by A.J. Wachtel
Seeing Barrence Whitfield onstage is like watching fireworks explode. Maybe a little less colorful and visual but certainly with equal levels of voltage, passion and energy. His electric high-wattage performances have excited audiences all over the world. While he was on tour I caught up with him at his hotel room in Wexford, Pennsylvania, just north of Pittsburg. Barrence is fierce. Barrence is brutal. Barrence is a savage.
Noise: You were born in Florida and your family moved to Newark, New Jersey, when you were a child. You began singing in a gospel choir. What part of that experience do you still use today when you sing?
Barrence: Probably shouting. There was NO screaming in church. [laughs] The shouting was part of the action there.
Noise: On May 30, 1975, I saw you open for Johnny Winter (tickets $6.50/ $6.00/ $5.50) at The South Mountain Arena in West Orange, New Jersey. The Arena was part of The Turtleback Zoo Complex. Ever play places crazier than a zoo since then? And what was your band like then?
Barrence: We got the gig by winning a high school battle of the bands – the winner got to play with Johnny Winter. We were doing ’70s music: Led Zeppelin, Montrose, Queen. I was just a baby in the bathwater back then. Crazy gig? [laughs] We had one little gig at Tufts University – a frat party. It was a notch above Animal House. All football players stripping on stage. And we had the three owners of the record label, Rounder Records, who were signing us there. They were jumping off the stage and ripping clothes, with beer up to your ankles – just wild.
Noise: You originally sang and played drums in rock and funk bands. What specifically made you give up drumming to focus on your singing? Is there anything in your vocals that you can trace back to being a percussionist?
Barrence: I stopped drumming because singing is what I really wanted to do. I was in the learning stage for playing drums. I never got good enough to play out really. So I focused on my vocals. I do some crazy things with my vocals now – throat singing like some Arab artists do. With my range I can go high and low, and rhythmically, I love to mimic some percussive instruments.
Noise: In 1977, you were studying journalism at Boston University and a few years later, in the early ’80s, you were working at Nuggets. While at the record store, your singing was heard by Peter Greenberg of Lyres. You began performing with him as Barrence Whitfield & The Savages. Did you know Jeff Connolly at the time and why didn’t he join the band too?
Barrence: No, I didn’t know Jeff at the time and I don’t think Peter would have liked that.
Noise: You changed your name from Barry White to Barrence Whitfield to avoid confusion with superstar Barry White. Have you ever crossed paths with him in person?
Barrence: He died a long time ago. He wasn’t able to get a kidney. I will say this one thing, HIS real name was BARRENCE Eugene Carter. [laughs]
Noise:: The Savages gained a reputation for having an explosive live show where you are “in high gear from the moment you hit the stage.” Does having this notoriety prove to be a help or hindrance to you in the long run? Is it more stressful and difficult to live up to this robust renown every gig?
Barrence: Well, you know, we do the best we can. It’s the great energy we play off of at a show. We just go out and lay it across the table.
Noise: Does Barrence Whitfield & The Savages ever have a bad night?
Barrence: No. I can’t say we have. Like I said, we go out with great confidence.
Noise: You have been described as “a soul screamer in the spirit of Little Richard, Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke and Don Convay.” Are there any current vocalists who you feel should be included in this list too?
Barrence: Today? I don’t know. Good question. The only one I can think of is Charles Bradley.
Noise: Your early records were released on Rounder Records and your music was heard by English Radio DJ Andy Kershaw; who brought you to the U.K to tour. What are the differences between an English/European audience and an American one?
Barrence: U.K. audiences are well in tune with American culture and music. It’s something they really love; the blues, soul and rock ’n’ roll we created here. Look at the ’60s British invasion where all the English bands did covers of soul and blues artists. If you are the real thing they will always be your fans and they will always go out to see you.
Noise: Over the years, you’ve changed the lineup of The Savages. Who’s in the band now and what do each of them bring to the music table?
Barrence: Peter Greenberg on guitar. Phil Lenker on bass. Tom Quartulli plays sax and Andy Jody is on drums. It’s a fantastic unit. The ultimate, ultimate unit.
Noise: You’ve toured widely in Europe for decades. Are you more popular there than here? If so, why?
Barrence: Through the years, I’ve played different parts of the world. The U.K., France, Spain, Italy. More people come out to see us over there. Why? They love the music. They love what we do.
Noise: You’ve had supporting slots touring with Bo Diddley, Tina Turner, George Thorogood, Robert Cray and Solomon Burke. Did you and Tina ever have a soul screaming contest and did you beat her by much?
Barrence: [laughs] No, I never met her. Her entourage wouldn’t let anyone get close. But all the other headliners I became friends with.
Noise: You’ve earned an impressive seven Boston Music Awards. Is it any more special to be recognized at home by your peers than it is somewhere else?
Barrence: It’s very, very important to be recognized by your peers. For all the work you do and all the places you play. Yes, it’s special.
Noise: Any singers you wished you shared a stage with in the past or is there anyone you’d like to work with in the future?
Barrence: Two artists I DID share the stage with in the past are Don Convay and George Thorogood. With Don I did “Bip Bop Bip” and with George I did “Who Do You Love?” In the future? Nobody that comes to mind. I’m sure there are people out there who’d love to hang with me and do some tunes. So we’ll see.
Noise: In the ’90s you contributed tracks to Merle Haggard and Don Convay tribute albums and you’ve recorded two albums with country music/songwriter Tom Russell. Where does your love of country music come from?
Barrence: Just the love of listening to it and from being turned on to songs by friends of mine. I learned a lot of stuff from Tom Russell. Those two records are going to be re-released this year too.
Noise: You combined soul, jump blues and rockabilly when you worked with an eight-piece N.H. band, The Movers. Is the common denominator in you singing all these different genres really just your passionate performance, or do you approach different styles in different ways?
Barrence: I do approach them in different ways but, you know, I just go out there and sing.
Noise: You contributed to the film score of Honeydrippers in 2007. Are there any films you think should have used one of your songs but didn’t? Be specific!
Barrence: John Sayles, the director, wrote that song but I sang it. He approached me after hearing about me from a producer/folk artist who lives in Marblehead. “Jack Johnson” is a song I used to do with Tom Russell. It’s about the early 20th century black boxer, and would have been perfect for the Jack Johnson documentary. And a song we do right now, “The Corner Man,” should be in a good boxing movie too.
Noise: In 2013, you appeared on the BBC’s Jools Holland Show on TV. How many people were tuned into you that night? Do people ever recognize you on the street in England?
Barrence: I don’t know how many people watched it that night but I’m sure it was most of England. [laughs] And no, I can pretty much walk around anywhere.
Noise: What’s in the future for you and do you have anything on your bucket list you’d like to accomplish or do in the near future? You must have a unique craving or ambition that you can bestow upon us.
Barrence: I’d like to act in a movie. I almost got into Kansas City directed by Robert Altman. I had to do the audition in Chicago and there was too much going on for me to go there and try out. At least they inquired.
Noise: Check out Under The Savage Sky on Bloodshot Records.