When the boy who later became Barrence Whitfield (born Barry White) sang in his New Jersey church's gospel choir, he undoubtedly heard the preacher tell the story of Jesus' ill-fated reception in his homeland. Little did he know that the bible story would prove to be a metaphor for his own unique career.
It's a shame that so many of America's rock, soul, and blues legends are treated better in Europe than they are at home. Labeled a journeyman and a cult R&B act in the States, Whitfield has developed a rabid fan base in Great Britain, Norway, Belgium and Holland where crowded concert halls and sold-out shows are the norm when he performs as the leader of Barrence Whitfield and The Savages.
Now, the Boston-based soul screamer known for his high-energy shows is seeking to expand his reputation with a new release and a new band. Recording as lead singer of The Mercy Brothers, formed with Michael Dinallo, their new "Strange Adventure" CD forgoes the shrieking psycho-soul of his past in favor of American roots, gospel, and country-blues.As odd as it may seem, this career shift isn't entirely out of left field.In the mid-1990s, Whitfield collaborated with singer-songwriter Tom Russell on two warmly-received country and roots releases. He also has performed on compilations, including a Merle Haggard tribute album and a Warner Brothers collection exploring the black experience in country music.
"A lot of blacks down south listen to country music," Whitfield, age 48, explains in a phone interview from his Salem, Mass. home. "They tuned into the Grand Ole Opry and the Louisiana Hayride. They listened to people like Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Jimmie Rodgers and Ernest Tubb. They were already exposed to country music because, if you think of the origins of country music, it's not that far from blues or gospel. They all come from the same heritage - and that's working man's music. Whether it's a black man working in the field or a hillbilly working on a pickup truck, it's all the music of the working man."
Whitfield began performing in front of New Jersey audiences at the age of nine. His youthful tastes gravitated to the popular black artists of the era including The Temptations, Otis Redding and James Brown. As he matured into young adulthood, his musical tastes - and the set lists of his cover band - became more diverse, and began to include the music of Led Zeppelin, Genesis and Jethro Tull. Then, in 1977, Whitfield put his music career on ice to pursue a college degree at Boston University.
A few years into his hiatus, a friend heard Whitfield singing to himself while working at a used record store. The conversation that ensued led to the formation of Barrence Whitfield and The Savages, New England's most incendiary R&B band. Years of performing along America's eastern seaboard developed a loyal cult following for the group.Along with the band's multiple personnel changes came an unlikely fan base in Europe. "We had an ally in England," Whitfield recalls. "A good friend of mine named Andy Kershaw, who was probably one of the biggest disc jockeys in London, heard my record. When he heard it, he told me, 'My skull went through the ceiling. This is rock and roll.' He brought us over, and that led to a succession of great years playing in Europe. The Europeans really appreciate American music. Whether it's jazz, rock-n-roll or blues, they want to live it. They want to collect it. They want to be part of it. It's like we're the teachers, and they're the students. And, they're appreciative students."Then, in 1993, Whitfield discovered the joy of performing country music through his collaboration with singer-songwriter Tom Russell.
"He was the guy who got me into artists like Joe Ely, Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt," Whitfield says, "I actually wanted to do a country-western record. So, we started making recordings for 'Hillbilly Voodoo.' It was supposed to be a country-western record, and it ended up being totally a roots-oriented album. When I was with The Savages, everybody perceived me as being this Little Richard-screaming-James Brown-wild rock and roller. With the Tom Russell project, I opened myself up to being not just a rock and roll screamer, but also an artist that can do other types of music."
The "Hillbilly Voodoo" album with Russell was so well received that the duo collaborated again on the follow-up disc, "Cowboy Mambo." This career left-turn forced Whitfield to alter his singing.
"Tom Russell brought the voice out of me to do the other styles of music," Whitfield explains. "Let's face it: how long can you scream your guts out before you say, I've got to slow down? When you're getting into really wonderful music in the country field, you try to change your singing to get a richer voice."
Throughout the rest of the 1990s, Whitfield focused on performing and recording with his bread-and-butter band The Savages. Meanwhile, his ' home fan base in Boston intensified and his popularity in Europe continued to expand.