“Looking for a singer who could scream like Little Richard.” That’s how the Savages started in Boston three decades ago. Now with the Bloodshot label in their camp they aim to push the whole thing into the next era.
BY NICK A. ZAINO III
Sitting outside a café in his current home city of Beverly, Ma, Barrence Whitfield looks pleased. And he should be. His new album with the Savages, Dig Thy Savage Soul, is the first on a four-record deal on Bloodshot Records, and it’s already got a higher profile than 2011’s reunion album “Savage Kings,” which fared better in Europe than it did in the States. It drew praise from Elvis Costello before it hit the shelves (the press kit proudly displays Costello’s encouragement to “turn it up!”).
But this music doesn’t need a hard sell. The lead track, “The Corner Man,” is electrifying rock and soul from note one, and the album never lets up from there, riffing and swinging through “Oscar Levant,” “Hangman’s Token,” and “Turn Your Damper Down.” If Savage Soul does turn out to be the success Whitfield believes it will be, it will come almost 30 years after the original line-up released their self-titled debut album.
The Savages were an immediate success with regional audiences and critics when Whitfield met former Lyres guitarist Peter Greenberg in Boston and formed the Savages and released their first album in ‘84. But despite notching an impressive national reputation, they disbanded in ’86. Whitfield put together a new group of Savages in 1987, but eventually moved on to other projects, recording two albums in the 90s with Tom Russell. Whitfield kept making music, but never quite matched the buzz he had with the Savages. This time around, Whitfield is certain the band will make a bigger mark.
BLURT: How’s the early response for the record?
WHITFIELD: It’s been fantastic. I can’t believe the response. “The Corner Man” is throwing people for a loop, man. It’s a cross between the Sonics and garage, and coming off the record, the first tune, it just smacks you in the face like a knockout punch, man. And that’s what it’s supposed to do.
It must be satisfying, but on another level, it must be frustrating, because this is what you’ve been doing…
For a long time. I know. Well, it hasn’t been really frustrating. It’s been a building process. It’s taken a long time for it to build. But, you know, the good thing about it is we were able to hook up with such a really good label like Bloodshot who has just put us in their wings immediately, you know? Once they heard this record. They’ve done everything. It’s been fantastic. It’s just been great.
Did it feel much different getting together after so much time?
No, it’s almost like we started off where we finished. I hadn’t played with him since ‘86. So it kind of rekindled all that ’86, ’85 energy back again. So that was a good thing.
You’ve had a lot of other projects. Did anything give you the same sort of satisfaction as playing with the Savages?
Well, yeah. Doing the Tom Russell thing in the ‘90s. Doing some of the Savages things that I did when the first band broke up and I hooked up with the second guys who did Ow! Ow! Ow! and Live Emulsified. Getting back together, the story was, Ace Records put out the first album, they reissued it [in 2010] on their label, we had to fill out contracts and all that. So that’s how I hooked up with Peter, through all that. And he was already messing around with a band. He retired from his duties running a company. He bought a beautiful house out on Taos, New Mexico. He started messing around. He wanted to get back into music again so he started doing the Lyres, the DMZ reunion things, which kind of got him back going. And then he had this band called Manby’s Head out in Taos. He was playing with this guy named Mike Mooney who wrote “The Corner Man,” “Oscar Levant,” and the other one, “Hangman’s Token.” He’s a great writer, man. This guy is angst all the way, but he’s definitely a great writer. He’s got some serious knowledge – I think he’s a lawyer. And he’s definitely a garage punk rocker from way back.
How did you find the songs? What was the process of gathering what you were going to record?
Peter was working with Mooney on a few things. He’d come up with the music, Mooney’d come up with the lyrics. They’d work together, and they’d send me the song and I’d listen to it and get a good feel for it. On the album we have the usual suspects. We’ve got [bass player] Phil Lenker writing some songs, our drummer [Andy] Jody wrote a tune. I got some help writing a few things on the album and also the great Savage covers you can always find, like “My Baby Didn’t Come Home Last Night.”
Was there any temptation to change things up after not having played together for 27 years?
No, not really. I’ve been doing a lot Savage stuff – I’ve always had that in my repertoire, some of the old stuff, so. It wasn’t anything new to me because I’d already been doing it a long time. But to get back together with Peter and Phil, I thought it was going to take a little bit of, you know, working on, but it didn’t. We just clicked on really quickly.
What was the first thing you played?
I went to Taos and did some shows in New Mexico. Albuquerque, Santa Fe. I went on his home turf and did some shows. That’s when me, Phil, and Peter sat down at his house, surrounded by beautiful mountains, and having coyotes run over me, that’s when we decided that maybe we should do this again. Let’s face it, I mean, we shouldn’t let our age stop us from creating music. We’ve still got the energy. We still sweat like crazy animals, and we make people do that.
Do you think just sonically the music-listening public might be more ready or more attuned to you now that you have the rock and soul people coming up? Eli “Paperboy” Reed has had some success, The Heavy have had some success. That sound is out there. It doesn’t sound exactly like the Savages, but it’s a rock and soul sound.
I think so. I think that this record’s going to really put other bands, or just other music lovers out there, they have to come to it because it has a lot going for it. It has power. It has substance. It has that rock and roll beat. And it’s also a fun record.
Why did it take so long for everybody to play together again?
Everybody went their own way. I was still doing the music. Peter went back to school and got a degree in environmental engineering and he started working. He raised a family, two boys. He was working hard. He left the music scene behind for a little while, while he was working hard. And Phil did the same thing. Peter now is, he sold his company and got stock options. Retired. Said, I don’t want to do this no more. I’ve been doing it for twenty-some-odd years, I’m sick of it, I want to go back to music. He’s not doing it for the money, he’s already got money. He’s giving it his time and his love and his inspiration to do this.
What made you and Peter Greenberg first start playing together?
I just think there was a camaraderie that we saw something that we loved to do. I liked his ideas. He took me over to his house, played old rockabilly records, R&B and stuff, and I loved that. But it was something to do. And he was looking for a black R&B singer who could scream like Little Richard.
What were you listening to back then?
I was still listening to a lot of soul. I was listening to a lot of stuff. Jazz, rock and roll. He got me into a lot of rockabilly stuff that I wasn’t really into. I listened to a lot of Smiley Lewis, tons of Little Richard. Esquerita. Esquerita was the guy. So tons of that. And Peter was listening to the same kind of stuff and said, I want to get a band together. He already had the bass player and the drummer. Drummer was Howie Ferguson from The Real Kids. I was blessed with a supergroup. And we just came busting out like gangbusters. Same thing that’s happened here happened then, man. People started saying, who’s this Barrence Whitfield and the Savages?
Did you know what sound you wanted right out of the gate?
Peter did. I always say if it wasn’t for Peter Greenberg, there’d be no Barrence Whitfield.
And you’ve kept the sound, there’s a core to the sound that’s been the same.
It’s been the same ever since. I’ve kind of expanded myself because I wanted to see what else was out there that I could do. And that’s when I hooked up with Tom Russell and we did those two records. And then I did another record, I did a thing called The Mercy Brothers with Mike Dinallo which was an extension of the Tom Russell thing.
You’ve got two more records with Bloodshot, correct?
Three more. It was a four-record deal. Which people said, that’s unheard of these days, to get that kind of commitment from a record company. The next record is, I don’t know, but we have to think about that because we’re going to be asked to go in the studio and do the next record. But I think we can come off of this record knowing what we need to do for the next record. But keep in focus what we do best. We’ve got great writers. And we’ve got what I call “The Peter Greenberg Wall of Sound.” We’ve got all those ingredients together.
We’re going to get noticed with this record. There’s no question about it.
It must be satisfying, but on another level, it must be frustrating, because this is what you’ve been doing…
For a long time. I know. Well, it hasn’t been really frustrating. It’s been a building process. It’s taken a long time for it to build. But, you know, the good thing about it is we were able to hook up with such a really good label like Bloodshot who has just put us in their wings immediately, you know? Once they heard this record. They’ve done everything. It’s been fantastic. It’s just been great. All the other stuff that’s going to come up. Actually, we’re going to be doing a television show in September…. It’s Jools Holland [Ed. Note – Barrence Whitfield and the Savages will be on Later… with Jools Holland on September 24].
Nice. I love that show. That’s the perfect show for you to be on.
I think from personally, once we do that show, it’s going to blow up.
Is that a door that Bloodshot opened for you?
No, that was something I threw at them. I met Jools Holland some years ago when he was with Squeeze. He came to one of our shows in England, when we played England back in the late 80s. So, he knew about us. So this is fantastic, to hook up with him again. And we’re also doing World Café on NPR. So the record label has been doing a lot as far as publicity, marketing. You know, it’s good to have a machine behind you.
The Savages’ tour kicks off this week in Rochester, running through Sept. 21, then moves overseas to the UK and Europe. Dates: http://www.barrencewhitfieldsavages.com/tour-dates
[B&W band photo by Juxe; color photos by Nick Zaino taken at the Atomic Café in Beverly, Mass. and the Record Exchange (where Whitfield works, no less) in Salem, Mass]