Growing up in East Orange, New Jersey, Barry White spent his teen years fronting various funk and rock bands. When success eluded one outfit that had it almost within reach, he closed the door on the music business and headed for Boston to attend B.U. Studying to be a television news writer, he supported himself by working in a used record shop, where his inclination for singing along with records drew crowds. It also got the attention of then-Lyre Peter Greenberg, who encouraged his return to performing. Peter brought along the basis of the Savages in the form of disenfranchised Lyres, and Barry brought his record-collector’s love of R&B. He also unveiled his new moniker, Barrence Whitfield, since the world just wasn’t big enough for two Barry Whites.
On his spectacular first album, backed by a frisky quartet of young, greasy roadhouse rockers (including a couple of ex-Lyres), Whitfield stakes his reverent claim to the priceless hipshake legacy of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and other venerable titans of primal rock’n’roll. Whitfield is a tremendous vocalist with a bloodcurdling falsetto, the enthusiasm of a drunk amateur and the easy control of a seasoned pro. The Savages — especially saxman Steve LaGrega — keep pace on wacky old numbers like “Bip Bop Bip,” “Mama Get the Hammer” and “Georgia Slop,” contributing likely originals to this raw adventure that hardly seems like it was recorded in 1984.
The brief but exhilarating Dig Yourself adds a little surface sheen and showband politesse to the proceedings, but still contains a weekend’s worth of sweaty, sexy excitement. “Juicy Fruit,” “Geronimo’s Rock” and “Breadbox” fit all the pieces together in a sweet frenzy, but the remaining tracks are almost as good.
Whitfield recorded Call of the Wild, a six-song 12-inch released only in the UK, with an entirely new set of Savages, revamping the sound with piano and organ as well as a slicker, steadier rhythm section. Not as wildly thrilling as either previous record, this takes a tamer posture and reduces the fun accordingly: Ben Vaughn’s bluesy but lightweight “Apology Line” indicates Whitfield’s moderate direction here. The American Ow! Ow! Ow! album expands the EP with five more tracks recorded around the same time. It’s likable enough — this man can sing — but seriously short in the funkalicious spirit that makes the earlier ones so precious.
What should have followed was an album that built on Ow! Ow! Ow!‘s strengths (BW and the Savages) and learned from its weaknesses (dry production and some songs that simply didn’t equal the invention of the performers). Instead, what appeared was Live Emulsified, a well-intentioned but unsuccessful attempt to capture the legendary proselytic qualities of the band’s concerts. Recorded with some of the same sidemen in California and Texas at the end of 1987 and the beginning of ’88, it offers a broad selection of tunes — including a bunch not previously vinylized. This may not be the great live album that Whitfield’s doubtless got in him, but there are plenty of worse ways to spend 45 minutes. (The CD and cassette contain three bonus tracks.)
A growing European following led the French New Rose label to underwrite Let’s Lose It, a solid effort produced by Jim Dickinson, and Savage Tracks, a motley assortment of live and live-in-the-studio takes and demos. The latter has its moments, but is most decidedly not an album statement. New Rose also reissued Whitfield’s debut on CD.
With the Savages more or less idle, Barrence began working in a number of other settings. He contributed tracks to Merle Haggard and Don Covay tributes and recorded two albums with singer/songwriter Tom Russell. This experience clearly afforded him an opportunity to work in genres (for example, country) that hadn’t been part of the Savages repertoire. Not a songwriter himself, Whitfield displays his wide-ranging skills as a stylist on their two collaborative efforts. While some of the tracks don’t prove more than great taste in material, it’s great to hear him taking on the works of Jesse Winchester, Bob Dylan, Gram Parsons, Richard Thompson, Steve Earle and Pops Staples.
Ritual of the Savages is an album whose confidence and verve is helpfully coupled to sympathetic production. Ben Vaughn (one of the producers) contributed a number he co-wrote with Dave Alvin; there’s also the usual mix of well-chosen covers, with the bulk of the originals by Whitfield’s longtime guitarist, Milton Reder.