Courtesy of Bloodshot Records
Barrence Whitfield, the boisterous frontman of the terrific garage rock act Barrence Whitfield and the Savages, says his parents encouraged him to sing from an early age.
“I heard a lot of music in the house,” says Whitfield, who grew up in Newark but now lives in Salem, Mass., during a recent phone interview. He brings the band to town to play the Euclid Tavern on Aug. 27. “My parents were big music enthusiasts and my dad was a big jazz guy. My mom — she liked her Jackie Wilson. I was around music 24-7.”
And whether he wanted to or not, he had to sing in the church choir.
“I had no choice,” he says. “The church was right across the street from my house. The reverend used to come to my house and ask if I was ready for church and ready to be there for Sunday school. I was one of those children who started doing the high registers and harmonizing and stuff. I didn’t do that much screaming in the church. I wasn’t an individual at that time. There were aspirations of me wanting to sing like Wilson Pickett or James Brown or Otis Redding but that didn’t start festering until the time I became a teenager.”
Whitfield’s band the Savages has a long and complex history. The first incarnation of the group dates back to the late ’70s/early ’80s when Whitfield teamed up with guitar Peter Greenberg, famous for having played with Boston garage rock acts such as DMZ and the Lyres. Whitfield describes him as a “legend.” They met virtually by happenstance.
“A friend of his who worked at a record store with me at the time heard me singing at the store,” recalls Whitfield, adding that he and Greenberg both were fired (though not at the same time) from that particular record store. “He told me that a friend of his was trying to put together a new band. He wanted me to hook up with him. We met and the next thing you know, I was at his house listening to rare 45s of rockabilly and rhythm and blues and country stuff.”
Whitfield says the first record the two listened to together was “Mamma Get the Hammer There’s a Fly on Papa’s Head.”
“I said, ‘This is gonna be good,’” he recalls. “It was then that we started talking about putting the band together. Phil [Lenker] was in the Lyres. He was on for the ride. [Drummer] Howie Ferguson who was a member of the Real Kids and the Lyres came on board too.”
Shortly after forming, the band inked a deal with Rounder Records, a respected imprint devoted to bluegrass, blues and roots music. So how the hell did a ragtag group of noisemakers like the Savages end up on the label?
“We did this frat party at Tufts in Massachusetts,” explains Whitfield. “There was beer up to people’s ankles. There was a guy on crutches. The next thing you knew, he threw the crutches away. There was a woman ripping off their clothes.
And there were these three people from the label, the owners, who are into bluegrass and folk. They’re sitting there watching this and we’re playing and rocking. I remember our manager saying they left. He didn’t know that was going to happen. They wanted to sign us to a three record deal. He said, ‘Why?’ They said, ‘We just something that was real.’”
In 1986, Greenberg left the band to “start a family and become part of the human race.” A second version of the Savages started up and carried on until 1995 when the group called it day.
A few years ago, the U.K. label Ace Records reissued the band’s first album. Whitfield spoke to Greenberg for the first time in two decades. He invited Whitfield out to his Taos, New Mexico home where they sat in his kitchen and right then and there decided to bring the band back.
The two reformed the band and have been steadily recording and touring ever since. Their new album, Under the Savage Sky
, just came out earlier this year. It commences with the rip-roaring “Willow,” a tune that finds Whitfield screaming just like James Brown. In addition to some fantastic original material, the album includes a rousing rendition of the Timmy Willis tune “I’m a Full Grown Man.”
“Well, the Timmy Willis song is one of the most powerful soulful rock tunes I’ve heard,” says Whitfield. “It has power from the chords itself and just from him singing. Anyone who can claim, ‘I have been in love at the age of three and that made a man out of me,’ it’s already a proclamation. He hasn’t even gotten out of his diapers yet.”
Another highlight, “The Claw,” features a ragged horn section that could give those old horn-driven Rocket from the Crypt songs a run for their money.
“All I can say is that it’s a fun song,” says Whitfield when asked about the tune. “I could see bikini-clad women dancing to it — with a lobster. We’re fortunate to have a great sax player in Tom Quartulli. I will say that the saxophone is one of the most important instruments in music history. If it wasn’t for the jazz and R&B artists who honked and screamed their way through the instrumental R&B stuff of the ’50s, we wouldn’t know it. You don’t hear it as much because everyone has moved to the electronic sound. The horn has always ruled the land when it comes to free expression of an instrument.”
If it sounds like the guys are having a blast both in the studio and on the stage, that’s because they are.
“Music is a fun thing,” says Whitfield. “If you can’t have a little humor or fun with it, it’s not fun anymore and becomes a job. I think we’re having a good time because we’re living out our dreams and doing what we enjoy doing. There are people who wish they could what we do and be happy with it, but they have to go their 9 to 5 jobs and then come to our shows and rip off their clothes and sweat their brains out before they go home and get back in their suits.”
Barrence Whitfield and the Savages, The Whiskey Daredevils, 9 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 27, The Euclid Tavern, 11625 Euclid Ave., 216-231-5400. Tickets: $10, happydogcleveland.com.