Barrence Whitfield is a New England rock and roll treasure. He started his current band with The Savages back in the late ‘70s while attending Boston University.
Whitfield has a soulful voice and an incredible range. And artistically, he’s been known to think a bit outside of the box, while maintaining the garage-rock-leaning soul music he’s been known for.
Readers can experience this one-of-a-kind artist and his band at Café Nine in New Haven on Dec. 17. Local experimental rock act Dan Soto’s Artificial Energy will be kicking things off at 9 p.m.
RD: A lot of people know you as a full-throttle soul screamer of a musician in the vein of Little Richard, Wilson Pickett & Solomon Burke, but you’ve dabbled in other musical styles including country, rockabilly, progressive rock and avant-garde jazz. Do you consider yourself to be someone who is always looking to venture into new artistic territory, or is venturing through these various kinds of music just a reflection of your musical taste and what you’re into?
BW: I think it’s a combination of both. I’ve always been open to listening to different styles of music and if I got the chance to record certain things I just went ahead and did it through the interest of what I was doing. The last record I did was a Sun Ra thing that I’d always wanted to do and I got a chance to do it, it was different kinds of vocal styles that I normally did and it came out really well. I always like to dab into different projects and styles of music.
RD: About that album, you did it with The Soul Savage Arkestra and it’s called Songs From The Sun Ra Cosmos which came out in 2019. You alluded to how it features renditions of songs composed by the legendary bandleader Sun Ra, so who did you get connected with for the making of the album and obtaining the rights to the songs? How did this whole process come about to make this type of record?
BW: We were lucky because the guy who’s an old friend of mine, Irwin Chusid, and is also a disc jockey at WFMU in Jersey City, New Jersey and has done some other projects, he acquired some years ago the distribution and royalty rights to most of Sun Ra’s work. He’s been doing that for the family and he heard me do some songs with a group of musicians up in Massachusetts, we did three songs and the band is called the Concussion Ensemble. We did three Sun Ra tunes, “Nuclear War”, “Unmask The Batman” and “When Pharoah Roamed The Earth”, so we did those three songs, he heard them and he went crazy. He told me, “Man, I’d like to add these songs and do some more songs for a record project” and I said, “Yeah, let’s do it. That sounds like a great idea.” We were able to go into the studio, tack on some other songs along with those three and put together a nice little compilation of different Sun Ra styles of music there ranging from funk to jump blues to space age bachelor pad music type Sun Ra stuff, it was a really interesting project.
RD: It definitely sounds like it after checking it out and giving it a listen. Back in the ‘90s, you contributed tracks to tribute albums of music by country legend Merle Haggard and rock & roll pioneer Don Covay along with recording two albums with country singer-songwriter Tom Russell. How did you get involved in both tribute albums for Merle and Don and what was the experience like collaborating with Tom?
BW: The Don Covay project was put together by an old Savages guitarist, Milton Reder. We played together during the “Ow! Ow! Ow!” years, he knew Don very well and he got me down to New York to do a track for him on that compilation that came out. It was really, really great to hook up with Tom [Russell], I love doing country stuff and I’d always wanted to try to do some of it. The first record we did was “Hillbilly Voodoo” and we just went in there to the studio to do some straight up country tunes, but we ended up doing all sorts of rootsy Americana kind of stuff. As we were recording, I said “Man, this isn’t country. I thought we were here to do some country and we got something totally different, it’s like voodoo” and Tom said “hillbilly voodoo”, so that’s how that record came out.
We were doing everything from Van Morisson to Bob Dylan, a few of Tom’s tunes and it was just magic at the time. Then we did the “Cowboy Mambo” record with the same type of magic & style that he did with “Hillbilly Voodoo”. Tom is a wonderful good friend and a great songwriter, it was great to hook up with him and do different types of things that I hadn’t done in my previous work with The Savages. The Merle Haggard tribute record was the same thing with Tom as well, Dave Alvin [from The Blasters] was putting together a group of artists to do some of his tunes for a record called Tulare Dust. What happened was there was a song that Merle recorded about interracial love which was kind of, I won’t say taboo but it was usual to do in the country music forum and the tune is called “Irma Jackson”.
Dave Alvin said “There’s only one guy I know who I want to do this tune and that’s Barrence Whitfield”. We got together and I recorded that along with the guitar playing being done by a guy named Amos Garrett who is the guitar player on the song “Midnight At The Oasis” by Maria Muldaur. He’s a prominent guitarist so it was a real honor to play a song with him and that also ended up on a box set that the Country Music Hall of Fame put out with different black artists doing country songs. I’m very proud about that happening.
RD: You should be, that’s amazing. You have a couple hats you like to wear sometimes, one being a pharaoh hat and another being a red fez with a black tassel like the Shriners wear. What are the stories behind those hats? Did you find both of them at a thrift shop and you dug the look of them or did a friend buy them for you?
BW: The pharaoh hat was bought by an old friend of mine, he found it at some shop and he said “Barrence has got to have it” so he brought it to me. He said “I got something for you” and it was this hat, I was blown away so I wore that hat during a tour I did with The Savages and it ended up being part of the cover for the Sun Ra album. With the fez, there’s been many times in my career where I’ve dabbled with a fez on because of that song by Steely Dan with the lyric “ain’t never going to do it without the fez on”. I’ve always had a thing with hats because I’ve been wearing them ever since I was 13 years old. I actually remember a quick story, it was the second gig in Manchester, England and I was wearing a pork pie hat.
We’re into the fourth song and all of a sudden this guy runs up to the stage, rips the hat off my head and runs out of the club before I can utter a word. I then said, “I must draw people that love hats.”
RD: That sounds like a very random occurrence, you must have been a bit weirded out by it.
BW: Yeah, I was weirded out because I didn’t see that coming.
RD: You got this show coming up at Cafe Nine in New Haven and then 2023 will be here in a couple weeks. Do you & The Savages have any plans for next year regarding new music? Do you have any other projects you’re doing to be diving into outside of the band?
BW: It’s pretty open but we are thinking of probably recording some stuff, maybe not for a full album but perhaps an EP of some sorts. We got some songs that we’ve been working on even before the pandemic so we’re trying to figure out and see how that fits in with us going out and playing for next year. For right now, there’s a lot of stuff that’s swirling around my head so we will see but no matter what I will be on the prowl in 2023.
Barrence Whitfield & The Savages
with Dan Soto’s Artificial Energy
250 State St, New Haven
21 and Over