Remembering the '60s with Barrence Whitfield
05:00 AM, Sep 05, 2013
If you go
What: Barrence Whitfield and the Savages.
When: 8 p.m Tuesday.
Where: Lovin Cup Bistro & Brews, 300 Park Point Place, Henrietta, near the Rochester Institute of Technology campus.
Tickets: $15 advance, $18 at the door, available at the venue and the Bop Shop.
“The first time I ever saw a tank, it was coming down my street,” says Barrence Whitfield. “People were screaming, ‘Oh my God this is like Vietnam!’ It wasn’t. It was Newark.”
Newark, and the 1967 riots, one of many communities around the country that went up in flames as African-Americans protested their sense of powerlessness. Whitfield was 12 years old.
“I just saw it all come tumbling, burning down,” he says. “I lived right in the middle of it, in the thick of it. I could look out the front window of our house and see people smashing down windows and looting stores and people shooting guns. It really destroyed a whole community of blacks.”
The 26 people dead, 725 people injured, nearly 1,500 arrested and more than $10 million in property damage is not a six days that anyone in this country would want to live through again.
And yet, says Whitfield, “I think more people should have grown up in the ’60s.”
Now 58 years old, in two respects Whitfield is still haunted by the era. There is the riot. And the music.
Whitfield works in one of the great miracles of the 21st century, an independent record store that has survived, bursting with vinyl albums and music history.
The Record Exchange in Salem, Mass., where he’s the acknowledged expert in old blues, R&B and soul. And if a customer wants a recommendation on a new band that sounds like the old, energetic garage soul-rock of the ’60s, Whitfield will suggest Barrence Whitfield and the Savages, playing at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Lovin’ Cup Bistro and Brews.
When they first appeared around Boston in 1985, The Savages were exciting and raw, fronted by Whitfield’s untamed soul-screamer hysterics. And they had the archaeological zeal for the roots of American music.
“The Savages have always been this kind of band that will find the most off-the-wall rare records of all time, and we’ll cover it,” Whitfield says.
“People who know me, they know I’m gonna shock them with something they’ve never heard in their life,” Whitfield says. “That’s my purpose on the planet, to be a historian, a musicologist, discover records that have disappeared, or been around but no one has noticed it. I’ve heard millions and millions of records, tapes and CDs, 78s. It’s all in my brain. Like vinyl, shot into my veins.”
During one early dig into the dusty vinyl stacks, the band came out with Bobby Peterson’s 1961 “Mama Get Your Hammer (There’s a Fly on Baby’s Head).” It’s become a staple of a Savages show.
In the decade since, the Savages changed personnel entirely, and seemed done with 1995’s Ritual of the Savages.
But Whitfield himself never packed it up.
“I was always going over to Europe, doing stuff,” he says. “I had the rep over there. I was like the Chuck Berry, going over there and picking up side musicians. Germany, Belgium, Sweden, Finland, Japan.”
The clubs were crowded with fans who wanted a full-out show. “People today, that’s what they need,” Whitfield says. “There’s too many live music shows where people are standing like the Statue of Liberty, waiting for something to happen.
“Germans come to the shows and they may love the music, but they’ll stand there straight. I end up shouting ‘Mach schnell, mach schnell!’ at them. ‘You guys have gotta move!’ The Brits don’t have a problem with that. There was one show in England where I opened for The Damned, and I started throwing cans of beer at the audience. The club owners were telling me, ‘You can’t do that!’ I threw them out there for people to drink and have a good time. But I went too far and almost started a riot.”
Yet Whitfield missed his riotous nights with the Savages.
A few years ago he reunited with his original Savages guitarist, Paul Greenberg.
Whitfield wanted to go back to the band’s origins. “Back to where we left off in 1986,” he says.
Or even 1967. Bobby Hebb had just had a hit with a song called “Sunny,” which he composed to ward off the sorrow of losing his brother in a knife fight and his shock at the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It’s been recorded hundreds of times. The flip side of the single was “Bread,” a soul tribute to how the only way to attract women is through “good old U.S. currency.”
“I said, ‘Why hadn’t this record ever been covered?’ ” Whitfield practically wails. ” ‘Well, goddamit, we’re going to cover it.’ “
And it’s on the new album, Dig Thy Savage Soul. But Greenberg and a pal of his, Mike Mooney, wrote some originals as well. Such as “Hangman’s Token.”
See that rich man in his mansion
while the poor folks are made to live in tents
Seems they’re only there for the blaming
and it just doesn’t make no sense
“Oh my God, this is something I always wanted to sing,” Whitfield says. “Now it’s 2013, here’s my chance.
“Ever since Martin Luther King’s death, a lot of African-Americans started to feel the power within themselves. We have a voice now. Things need to change, economically and politically. Some things have changed politically. But economically, nah, look at some of the statistics. We’re still working at it.”
Whitfield was working behind the counter at Record Exchange as he talked last week. “Today is the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech,” he notes. “The activity has to continue. You can’t just sit back and be like a satisfied old dog. Any time you relax, they move in on you.”