s another song on there, Incarcerated Casserole, about a guy whose wife committed a crime and was arrested, and all he could think about was how he lost the woman that cooks my food, cleans my house, he doesn’t think about love or anything, he thinks about where his next meal is coming from.

Monte: It’s a really nice album, good consistent songs from beginning to end. Really strong production too.

Barrence: That’s Peter. He’s produced every record that I’ve been on with this particular version of the Savages. He commands your attention in the studio. Usually when we get into the studio we’ve learned the songs. So that by the time we get there, it’s all ready to go. So we just go into the studio, turn the dials, and that’s it. We usually get good results that way.

We always record live. I think rock and roll, when recorded right, was always (best) when you go in there with guitar, bass and drums, where you set it off straight. We always stuck to that plan. We’re minimalistic. I remember when Savage Tracks came out and we were in Spain. This kid came over, he said, “you guys are great, you’re like…primitive. From the stone age.” And I went, “yeah, he’s right.”

The Sound of the Savages

Monte: Your band has such a classic sound, almost like from the 1950s, but it’s also such a unique and contemporary sound that blends together so many genres so seamlessly.

Barrence: I think it really starts with Peter Greenberg. He puts the key in, we just turn the car on, and that’s it. He knows exactly what he wants, he puts it out to us. We follow, and once we’re locked in, that’s it. By the third or fourth gig of a tour, we’re all in sync, we’re making people sweat, making people crazy. It’s just a whole unit, just letting it go, man. I think that’s where you get your excitement, the intensity of the music, where you walk away saying what have I just seen? What have I just heard?

Last year we did a two week tour of Spain, and every night the places were packed with people, just going crazy over the music. And after that they would just surround me, just wanting a picture or an autograph. People were just blown away. We had an agent there, he really worked hard.

I also recorded a record over there, about six years ago, with a Spanish musician from the Basque Country. It was an introduction to some of the Spanish audiences with an artist that they really knew very well over there. It only came out in Spain. By the time the Savages went over there, they were ready.

Monte: Listening to those records, even the earliest ones, it seems like you had a clear sense of where you wanted to go, and you were given the chance to explore your vision on those records. Today is seems like there’s a certain niche on the radio and so many of the artists need to fit into that niche. But you were given more freedom to build your sound. Does that sound about right?

Barrence: Basically what we do is just an extension of what real rock and roll, blues, whatever, was transforming to. At that time there were all these roots rock and roll bands flying up everywhere, like the Blasters, and the Stray Cats. A lot of that kind of music was on peoples’ minds in the 1980s. Now we’re here in 2016, and you know the music business is not what it used to be. It’s all about the money. They look for a certain sound, a look. Back then, it didn’t matter what you looked like, as long as you had a vision, you sounded good, those were the days when record labels took chances. If they really liked you, they’d stick with you. Today that doesn’t happen that way.

Radio is the main culprit. Radio has turned into a wasteland of music – certain hip-hop, certain country, classic rock – that’s all you hear on the radio, unless you have college radio that’s challenging and alternative. But that’s it. That’s all people want to hear.

Monte: The last person I talked to for the blog was Craig Leon, who produced the Ramones first album. I asked him if he was surprised at how iconic that album had become and he said, “totally.” He also said similar things about the record labels back then – they were willing to grow the artist. They had a longer term vision then.

Barrence: I agree with him 100%. I saw the Ramones in 1976. They opened up for this band called the Good Rats, they were from Long Island. Three guys were standing behind me, laughing, “yeah, these guys won’t last, they’re tomorrow’s news, look at the way they play.” I said, “Quiet, quiet, these guys could end up being the greatest rock and roll band ever. You better bite your tongue on that.” That was in 1976.

I saw them in the 1980s. We opened up for them a couple times.

Monte: You and the Ramones…what a show. I’d have loved to have seen it. It kind of gets to what we were talking about. Two bands coming from different musical places together – a willingness to take risks.

The Audience First

Monte: One last thing I’d love to talk about is your unique stage presence. Whether rocking at full throttle, or even laying back for a ballad, you never fail to give it everything you’ve got – every last ounce of energy. Where did that stage presence come from?

Barrence: It’s a good question. I always just went out there and performed. But I always did it with James Brown in mind…Little Richard in mind…Wilson Pickett in mind…Ray Charles…Sam Cooke. I always had this feel for these artists from the 1950s and 60s. Even George Clinton, he was one of my favorites. I always felt, you get up there, you sing, you enjoy yourself, and you bring people to your world for about 45, 55 minutes, have a good time, then I’m gone.

I didn’t really start modeling anyone’s stage presence. When I first started doing it, I just went out like a madman. There were nights I’d go out, by the end of the night I’d have tattered, torn jeans, blood coming out of the side of my mouth, ended up on the floor, on my back, just wailing and screaming, while the band was dominating, just going crazy.

That’s pretty much what I used to do. You’d be good for about three or four songs and then all of a sudden the switch would just flip. By the end of the night Peter would end up strumming the guitar so hard his wrists would be bleeding. We’d just give so much of our energy, and bodies, to rock and roll and I think that’s what’s missing in rock and roll today. People don’t see that. They see people that show up and play, and that’s it. There might be pyrotechnics here and there, but you don’t see aggressiveness anymore, to the point where it’s entertainment. You don’t have to be a fool, you just go out there, and be yourself, and let it all out. And then include the people in the audience with you.

You never alienate the audience. They’re there to see you. But you know that if you invite them in, like a party, they’re going to do the same thing.

Monte: That’s what I remember. I remember seeing you in D.C. and in Baltimore, and the shows were always consistent, always excellent.

Barrence: When I used to play in Baltimore I used to play at this place called the 8 By 10. A legendary place. The first time we played there, a great set, toward the end of the night I happened to do some crazy stuff on the stage. I flew up in the air, stuck my leg out, foot went through the side of the stage, big footprint right through the stage. My manager (was worried), they’re never going to have us back again. We were in the dressing room and the owner of the club goes, “Barrence, would you mind signing that footprint you put in the wall?” And it stayed there a long time. He never fixed it. He left the footprint out there, signed by Barrence Whitfield.

Baltimore was our hangout for a while. I’d stay down there with friends. I remember going to Fells Point, there was a shop that Edith Massey owned. We used to go down there and hang out with Edith Massey, she’d have cans of hairspray signed by John Waters. Baltimore had its own flavor. And I love the crabcakes there.

Monte: So what does the future hold for Barrence Whitfield?

Barrence: As long as I have a voice, as long as I have energy, and enjoy what I do – because you have to enjoy it, and just make people happy, I just want people to walk away knowing that they’ve seen a great show, and they know that Barrence Whitfield is still with them.

Bonus: Barrence and Monte talk Sparks!

At the start of our conversation, I couldn’t resist asking Barrence if he remembered me – way back in the day, I’d sometimes run into him at Nuggets and we’d chat. Why I thought he might remember me is that I’d talk mainly (some would say obsessively) about my favorite band, Sparks.  Turns out, Barrence is a HUGE fan, and we returned to Sparks numerous times throughout our conversation. The guy knows his stuff!  Here’s our conversation, for your bonus reading pleasure!

Monte: Barrence, I know this is a long shot, but I’m just curious if you remember me from when I was in Boston for a couple years, around 1978-1981. I used to shop at that record store Nuggets and we talked a few times. I was always talking about this band called Sparks.

Barrence: Oh, okay! I’m starting to remember because I was a big Sparks fan.  I meet so many people…but I do remember talking to someone in the store that was very interested in Sparks.

Monte: That’s me!

Barrence: My favorite album of theirs was Kimono My House. I still play it, and Propaganda, and you know…sometimes I even throw on (their 1980 single) When I’m With You, a little disco! They were really a great band, especially for the time.

What’s your favorite Sparks song, one that you could always listen to, without a doubt?

Monte: Well, that’s a hard question. From the Kimono era there are so many. Equator is such a wonderful song.

Barrence: Great tune.

Monte: I had a friend who was my roommate at the time. We were big Sparks fans…we used to bring people to our room and play them that song. Whether they got it or now was a real litmus test! If they didn’t like that song, they weren’t ready to be our friend, because they didn’t understand us!

Barrence (laughing): You don’t understand Equator, out! Out!

Monte: They’re so brilliant. I could talk about this all day.

Barrence: My favorites from that album, I’d have to say, This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both of Us, Amateur Hour, Hasta Manana Monsieur, and Talent Is An Asset.

Monte: Talent Is An Asset has that great beat…da da, da-de da, da da, da-de da…

Barrence (humming the melody). Yeah I love that track. “Albert is smart, he’s a genius…”

Monte: A brilliant composition on that album is a song called Thank God It’s Not Christmas.

Barrence: I’m going to tell you a story. In the 1970s, I was in a band in New Jersey. I was into progressive rock, listening to Yes, ELP, all that crap. But we got into Sparks. We ended up learning and playing live Thank God It’s Not Christmas.

Monte: That is amazing. I’m in a band with my wife and we cover Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth from Propaganda. But I can’t really get my bandmates too excited about doing other Sparks songs.

Barrence: Well we got excited because Christmas had a little bit of a progressive edge to it, and we could get away with it. When we played it, people would get excited and say, “who is that?” and we’d say, a band called Sparks, you’ll have to check them out. Most of these people ended up getting turned on to Sparks!

Monte:  Thank God It’s Not Christmas is a brilliant tune.

Barrence: It is a brilliant tune.

Monte: I’ll tell you, when I was 20, 25 years old, I could not play that song. I can play it now on the drums…because you know it has that very specific high hat and bass drum accompaniment (at the beginning of the song). When you’re younger, you just want to play everything really hard. Now I can listen to it, I can say ok, I see the different pieces, I can see how they fit together. That song is like a symphony, the way the pieces fit together.

Barrence:  That drummer was very good. His name was Dinky Diamond. Good drummer! That whole band was great. On the second album they lost their guitar player and used someone else…he was good, but I always loved that first guitar player.

Monte: They lost Adrian Fisher, and replaced him with Trevor White.

Barrence: Yes. He was good, but the first one, he was so dynamic in his playing.

Monte: He was, but if you listen to the guitar on Thanks But No Thanks and Bon Voyage, it goes right to the heart.

Barrence. I’ll have to go back. I still have those albums.

Monte: Here In Heaven….brilliant lyrics to that song.

Barrence: Oh yeah. I like that whole album. I played that record to death, until I had to go buy another copy.

Monte: Well, I was probably the guy in the record store ahead of you, buying up the last copy right before you!

Barrence: Every time I see it, if I see a good copy, I’ll buy it. I think I bought a copy about two years ago, I still have it.

Monte: You really know your stuff. Did you stick with them through the next album, Indiscreet?

Barrence: I stuck with them but after Indiscreet I kind of let go a little bit. I tried to get into the one on Columbia (Big Beat), there was a song on there called “White Women,” I was like, this is interesting. But I lost track with them for a while until they put out that song When I’m With You (in 1980). At the time a friend of mine was a DJ at a gay club. He invited me to come with him one night so I went down and he played that song, and you can’t imagine how many people jumped on the dance floor. All these gay men, they were going crazy. He said “man, I play this every night, people love it, they love this song.”

Monte: That was a massive hit for them in Europe, especially France. After that record, they wanted to play in a rock band again and the first thing they did was take their new band to Europe and play there for a few months, all because of that song.

Barrence: You could tell that would be a Euro hit, given the way the disco scene was going back then. I could see that being a Euro hit.

Monte: They came back and did a few rock albums with that band. The first two, Whomp That Sucker and Angst In My Pants, are really great rocking albums.

Barrence: I’ll have to go back to that stuff. It’s all on YouTube. It’s amazing what YouTube has become.

Monte: I consider it one of the best things about the Internet!

Barrence: I’m not really much of a Facebook user.

Monte: There are some great Sparks users groups. There’s one called Sparks Indiscreet which is probably the one I use the most. Really intelligent, animated discussion. You should join! You’d be a hero on there!

Barrence: I probably would! They’ll say, “who is this Barrence Whitfield who knows a lot about Sparks?”

Monte: I’ll tell them all about you!

Barrence: I wish I had seen them perform.

Monte: They’re still touring!

Barrence: I know, but I wanted to see them back then, so bad! The only time I saw them, remember there was a show back in the 70s, Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, I waited until midnight and they did not disappoint me. Then I saw them on Dick Clark’s show. He tried to talk to Ron and all Ron would say was, ‘that’s fine with me,” he wouldn’t say much. Russell did all the talking.

Monte: Dick Clark loved Sparks. He had them on six times! He always tried to push their career. But you know I had a similar experience. I saw them on Don Kirshner’s, and Midnight Special, I just immediately thought it was the best thing I had seen. They rocked! They were doing all this goofy stuff but they were really rocking, and they were really good at it!

Barrence: Yeah, and for the glam rock of that era, with Bowie and Roxy Music, they fit in pretty well. I think they did it better, if you ask me.

Monte: No argument here!